SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: April 09, 2024

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Columbia University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On April 9, 2024, Abdul Kayum Ahmed, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (SPH), received a letter from SPH Dean Linda Fried and S. Patrick Kachur, the interim chair of the department of population and family health, informing him that his appointment would not be renewed after the end of the fall 2024 semester.

Ahmed is a member of the teaching team for the Core Curriculum at SPH, a set of six “studios” that all new students take during their first semester at the school. In addition, during the fall 2023 semester, he taught a course on Health and Human Rights Advocacy.

On March 8, 2024, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Some Columbia Professors Accused of Pro-Palestinian Indoctrination.” The article began with a vignette from Ahmed’s classroom and called Ahmed, “a social-justice activist who has been accused of radicalizing students.” It described Ahmed’s teaching, highlighting the fact that Ahmed has called Israel a colonial settler state and has taught about the health effects of displacement among Palestinians. The article also pointed out that, as a teacher in the Core Curriculum, “Ahmed’s class is mandatory for approximately 420 first-year graduate students as part of a semester-long introduction to public health.”

On March 11, Matthew Perzanowski, the director of SPH’s Core Curriculum, informed Ahmed that he was being removed from the Core Curriculum teaching team, apparently citing his approach to teaching about Palestine. One week later, Ahmed’s department chair, Kachur, informed Ahmed that he would also not be able to teach his course on Health and Human RIghts Advocacy.

On March 19, according to a recording obtained by the Columbia Spectator, Kachur also told Ahmed that there was “definitely a possibility” that his appointment would not be renewed. Following that meeting Columbia’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote to Columbia University President, Minouche Shafik Interim Provost Dennis Mitchell, Incoming Provost Angela Olinto, SPH Dean Fried, SPH Vice-Dean Michael Joseph, Perzanowski, and Kachur to express concern over Ahmed’s treatment. The letter pointed out that Ahmed’s teaching evaluations have been “overwhelmingly positive,” and stated, “We conclude, therefore, that a gross injustice has been done to Dr. Ahmed, that his academic freedom has been infringed upon.”

On April 9, Fried and Kachur confirmed to Ahmed that his appointment would not be renewed.

Scholars at Risk is concerned by the denial of an otherwise meritorious appointment to a professor in apparent retaliation for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and academic freedom. University authorities have an obligation to refrain from retaliatory actions intended to punish, restrict, or chill the exercise of academic freedom – including public commentary on one’s own institution – and should employ transparent, fair processes when engaging in disciplinary actions. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, suspensions stemming from such activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.