July 24, 2024
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Department of Education Settles Antisemitism Complaints With CUNY

The City University of New York (CUNY), which has had numerous complaints of antisemitism—some predating the Israel-Hamas War—has settled with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

As part of the settlement for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the university’s board of trustees voted to create the Center for Inclusive Excellence and Belonging to foster understanding, oversee training and strengthen reporting and policy across the university’s 25 campuses.

“In the last year, there has been a growing call on higher education to create more outlets for students to engage in fruitful and productive conversations about their differences,” said CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodriguez in a statement. “These conversations are critical to ending hate and building understanding. CUNY is answering that call by creating this new center to consolidate our efforts to fight hate and improve dialogue. As one of the most diverse institutions in the nation, the university’s core mission is to provide an environment that is free from discrimination and hate.”

The settlement came as antisemitic incidents have significantly increased since the terrorist attack on Israel,with pro-Palestinian demonstrators often threatening and harassing Jewish students. The OCR investigated three cases of Islamophobia along with six involving antisemitism on five CUNY campuses, as well as civil rights violations by its central office. The campuses were: Queens College, Brooklyn College, Baruch College and its law and social work schools. As part of the agreement, CUNY will now more actively tackle antisemitism and other forms of discrimination and bigotry.

“Hate has no place on our college campuses—ever. Sadly, we have witnessed a series of deeply concerning incidents in recent months,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “There’s no question that this is a challenging moment for school communities across the country. “

The new center will be run out of the central office and led by an executive director reporting to the chancellor. The OCR announced the settlement, along with one reached with the University of Michigan, the first such agreements since the start of the Middle East war. Cardona said he viewed them as a “positive step forward.”

As part of the agreement CUNY will reopen several cases, must provide OCR with the results of the investigation and what remedial action will be taken, provide training for employees responsible for investigating complaints and forms of discrimination and harassment, provide training for campus peace officers and continue the third part reviews currently being conducted at the request of Gov. Kathy Hochul and an advocacy group.

The case that OCR most focused on occurred at Hunter College in Manhattan during the 2020-21 school year when students and professors interrupted two virtual programs at the Silberman School of Social Work calling for a decolonization of Palestine, and according to the complaint filed with the OCR, “defaming and demonizing Israel through false accusations of colonization, ethnic cleansing, genocide and more.” Students interviewed said it created a hostile environment and made Jewish students feel unsafe. Although the school did not interview students present during the Zoom sessions, OCR noted that Hunter concluded that students weren’t denied access to education.

StandWithUs, which filed the complaint, said the social work school had “a pervasively hostile environment for Jewish students” and welcomed the requirement that CUNY reopen the investigation of it.

“We are gratified that OCR’s years-long investigation is finally concluded, with OCR determining what the student complainants have been saying from the outset: that the administration’s response was wholly inadequate because it did not speak with the students who attended the hostile class session to learn of its impact on them, nor did it communicate to students who reported concerns about antisemitism in the Silberman program any administrative action to investigate or address the issue,” said Carly Gammill, director of legal strategy in the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department in a statement.

The OCR conclusions and subsequent actions were generally welcomed by those involved in the Jewish community.

“The CUNY agreement is a step in the right direction as it recognizes that CUNY failed to adequately address the problem and sets up federal monitoring and oversight,” said Alyza D. Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which represented students in the Brooklyn College case.

“It is a far cry, however, from an ‘all clear’ for CUNY,” she said in a statement. “The devil will be in the details. We are eager to see what specific steps CUNY will take to actively address the antisemitism that has run rampant on their campuses for far too long.”

At Brooklyn College, white and Jewish students in the Graduate Program for Mental Health Counseling complained that, in the fall of 2020, they were being bullied and thought of as “privileged.”

When students brought this issue to the attention of the deputy director of the program, they allegedly were told white students should “keep quiet” and “keep their heads down.”

However, the agreement was not welcomed by all. Jeffrey Lax, a professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn for about 20 years and founder of S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality), called the university’s agreement “a sham.”

“It’s par for the course and lets them (CUNY) do what they do whenever they get in trouble with antisemitism,” he said. “They create their own investigation. This settlement allows them to hire their own investigator. They know how to play the system and when they found out Gov. Hochul was setting up a legitimate investigation they were not happy about it. All this does is it allows CUNY to do the same thing over and over again with no consequences. Sadly, all this does is embolden them to perpetuate the same antisemitic culture they’ve been perpetuating.”


Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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