Columbia Names First Woman and Muslim Nemat Shafik as President to Lead the University


 Stephanie Saul

Columbia University’s new president will be Nemat Shafik, an economist who has served as president of the London School of Economics since 2017, and before that as deputy governor of the Bank of England, the university announced on Wednesday.

The selection of Dr. Shafik, known as Minouche, marks the first time a woman has been named to lead the prestigious New York institution. It follows the recent appointments of women to head other top universities, including Harvard, Dartmouth, M.I.T., the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University.

She will assume the Columbia presidency in July, succeeding Lee C. Bollinger, at a tumultuous time in the academic world. Universities face a pending Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, as well as debates over free speech and the high cost of education, college rankings, pay for teaching assistants and other issues.

In a letter to the Columbia community, the university’s board of trustees said it had found a “perfect candidate” in Dr. Shafik, 60, a “brilliant and able global leader, a community builder and a pre-eminent economist who understands the academy and the world beyond it.”

Her international experience is notable — and uncommon for a university president in the United States. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Dr. Shafik has also served as a vice president at the World Bank and a deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

During an appearance where she was introduced to Columbia’s campus on Wednesday, Dr. Shafik emphasized her commitment to “increase the diversity of people and ideas and lived experiences” and address skeptics who doubt the value of education.

“We are at a moment in history where universities need to be both scholarly and relevant,” she added.

The president she will replace, Mr. Bollinger, has led Columbia for 21 years, presiding over a significant expansion of the university with the creation of new institutes and initiatives, including the broadening of the university’s global presence, and the addition of its Manhattanville campus, the home of its new business school.

Dr. Shafik was partly brought up in the United States, where her family relocated in the 1960s after their home and property in Egypt were seized and nationalized by the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, she has said in interviews.

She lived in Savannah, Ga., as a child and in Egypt as a teenager, returning to the United States to earn an undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her postgraduate studies took her to Britain, where she received a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1986, followed by a Ph.D. in economics from St. Antony’s College, at Oxford University, in 1989.

Recalling her upbringing and her family’s departure from Egypt, Dr. Shafik said at Columbia that the importance of education was deeply ingrained in her as a child.

“When my family left Alexandria in the early 1960s, my father, who like his father had a Ph.D. in chemistry, said to me, ‘They can take everything away from you except your education,’” she said.

Her academic career has included appointments at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and at Georgetown University. Her scholarship includes a book, “What We Owe Each Other,” in which she calls for a new social order. Kirkus Reviews described the 2021 book as an update of “Rousseau-vian ideals of duty, responsibility, and reciprocity.”

Dr. Shafik, who has described herself as “brown” when asked about her race, is married to Raffael Jovine, a biologist who specializes in algae. They have twins, and three adult children from her husband’s previous marriage. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II made her a baroness in 2020, and she is a member of the House of Lords.

Mr. Bollinger, who announced last year that he would be stepping down from the presidency, led the University of Michigan in Grutter v. Bollinger, a Supreme Court decision which upheld the right of colleges to engage in affirmative action in admissions. The decision may be overturned by the court in pending cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

In a recent interview with several reporters, Mr. Bollinger said that a decision to overturn Grutter would drastically reduce the racial and ethnic diversity of college classes.

“The upshot would be a tragic return to a world in which there was really not racial integration as we have strived as a country to achieve,” he said.

If the Supreme Court does overturn Grutter, Dr. Shafik, whom Columbia described as a “tireless proponent of diversity and inclusion,” will face the challenge of overhauling the university’s admissions processes.

She will also have to deal with the fallout from the university’s manipulation of statistics that were submitted to the college ranking operation run by U.S. News & World Report. The university’s standing in the latest rankings dropped to No. 18 from No. 2 the previous year, following the disclosure by one of its math professors, Michael Thaddeus, that the university’s data seemed dubious.

Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard who knows Dr. Shafik, called her selection an “inspired” choice, adding that she could return the role of a university president to that of a public intellectual who uses the platform to “speak to broad questions of the day, relating the mission of higher education to contemporary public problems.”

C NYTimes

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