Columbia University Under Investigation

Complaint filed by Kenneth L. Marcus, the director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation into a complaint filed by Kenneth L. Marcus, the director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Mr. Marcus alleges that last January, a Jewish student from Barnard, an all-women college at Columbia University, was "steered" away from attending an Arab politics and intellectual history class taught by controversial CU professor Joseph Massad. Marcus contends that such steering, which is usually related to the real estate practice of guiding people away from certain neighborhoods based on racial considerations, also applies to college courses and student ethnicity.

“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.” Marcus himself headed the OCR between 2003 and 2004, and he contends that the chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department told the student, whose Orthodox background was apparent due to her modest attire, that she might not be "comfortable" in Massad's class. Mr. Massad, who has been highly critical of Israel, has been accused of anti-Semitism on a number of occasions. The chair suggested the student might want to consider a course on Ancient Israel instead.

Mr. Marcus is pressing the OCR to decide whether or not the chair violated the student's rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Marcus believes that what the chair did is called "steering," which he likened to a real estate agent telling an African American couple they would not be "comfortable" living in a white neighborhood and that they should look for a house in a black neighborhood instead. As Marcus notes, whether such a suggestion is well-intentioned or not, it still amounts to discrimination. “Columbia violates Title VI when it discourages Jewish students from pursuing coursework which may be important not only to their pursuit of the MEALAC (Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures) major, but more broadly to their attainment of a broad understanding of the Middle East," he explained. "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."

Yet Marcus is equally concerned about something else as well. He wonders if the warning was "correct," meaning that it is possible Prof. Massad may be violating the civil rights of Columbia students as well, by teaching a class where anti-Semitism is countenanced under the rubric of "academic freedom." Massad was one of a few members of Columbia University's Middle Eastern Studies faculty heavily criticized in a 2005 film produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. The documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, is a 40-minute film of testimony by fourteen students and university graduates about facing intimidation for expressing pro-Israel sentiments in class. Massad was accused by one student, an Israeli and a former soldier, of demanding to know how many Palestinians he had killed.

Massad, who denied the allegation, subsequently fired back in a piece for Al-Ahram, an English language newspaper serving the Arab community. He accused the movie of being “the latest salvo in a campaign of intimidation of Jewish and non-Jewish professors who criticise Israel.” A university investigation prompted by the film led to no firings or resignations. Critics characterized that investigation as a "whitewash."

Marcus remains undeterred by the results. “The big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too,” he wrote. “If there is a problem in Professor Massad’s classroom, as the Barnard chair may believe, then steering Jewish students away is not the solution. Nor is it the biggest problem. The biggest problem may be the failure of some universities to take anti-Semitism allegations seriously, especially when academic freedom is frivolously invoked.”

He continued. "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."

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. Since the incident allegedly took place last January, it would be reasonable to suspect that Ms. McDermott was involved. But DOE spokesperson Jim Bradshaw said he was prohibited by law from identifying people involved in civil rights cases, and Ms. McDermott did not respond to a request for comments by the Columbia Spectator, the university's student newspaper.

Columbia University President Lee Bolligner issued a statement to the Spectator, contending that Columbia has “strong policies against discrimination,” and that it handles “allegations of discrimination of any kind very seriously.” But he was quick to refute Marcus's attempt to draw Professor Massad into the controversy. “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 claimed. “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.” Whether or not the OCR agrees with that contention remains to be seen.

Officials at Barnard College are reportedly reviewing the incident as well. “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,” wrote Joanne Kwong, vice president for communications. “As this is a pending investigation, it would be inappropriate and premature to comment any further at this time.”

Judith Jacobson, associate professor of the Clinical Mailman School of Public Health, and co-founder of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a group of American academics dedicated to to fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias on college campuses, was the person who alerted Marcus to the alleged incident. Neither Jacobson nor Marcus would identify the student involved, but Marcus contended the she is supportive of the investigation. Jacobson, who believes the student chose not to enroll in Massad's class, was "distressed" by the alleged incident. “Frankly, I was shocked,” said Jacobson. “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 added.

Some Jewish Columbia students remain skeptical of the allegations. Shira Borzak, BC ’12 characterized her experience at Columbia as “overwhelmingly positive.” Michael Abramson, CC ’13 insisted the allegation amounted to an “isolated incident.” Jordana Kaminetsky, BC ’12  and president of Hillel, a club for Jewish students, issued a joint statement with Daniel Bonner, CC ’13 and president of Yavneh/Hillel.

The duo noted that Columbia has “professors who see things differently than we do in the context of Israel and the quest for balance in the classroom continues.” But they added that Jewish students feel “supported in the Columbia and Barnard academic community...and we are very grateful for it.”

On the other hand, Eric Schorr, GS/JTS ‘12 and president of the pro-Israel group LionPAC is taking a wait-and-see approach. He urged his fellow students to avoid “decontextualizing and conflating” this incident, yet he also believes "there needs to be a deeper conversation about issues that may in fact be taking place on campus.” And Susan Tuchman, the director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, noted that concerns about anti-Semitism at CU have “been on the radar screen of many people.”

Alleged discrimination is now on the radar screen at the OCS as well. And Kenneth Marcus who, in addition to his stint at U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, headed the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, considers this version of steering as “a somewhat novel theory," but one that "fits exactly.” He is looking forward to the investigation and expressed the hope that the university would be willing, if necessary, to negotiate a voluntary settlement with OCS. “We would want to see Columbia take firm actions to ensure not only that the steering problem is addressed, but more importantly that Jewish students are not facing a hostile environment in Middle East studies classes,” he told Tablet Magazine.

His take on Professor Massad? “We would like for Columbia to look into what’s going on, especially in Professor Massad’s class, and reconsider whether the investigation they did a few years ago is really adequate,” he said. “If it turns out as a result of the investigation that there’s a hostile environment for Jewish students in any Columbia classes, then the instructors need to be dealt with.”

The investigation was opened on September 19th. Stay tuned.