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Nemat ‘Minouche’ Shafik: The challenge of equal opportunity

Columbia University’s first female president takes office just as the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action in education

Nemat Shafik Luis Grañena
Luis Grañena

In the early 19th century, military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war was the continuation of politics by other means. Today, one might add that the U.S. campus is one of the battlefields in this bloodless contest. Caught between Joe Biden’s promise to partially forgive student debt—which the Supreme Court rejected—and the end of affirmative action—also overturned by the high court—education represents one theater of the culture wars. In this bristling context, Egyptian-born economist Nemat “Minouche” Shafik becomes the 20th President of Columbia University and the first woman to lead the institution. Director of the London School of Economics since 2017, with a career that has zigzagged between teaching and business, the British-American Shafik, 60, must now navigate a panorama of extremes, where cancellations are common currency and the union mobilization that is sweeping the country is also taking hold in the classrooms.

Shafik was officially sworn in on July 1, the day after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions at Harvard University and University of North Carolina. Her appointment makes her the latest woman to head a major institution of higher education, including Harvard, Dartmouth, M.I.T., the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University. But winding up at Columbia, which boasts eight Nobel laureates in economics—including Professor Joseph Stiglitz—is especially significant. Stiglitz has greeted her arrival enthusiastically: “One of the things I’ve admired about Minouche [the French nickname by which she is known] is that she’s kept up her commitment to intellectual inquiry even as she’s continued to work in jobs with enormous responsibility.”

Those jobs include senior positions at the most important international institutions, from the World Bank and the Bank of England to the International Monetary Fund, where she was deputy managing director. During her time as the British central bank’s deputy governor, she was responsible for contingency planning for the 2016 Brexit referendum. Shafik also headed the British International Cooperation agency, where she forged its commitment to allocate 0.7% of GDP to development aid. In recognition of her public service, Queen Elizabeth II made her a baroness in 2015 and a member of the House of Lords in 2020.

When she was four years old, Shafik’s educated, middle-class family fled Egypt because of political and economic instability in the mid-1960s. It is not difficult to reconstruct the historical context and personal mourning of exile from the autobiographical work Out of Egypt, by André Aciman, who, like Shafik, is an Alexandria transplant to the U.S. The Mediterranean city’s bourgeoisie was the target of a nationalist regime, and when President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government confiscated their home and property, the Shafiks fled. Her father, a scientist, found work in the U.S., where he had earned his doctorate. Minouche and her sister attended numerous schools in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. After spending part of her adolescence in Egypt, in 1983 the future president of Columbia University graduated summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in economics and politics. She continued her studies at the London School of Economics and Oxford University.

Recalling her childhood, Shafik refers to education as the unwavering value that made her steadfast and encouraged her to keep going. “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 explained upon her appointment as Columbia’s president in January. She’s also determined to 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. She wants higher education to interact with the res publica and for the two worlds to stop turning their backs on each other.

The author of books that advocate a new social order by updating Rousseaunian ideals and a former professor at Georgetown University, Shafik identifies as brown. She was the “perfect candidate” for the Columbia position: she is a “brilliant and able global leader, a community builder, and a preeminent economist who understands the academy and the world beyond it.” Her international experience, scarce in closed academic circles, gives her a panoramic view. And her staunch defense of diversity and inclusion represents a strength in the new scenario created by the Supreme Court’s reversal of a doctrine that seemed settled since the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision upholding affirmative action in admissions.

The Bollinger in that court case is none other than Lee C. Bollinger, Shafik’s predecessor at Columbia, who was previously the longest-tenured Ivy League president. He warned that a negative Supreme Court ruling would drastically reduce racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom, depriving marginalized minorities of opportunities. After the setback at the Supreme Court, President Shafik—herself a brown cosmopolitan woman of Arab origin—will face the challenge of defending equal opportunity in a country as radically unequal as the United States. “I strongly believe that talent is spread evenly around the world, but opportunity is not,” she said. She noted that, if she had been born into another family, or in another place like the U.S. for that matter, she would not have gotten anywhere near where she has ended up.

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