Kenneth L. Marcus, The Cutting Edge
October 5, 2011
Here’s a new way of sweeping a problem under the rug. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has just accepted the Institute for Jewish & Community Research’s request that OCR investigate whether a Jewish Barnard student was unlawfully “steered” away from a course taught by controversial Columbia Professor Joseph Massad.
In January, the student got some troubling guidance from Barnard’s Middle East studies department chair. The young woman told the chair that she was interested in taking a course on the Arab world with Prof. Massad, who is notorious for his animosity towards Zionism. Massad, whether fairly or not, has been repeatedly accused of anti-Semitism. The chair looked at the young woman, whose Orthodox background is apparent in her modest attire. Then, as the student tells the story, the chair told her that she would not be “comfortable” in Massad’s class and that she should instead consider a course on Ancient Israel.
OCR has just agreed to open an investigation, at IJCR’s request, as to whether the chair violated the Jewish student’s civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As IJCR told OCR, what the Barnard reportedly did to the student is called “steering.”
It is similar to what happens when a realtor tells a young African American couple that they would not be “comfortable” living in a particular white neighborhood and that they should look at a black neighborhood instead. This is illegal, regardless of whether the realtor was well-intentioned, because it is discriminatory. This is precisely what seems to be happening at Columbia.
As IJCR explained to OCR, “Columbia violates Title VI when it discourages Jewish students from pursuing coursework which may be important not only to their pursuit of the [Middle East studies] major but more broadly to their attainment of a broad understanding of the Middle East.
This harms Jewish students by narrowing their range of study, but it also harms non-Jewish students by denying them the educational benefits which are said to flow from a multi-faceted student diversity.” Fortunately, OCR’s decision to investigate sends a strong signal that the federal government is looking seriously at such behavior.
The more pressing concern however, in both the Columbia example and the housing hypothetical, is whether the warning was correct. In other words, the big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too. This question was widely debated a few years ago in the wake of the documentary Columbia Unbecoming, which sparked an internal Columbia investigation as to whether Massad’s teaching is anti-Semitic.
Although Massad was exonerated at the time by an ad hoc committee, some commentators looked upon the committee’s report as a whitewash. On the other hand, Massad’s defenders effectively reframed the issue as an attack on Massad’s academic freedom. Needless to say, however, the doctrine of academic freedom does not protect conduct towards any student which amounts to unlawful harassment.
Jewish students should not be made to feel uncomfortable in any classroom. If there is a problem in Prof. Massad’s classroom, as the Barnard chair may believe, then steering Jewish students away is not the solution. Nor is the real problem the steering itself. The biggest problem is the failure to take anti-Semitism allegations seriously, especially when academic freedom is frivolously invoked.
What OCR most needs to investigate is whether Columbia is willfully failing to address a discriminatory environment about which it is now clearly on notice. It is not acceptable to allow bias to persist and then simply to steer Jews away into courses which are thought to be more “appropriate” for them.
Ken Marcus author is Executive Vice President and Director of The Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research and author of Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press 2010). He was delegated the authority of Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights under President George W. Bush.