President Safa Zaki issued a statement explaining the College’s lack of an institutional statement on the violence in Israel and Gaza in an email to the Bowdoin community on Thursday afternoon. The email mentioned the College’s existing support systems available to students, faculty and staff and was issued after conversations Zaki had with students throughout the week and at the Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) meeting on Wednesday night. Zaki’s attendance at the meeting was announced shortly after the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted the student-professor teach-in event that held over 300 people.
In addition to Zaki, Senior Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs Janet Lohmann attended the meeting. For over an hour, the pair answered questions from BSG members and students looking to understand how the College planned to respond to the conflict and foster dialogue, as the College had not yet issued a statement. Zaki followed up her Wednesday night remarks with an email to the Bowdoin community on Thursday afternoon.
“I am writing this message not because I have changed my mind [on not issuing a statement], but because I have not yet had a chance to explain my perspective on statements to all of you, and because my overarching priority is to support students and others on our campus in times like these,” Zaki wrote.
At the meeting and in her email, Zaki expressed concern about the recent violence in Israel and Palestine, but declined to give a specific position on the issue, sharing her belief that statements do not always have their intended helpful effect and that they are often divisive, static and unproductive.
“We have all witnessed incredible violence in the world in the past two weeks,” Zaki said at the meeting.
Expanding on her beliefs about statements, Zaki noted that they often only speak for one person, and not the community as a whole. When asked by BSG president Paul Wang, Zaki stated that she intends to write statements on issues that directly affect the core functioning of the institution, such as affirmative action.
Zaki did note that she was open to student input and stated that the topic of how to respond to the conflict on behalf of the College was one that she struggled with. Lohmann echoed the concerns of Zaki.
“I hope that the lack of a statement doesn’t create a void [between the administration and the Bowdoin community] where we don’t know what to do so we are not doing anything,” Lohmann said.
Throughout the meeting, Zaki and Lohmann responded to concerns raised by students outside of BSG.
Many of these students shared their individual perspectives on the conflict and the College’s lack of public response with Zaki. Other students felt that a statement, given the prestige of Bowdoin and Zaki’s position, could impact the mainstream Western media coverage.
Despite Zaki’s resistance to statements, both she and Lohmann repeatedly reiterated their commitment to support and dialogue, hinting toward plans for events in response to the conflict. Senior Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity Benje Douglas, Senior Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs Jen Scanlon and Lohmann confirmed and further outlined future programming in response to the conflict in an email sent to the campus shortly after Zaki’s email on Thursday.
College-sponsored programming will start with a candlelight vigil hosted by the Office of Residential Life and BSG to grieve the lives lost in Israel and Palestine in front of the Walker Art Building at 7 p.m. tonight.
Ultimately, Zaki and Lohmann reiterated that while their position may not resonate with all students, they are open to conversation and finding ways to support students as they reckon with this issue.
“I’m in pain about the world,” Zaki said. “I’m here to support you, and that’s what I think the role of a college president is.”
Editor’s Note 10/20/2023 at 12:20 p.m.: The first sentence of this article was changed for online publication to reflect the language President Zaki used in her statement to the community.