Anonymous gift lets Columbia fund concessions to Muslims

Columbia University has agreed to hire a full-time “Coordinator of Muslim Life” and open up prayer space for Muslims during academic breaks.

University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis announced the new initiatives earlier this week in response to demands from the Columbia Muslim Student Association (MSA), noting that both concessions were made possible by an anonymous donation.

[RELATED: Muslim students demand prayer space, religious advisor]

The new coordinator will “provide guidance and support to members of Columbia’s Muslim community” and “enhance the understanding” of various religious traditions on campus, Davis said, adding that her office would be “consulting with our student leaders and campus partners” while seeking a qualified candidate for the role.

“There is a shared feeling across our University community that the times we live in require a vigorous reaffirmation of our principles,” she concluded. “Today’s announcement, and the anonymous gift that made it possible, reflects the University’s commitment to that course.”

Both initiatives were addressed in a petition circulated by the MSA last month, which called for Columbia to establish a “fully-funded, full-time position for a Muslim Religious Life Advisor” and also reiterated a long-standing request that a Muslim prayer space on campus be made accessible to students and non-students during academic breaks.

“President Trump’s recent executive order blatantly legalizes racism and Islamophobia and goes against everything that the United States and this University aspires to,” the MSA Executive Board wrote in their petition. “As a result, the Muslim community is in need, now more than ever, of institutional support to help cope with the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical toll these recent political events have on us.”

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Interestingly, though, Muslim students greeted the announcement not with appreciation, but with suspicion, complaining to The Columbia Spectator of a lack of transparency from the Chaplain’s Office.

Davis told the Spectator that she has been working on creating a coordinator position for Muslim students for years, but students said they were not notified that such efforts were even underway until Davis was compelled to respond to the student petition.

“Every year it’s been a battle getting things. It’s been like pulling teeth when we’re asking the chaplain for anything,” asserted MSA senior adviser and former president Fatima Koli. “The pattern that I’ve seen is that Chaplain Davis only does things for the Muslim community when it serves her—when there’s been a lot of attention and she knows she needs to do something to get that attention off of her.”

“There’s an overwhelming sense that the office is not here for us,” concurred Columbia Faith and Action member Phil Jeffrey. “If this is the office dedicated to supporting faith communities, it’s not really apparent where that comes in.”

Yousr Shaltout, a senior at Barnard College who has been involved with advocating for Muslim students at the Columbia affiliate, also expressed surprising disappointment that the school had finally responded to the demands.

“We didn’t know that this was in the works or was even possible. It’s something that we’ve been working on for the past four years and there’s been no transparency, which is frustrating,” Shaltout said. “We always have to put on so much public pressure for [Chaplain Davis] to do something, and it’s very tiring.”

[RELATED: Muslim students demand prayer rooms in every ‘major building’]

Chaplain Davis declined to clarify the impetus and motivations for the hiring move, instead referring Campus Reform to the university’s Media Office.

Robert Hornsby, Columbia’s assistant vice president of Media Relations, told Campus Reform that new position was created because of an anonymous donation, but did not respond to further inquiries on when exactly that gift was received and whether it had anything to do with the Muslim students demands.

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