Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Rosenbury From Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri

Danticat and Lahiri, award-winning authors and professors at Columbia University, urge President Rosenbury and President Shafik to revoke suspensions and drop disciplinary measures against students, and demand that academic freedom is upheld.

Photography by Samantha Candelo-Ortegon

Dear President Rosenbury,

We write to you as alumnae of Barnard College: (Edwidge Danticat ’90 and Jhumpa Lahiri ’89). We are writers and educators who have recently returned to the Barnard-Columbia campus as professors, respectively, in the departments of African American and African Diaspora Studies (at Columbia) and English/Creative Writing (at Barnard). We began teaching on campus in the Fall semester of 2023.

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7th of last year, followed by Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we have observed, with increasing alarm, the response of Barnard’s administration towards students and faculty members alike. We have been troubled by a series of decisions restricting the rights of students and fellow faculty members to express their opinions regarding this conflict. The College has censored faculty web pages, mandated that all students remove decorations from their doors, and initiated at least 19 disciplinary hearings for students involved in a peaceful Pro-Palestinian protest on Barnard’s campus. Recently and most egregiously, the college has suspended over fifty Barnard students for participating in an “unauthorized” encampment on Columbia’s South Lawns. This protest, which is ongoing, involves a coalition of students from both Barnard and Columbia belonging to diverse faiths and systems of belief.

During our time at Barnard, we were exposed to a variety of intellectual and political views which formed a crucial part of our education. Then, like now, the world was riven with conflict, and we, as students, witnessed charged protest and actions on campus organized to raise awareness and confront both international and local issues. These included the extensive campaign to force Columbia to divest its funds from the apartheid regime in South Africa, protests to denounce violence against women, and protests against Barnard and Columbia’s role in the gentrification of Morningside Heights and the displacement of communities of color. We trusted that our right to assembly and to free speech—though perhaps not acceptable or agreeable to all—would be protected by the college. This is no longer the case.

On April 18th, Barnard students were part of a non-violent protest on Columbia’s campus that led to their suspension and arrest. They had their hands zip tied and were carted off in police vans. As you know, these students immediately lost access to campus, and were given fifteen minutes to retrieve possessions from their dorm rooms. Their lives and studies have been upended two weeks before the end of the term, and close to half of them risk not graduating.

These Barnard students—many of them young women of color— are not only being draconianly punished for sitting in tents and protesting a war along with their Columbia peers. They are also being punished for their refusal to be silent —just as generations of women, throughout centuries, have been told to keep quiet. This runs directly against everything Barnard stands for, or used to stand for.

We urge that you, President Rosenbury, along with President Shafik, immediately revoke the suspensions of both Barnard and Columbia students, allowing them to complete their academic year. We demand that Barnard college drop all disciplinary measures against the suspended students, and expunge them from their official records. Finally, we demand that academic freedom be respected and upheld for all Barnard faculty, students, and staff. We are proud of all our students, and stand in solidarity with those who have been unjustly punished.

The words and actions of you and your administration leading up to and on April 18th, as well as your silence since then, have caused incalculable damage to the long-standing reputation and legacy of Barnard College: a unique place of higher education that has attracted and nurtured outspoken and strong-minded women for the past 135 years. What has happened in recent days has ruptured this legacy. Debate and dissent must be allowed to thrive on Barnard’s campus, and academic freedom must be protected. In your attempt to quell tensions on campus, you have only exacerbated them, and your punitive actions have broken trust and created an atmosphere of repression at our college—a Barnard we no longer recognize.

Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri