Our Sense of Shared Purpose

Dear Colleagues,

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of welcoming those gathered for the second annual CUIMC Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Summit, an event that grew out of the recommendations of the 2020 Anti-Racism Taskforce. The summit builds upon the remarkable work of the CUIMC Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that started in 2019 to enable groups of employees to come together voluntarily based on shared characteristics or life experiences and serve as a resource for each other and the organization. I am both immensely thankful for all the work that has been done to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace and deeply aware that there is much, much more work to be done.

This year’s summit featured a long-planned panel discussion on antisemitism, organized by the Jewish Cultural ERG led by Ross Frommer and James Lapin. While antisemitism is a priority topic for any DEI summit, it has now taken on a pressing sense of urgency and requires a deep commitment across the University. Just the day before the summit, President Shafik announced a new taskforce on antisemitism that will identify practical short-term steps and long-term strategies. The taskforce will include members from across Columbia, including CUIMC, and I hope to be able to share more of the plans with you soon.  

Several people have asked me to share with you the remarks I gave to open the summit. I’m aware of the limitations of words in expressing the level of pain and emotion that so many feel daily across our community, particularly those closest to the suffering created by the Hamas terrorist attack and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I am also aware that we draw strength from the diversity of our community—strength that will be lost if we retreat from each other or from the open discourse and engagement that make us who we are. Our path forward depends upon redoubling our commitment to caring for everyone, and the fundamental belief in our shared humanity that underlies that commitment.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Summit, Nov. 2, 2023

This morning I come here first and foremost as a doctor. And as a doctor, my job is to care for people at their time of greatest need, people who are suffering.

Sometimes, I have learned, that caring comes more from what we say or how we behave than from any medicine or test we have to offer. I stand here today so fully aware of how much our community is hurting and suffering now. I worry, just as I do with any patient, that I could say the wrong words. That my words are not enough.

And yet I know it is my job to hold us in the light at this time, to walk this incredibly hard journey with our community, just as I would for any of my patients who are hurting like we are.

Today’s summit is devoted to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging—words that amount to nothing if, in this moment of escalating antisemitism, our voices are silent about the fear and anxiety so many in our Jewish community are feeling. The panel discussion this morning on antisemitism could not be more timely. It gives us an opportunity to engage our community in a discussion we must have.

The stakes for all of us and for this institution are quite high. The feeling of pain across our campus is palpable. We must work through this if we are to return to the calm and open exchange of ideas and free discourse that makes us who we are.

The surest way to perpetuate the turmoil we feel and to worsen the damage being done to our collective sense of community is to retreat from engagement and discussion.

We must not do that. We have to speak to each other and speak honestly, especially about the things that are troubling our community. To do otherwise is to surrender to a state of acrimony and fear. And that is unacceptable.

So, I will do my best to begin that discussion here, with the hope that we carry it on in the session on antisemitism later this morning, throughout today’s summit, and in the days and weeks ahead.

To start, here are some basic facts: Hamas is a terrorist organization, and has been formally designated as such by both the United States and the European Union. The U.S. designation has been in place since October 1997. The attack that Hamas perpetrated on innocent Israeli civilians on October 7 cannot be justified or rationalized in any way.

Equally clear, and of great importance in this discussion, is that the Palestinian people are not Hamas and are not terrorists.

We need in this difficult moment to be able to navigate this distinction. We must describe Hamas as it describes itself—as an entity openly committed to the destruction of Israel and to attacking the Jewish people—to provide our Jewish colleagues the comfort that comes with knowing that others understand what occurred on October 7 and the terrible psychological impact of that terrorist attack.

Yesterday afternoon, President Shafik announced a Taskforce on Antisemitism to be led by some of our most respected faculty colleagues. It is my hope that they will energetically take up the issue of how the university can embrace academic freedom without giving license to hate speech or public statements that condone the elimination of a state or its people. CUIMC looks forward to taking part in this process.

It is my hope that the medical center can serve as a model for the rest of the University, a place where we collaborate every day in service of our mission and ideals; where remarkable people come together to heal the sick, discover new cures, and teach the next generation of leaders in health care. Partnership is the essence of everything good that occurs here.

I will end by returning to where I started. The path forward requires nothing more than treating each other the way we treat our patients: with respect and compassion. I know we can stay this course even through these difficult days.

I spent the first two weeks of October attending on 7 Garden North. I have thought a lot about those days recently. As we face a time of significant challenge, they have become a touchstone that I carry with me. A touchstone that reminds me that we are all here to do our very best for each of our patients—whether that is providing the best possible care today, creating new knowledge to improve what is possible, or training the doctors and scientists who will create the future we all deserve. Over the days and weeks ahead, we will find new ways to rebuild our sense of shared purpose and common good as we move forward. For now, please don’t forget that you are part of a community dedicated to caring for all. For that, I am deeply grateful.

Please take care,

Katrina Armstrong, MD
Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences, Columbia University