By Kenneth L. Marcus
September 28, 2011
Here’s an important story that you probably are not aware of. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has just accepted IJCR’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 our request, as to whether the chair violated the Jewish student’s civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we told OCR, what the Barnard chair 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 we 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 MEALAC 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 his teaching was 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, 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 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. 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.