The investigation centers around a Jewish student at Barnard, who was allegedly discouraged from taking a class with Professor Joseph Massad, a sharp critic of Israel.
Sammy Roth, The Columbia Spectator
Date 16, 2011
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint accusing Columbia of discriminating against a Jewish student, a DOE spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.
The complaint was filed by Kenneth Marcus, the director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. According to Marcus, in January a Jewish student from Barnard was discouraged from taking a class with Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia.
Marcus, who headed the OCR himself between 2003 and 2004, told Spectator that the chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures department illegally “steered” the student away from taking the class because Massad, a sharp critic of Israel, has often been accused of anti-Semitism.
“I’m delighted that OCR has opened an investigation,” Marcus said. “And I think it sends a signal that they’re taking the case very seriously.”
Professor Rachel McDermott was the longtime chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures department until September, when she was succeeded by D. Max Moerman. DOE spokesperson Jim Bradshaw said he was prohibited by law from identifying people involved in civil rights cases, and McDermott did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Bradshaw said the OCR opened its investigation of Columbia on Sept. 19. In a statement sent to Spectator, University President Lee Bollinger said that the University has “strong policies against discrimination,” and that it handles “allegations of discrimination of any kind very seriously.”
“It is important to note that the individual complaint appears to relate to academic advising at Barnard College and in no way involves Professor Joseph Massad,” Bollinger said. “Based on these facts, therefore, it is extremely unfair for professor Massad to be cited in a matter in which he played no part whatsoever.”
Joanne Kwong, vice president for communications at Barnard College, said the college is reviewing information surrounding the incident.
“We do not tolerate discrimination by any member of the college community, so we are carefully exploring and reviewing the claims made about this alleged incident,” she said in an email to Spectator. “As this is a pending investigation, it would be inappropriate and premature to comment any further at this time.”
Marcus said that Columbia is being investigated for “steering,” a term commonly used in housing discrimination cases to describe realtors directing black families away from white neighborhoods, and vice versa.
Marcus spent years dealing with steering cases while heading the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said the steering that occurred at Barnard was clearly a violation of the law, but that this case may be breaking new ground.
“I certainly never saw something like this in education,” he said. “It’s a novel theory as applied to universities.”
The incident was brought to Marcus’s attention by Mailman School of Public Health professor Judith Jacobson, who herself heard about it from a third party.
Jacobson and Marcus declined to identify the student in question, although Marcus said he has spoken to her several times, and she is supportive of the actions being taken. Jacobson adds that she thinks the student ultimately did not enroll in Massad’s class.
Jacobson, a co-founder of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said she found the student’s story “distressing,” and not only because steering is illegal.
“Frankly, I was shocked,” Jacobson said. “I mean, suppose it were a black student who was steered away from taking a course because he or she was black.”
“It’s just one of these things that you get more and more concerned about when you think about it,” she said.
In 2004, when Marcus headed the OCR, the office began interpreting the Civil Rights Act as prohibiting discrimination against Jews—and other groups defined by ethnic and ancestral characteristics—at institutions receiving federal funds. But it was not until last October, Marcus said, that Jewish groups convinced President Barack Obama’s administration to start enforcing the policy.
Students say probably an “isolated incident”
Several Jewish students said that the alleged incident of steering does not at all reflect their experiences at Columbia. Shira Borzak, BC ’12, who is an orthodox Jew, said in an email that while she “doesn’t want to dismiss” the steering incident, her experience here has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“I think that CU/BC is generally a place where traditions and beliefs are respected, and I think Barnard is a great place to be if you want to maintain your beliefs while being exposed to and enriched by others,” Borzak said via email. “I hope that whatever the outcome of the investigation is will be a way to continue the culture of respect at Columbia and Barnard.”
Michael Abramson, CC ’13 and also an Orthodox Jew, agreed that Columbia provides a comfortable environment for Jewish students, calling the alleged steering an “isolated incident.” The department head who advised the student not to take the class, he said, was probably just trying to give the student a helpful “heads up” about the class.
“Maybe there are exceptions, but advisers and professors on this campus are in no way biased,” he said. “I’m sure the number is small enough that you can count it on your fingers.”
But Susan Tuchman, the director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, said concerns about anti-Semitism at Columbia have “been on the radar screen of many people.”
“I’m assuming that the person who steered the Jewish student away from the class was acting with the best of intentions,” Tuchman said. “But it raises the concern that there are certain classes that Jewish students should stay away from, and that should be concerning to the University.”
Marcus noted that the OCR has only one tool for disciplining a school that is found to have committed a civil rights violation— eliminating that school’s federal funds. But since that would be a crippling blow to most schools, the OCR and an investigated school usually reach a resolution that addresses the civil rights violation and does not involve the elimination of funds.
And while Marcus called the steering claim “potentially a very big deal,” he agreed with Tuchman that his complaint raises a larger problem.
“The real issue is not so much the steering itself, but the prospect that there is an unequal treatment or hostile environment toward Jewish students,” he said.
Jordana Kaminetsky, BC ‘12 and the president of Hillel, and Daniel Bonner, CC ’13 and the president of Yavneh—Hillel’s Orthodox students groups--said in a joint statement that at Columbia there are “professors who see things differently than we do in the context of Israel and the quest for balance in the classroom continues.” But on the whole, Jewish students feel “supported in the Columbia and Barnard academic community,” they wrote.
“It is the season of Jewish holidays—a season of missed classes—and as Jewish students on campus, we want to reiterate that our community has had overwhelmingly positive experiences with our professors and advisers who go to great lengths to accommodate our needs,” Kaminetsky and Bonner wrote. “Their attitude of respect and open-mindedness in this context is indicative of our larger Columbia experience, and we are very grateful for it.”
Eric Schorr, GS/JTS ‘12 and the president of the pro-Israel group LionPAC, said that LionPAC was awaiting more information about the incident before taking a position. He noted that this is one particular incident, and that students should avoid “decontextualizing and conflating” this incident and the larger question of the environment for Jews at Columbia.
“I think there needs to be a deeper conversation about issues that may in fact be taking place on campus,” he said.
Abramson, though, said that based on his experience, there’s no widespread anti-Semitism problem to be concerned about at Columbia.
“Teachers are always very respectful, and this type of thing comes up once in a blue moon,” he said. “I really don’t think it’s worthy of all that much attention.”