U.S. Education Department concerned by CUNY’s response to bias allegations – Civil rights probe eyes antisemitism, Islamophobia

CUNY students and others at a pro-Palestinian protest outside the CUNY chancellor’s office  last November. The New York Daily News.

Dear Commons Community,

The U.S. Education Department, as part of a civil rights probe, earlier this week identified “concerns” about how the City University of New York investigated and responded to allegations and complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The nine complaints date to 2019-20, but also include the most recent school year, as campus tensions over the Israel-Hamas war erupted in the final weeks of the semester with a pro-Palestinian encampment and disruptions at graduations. Included in the probe were Hunter College, Brooklyn College, the CUNY School of Law, Queens College, Baruch College and CUNY’s central offices.  As reported by The Daily News.

The episodes included allegations that Jewish students at Hunter College were told they “should be listening, not speaking” during a discussion about the Middle East, a verbal assault on a Jewish person at Baruch College and pro-Palestinian students at Queens College saying they’d been called “terrorists.”

With education officials still investigating, CUNY approached the Education Department about a voluntary agreement to increase training and reporting requirements, and reopen internal investigations into some of the complaints. For each, CUNY is required to provide investigators with their findings and next steps.

“Everyone has a right to learn in an environment free from discriminatory harassment based on who they are,” U.S. Assistant Education Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a statement. “In fully executing the important commitments announced today, the City University of New York will ensure that its students may learn in the nondiscriminatory environment federal law promises to them.”

The complaints against CUNY and an additional two cases at the University of Michigan are the first since Oct. 7 to be resolved by the Education Department, with more than 100 still pending at colleges and public school districts across the nation.

At Hunter, investigators confirmed that students and faculty in 2021 disrupted two required online classes “by commandeering the scheduled course discussion to use the class time to call for the decolonization of Palestine,” according to a press release. At least one student left, and another testified that when Jewish students spoke or tried to contribute to the conversation, their classmates told them they “should be listening, not speaking.”

Hunter, in its investigation, said the incident did not deny Jewish students access to education. But civil rights investigators called out the fact that CUNY did not directly interview any students in the class, leading education officials to conclude Hunter “could not have adequately evaluated what occurred in the sessions.”

Over the past school year, more incidents that were still under investigation emerged. In November, a Baruch student attacked a Jewish person, shouting, “Jews are all s–t and need to die,” just over a week before a large toilet paper swastika was found in a campus bathroom, according to press reports cited in the complaint.

Other cases alleged discrimination against Arab and Muslim students and pro-Palestinian students. CUNY Law this spring jettisoned its tradition of a student commencement address, after previous speakers who wore hijabs sparked public controversy over their criticism of Israel. At Queens College, pro-Palestinian students said they were verbally harassed and called names, such as “ISIS” and “terrorists,” during a campus protest that the college failed to investigate.

“While [the federal Office for Civil Rights] investigation of these nine cases are in various stages of progress,” education officials said in a letter to CUNY, the office “has determined that sufficient concerns identified in the investigation to date warrant comprehensive resolution now.”

Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law — which brought the complaint against CUNY for Jewish students — and a former head of the Office for Civil Rights, said Monday’s announcement was a “welcome first step,” but shows that CUNY is “far from finished with addressing these pervasive issues.”

“Simply requiring CUNY to complete the internal investigations of antisemitic events on their campuses that should have been done thoroughly in the first place is not enough,” he said. “Because [the Office for Civil Rights] didn’t finish their investigation, they will need to work twice as hard on the monitoring and work very closely with CUNY.”

An independent review of CUNY’s antisemitism and discrimination policies and procedures, ordered last fall by Gov. Hochul, is ongoing, according to the university. More recently, seven CUNY colleges have been working with Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, to conduct surveys about how Jewish students feel on campus and will make recommendations by September.

“CUNY is committed to providing an environment that is free from discrimination and hate,” CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez said in a statement, “and these new steps will ensure that there is consistency and transparency in how complaints are investigated and resolved.”

This is a serious situation that requires CUNY’s complete attention!



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