This week, Columbia University announced that Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, economist and former president of the London School of Economics, will serve as the university’s 20th president. When she assumes the position in July, Shafik will become the first woman in the role in the university’s 268-year history. She succeeds Lee C. Bollinger, who will have served in the role for 21 years.
Beyond her tenure as the president of the London School of Economics (where she was also the first female president), Shafik has served as the vice president of the World Bank, becoming the youngest person to hold the title, and the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. In his letter to the community on behalf of the university Trustees, Jonathan Lavine noted that Shafik’s belief in the transformative power of higher education was the cornerstone of her candidacy. He writes that “what set Minouche apart as a candidate was her unshakable confidence in the vital role institutions of higher education can and must play in solving the world’s most complex problems. Like all of us in the Columbia community, she believes that in order to bring about meaningful change, we have a collective obligation to combine our distinctive intellectual capacities with groups and organizations beyond the academy.”
According to Shafik, her abiding love for education stems from her childhood. After her family was forced to flee her birthplace of Alexandria, Egypt in the midst of political upheaval, her father instilled in her the value of education for social and economic mobility. She shares: “Education was a huge part of my family’s story. It was the reason my father was able to rebuild our life.”
Shafik is poised to take on the role in the midst of a tumultuous time in higher education, as colleges have seen a decline in enrollment across the country, fears of an impending recession loom, and universities await the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action. Particularly as prestigious universities face mounting pressure to diversify their student bodies and democratize access to their programs, Shafik’s international background will be an invaluable asset to her leadership of the university.
The announcement of Shafik’s selection follows a year of history-making women selected to helm elite institutions. Last year, Sian Leah Beilock was named the first woman president of Dartmouth College and Claudine Gay the first Black president of Harvard University and its second woman president. In addition, Times Higher Education reported that “[f]orty-three – or 21 per cent – of the top 200 universities in the latest 2022 ranking have a female leader,” an increase from 34 universities in 2018. Shafik’s historic appointment signals that all eight of the Ivy League schools have been led by a woman at some point in their history.