The U.S. Department of Education has rejected a civil rights complaint alleging unfair treatment of a Jewish student at Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia University.
Federal authorities cited insufficient evidence as the reason for rejecting the claim, which stemmed from an Orthodox student’s claim that Barnard Professor Rachel McDermott warned her against taking a class given by a Palestinian-American professor at Columbia.
The decision said it was unclear whether McDermott told the student not to take the class or if the student herself brought up the fact that she might be uncomfortable with Professor Joseph Massad’s perceived critical views about Israel.
“Because of the conflicting version of events and no other evidence to support the complainant’s allegation, the [Office of Civil Rights] determined that there was insufficient evidence to substantiated the complainant’s allegation,” the decision reads.
The claim was filed in September by Kenneth Marcus, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research’s director of the Initiative on anti-Semitism. Marcus, a former head of the OCR, told the Forward that McDermott’s advice to the student indicated that Massad’s class constituted an “inhospitable” environment for Jewish students.
Marcus told the Forward that he disagreed with the findings in the case. But he said the decision still set an important precedent by asserting that Jewish students have the right not to be “steered” to or away from certain classes, just as prospective homebuyers cannot be steered away from certain neighborhoods because of their race.
“This case establishes for the first time that Jewish college students have a legal right against racial steering. Never before had [the Office of Civil Rights] acknowledged that they will assert jurisdiction if a student is given poor guidance based on the fact that they are Jewish,” said Marcus.
He disputed the feds’ assessment that the case boiled down to a she said/she situation. “The real issue in this case was not just the guidance but whether a hostile environment exists within Middle East Studies classes at Columbia,” he said.
The Education Department’s civil rights office, which opened a probe into the claim, told Barnard in a January 11 letter that it was tossing the claim. The college said it was pleased, but not surprised by the decision.
“Professor McDermott is beloved by her students and a highly regarded member of the Barnard community,” Barnard President Debora Spar said in a statement. “We were happy to cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights and were pleased—thought not surprised—to receive this favorable determination.”
In the student’s version of the events, McDermott, then the chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Culture department, discouraged her from taking Massad’s class and made the assumption that the student held pro-Israel beliefs because of her Orthodox style of dress. McDermott was alleged to have said that Massad “will shoot down any pro-Israel beliefs” and the student “would not be comfortable” in the class, the complaint read.
But in McDermott’s version of events, it was the student who came to her in February 2011 with concerns that she would feel uncomfortable in Massad’s class. The professor denied making statements about the content of Massad’s class, but said she told the student that if she was worried about being uncomfortable, then she could take an alternate course.
Her advice to the student, McDermott told the OCR, had nothing to do with the student’s religion.
The student later wrote an email to McDermott thanking her for her advice, and wrote that “you had advised me that [Massad] was very anti-Israel and I may not be comfortable in the class.” In her response to the student, the professor did not contest this line.
McDermott said she was relieved the case was over in a statement, according to the Columbia Spectator newspaper.
The Barnard case is one of several complaints filed with the Office of Civil Rights alleging that universities around the country have failed to protect Jewish students against what they claim are hostile or anti-Semitic climates.
These complaints allege a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Last year, more than a dozen Jewish organizations around the country lobbied the Office of Civil Rights to expand its definition of Title VI to include individuals on the basis of shared ethnic characteristics, which could include Jews.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.