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Columbia, Cornell and other colleges face US inquiries over alleged antisemitism and Islamophobia

The Education Department announced the inquiries on Thursday, calling it part of the Biden administration’s effort to take ‘aggressive action’ against discrimination

Columbia University
Protesters march in support of Palestinians outside the Columbia University, in New York, U.S., November 15, 2023.EDUARDO MUNOZ (REUTERS)

The federal government has opened civil rights investigations into seven schools and universities over allegations of antisemitism or Islamophobia since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

The list includes three Ivy League institutions — Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania — along with Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. It also includes one K-12 system, the Maize Unified School District in Kansas.

The Education Department announced the inquiries on Thursday, calling it part of the Biden administration’s effort to take “aggressive action” against discrimination. Schools found to have violated civil rights law can face penalties up to a total loss of federal money, although the vast majority of cases end in voluntary settlements.

Schools have a legal duty to act “when students are targeted because they are — or are perceived to be — Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a written statement.

Five of the investigations are in response to allegations of antisemitic harassment, while two are in response to allegations of anti-Muslim harassment, the department said. The agency did not disclose which schools faced which accusations. Details about individual complaints were not released.

Penn and Wellesley were accused of antisemitism in federal complaints filed last week by the Brandeis Center, a Jewish legal advocacy group.

In a Nov. 9 letter to the Education Department, the center says Penn professors have made antisemitic statements in the classroom and on social media. It said many Jewish students are afraid to be on campus during pro-Palestinian rallies, and that the university has done little to support them. Penn officials said they’re cooperating with the investigation.

University President Liz Magill “has made clear antisemitism is vile and pernicious and has no place at Penn,” the school said. “The university will continue to vigilantly combat antisemitism and all forms of hate.”

A separate letter from the Brandeis Center said Wellesley has failed to address antisemitism. It cites an email that some dorm advisers sent to residents saying “there should be no space, no consideration, and no support for Zionism” at Wellesley. Advisers later apologized for the message.

Wellesley, a private women’s college, said the federal investigation is in response to the Brandeis complaint. A statement from Wellesley denied any wrongdoing, saying it “responded quickly and decisively” to the dorm incident.

Officials at Lafayette said it was unclear to them why their school was being investigated. “The College maintains a firm stance against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hate speech of any kind. The College is cooperating and will continue to cooperate fully with the DOE in their investigation,” the college said in a written statement.

Maize Unified, a district of about 8,000 students outside Wichita, said it did not receive a copy of the complaint. A statement said the district “takes allegations of discrimination seriously and is committed to cooperating fully with any investigation.”

The schools are being investigated for possible discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, which violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal law requires schools to protect students from discrimination and respond to harassment that creates a hostile environment. Anyone can file a complaint alleging such discrimination.

All of the investigations were opened Wednesday or Thursday. An updated list of investigations will be released each week, the department said.

Emotions over the Israel-Hamas war have been running high on many campuses around the U.S. At Columbia, for one, tensions have been escalating amid dueling demonstrations by pro-Israel activists and by Palestinian students and their allies.

At Cornell, a student was arrested last month after posting threatening statements against Jewish people. Some Jewish students at Cooper Union say the school failed to protect them during an October pro-Palestine demonstration that left Jewish students sheltering in a campus library.

Palestinian and Muslim students have also reported increased harassment on campuses across the country. At Columbia, students protested this week after the school suspended two pro-Palestinian groups that have come under scrutiny on U.S. campuses.

“We at the Department of Education, like the nation, see the fear students and school communities experience as hate proliferates in schools,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary of civil rights for the department.

The investigations are the Biden administration’s latest steps to press colleges into action. Last week the Education Department sent universities a letter reminding them of their legal obligations under the Civil Rights Act. Cardona has recently met with leaders of Muslim, Arab and Jewish groups to discuss discrimination on campuses.

Along with complaints filed with the Education Department, some students have filed lawsuits alleging civil rights violations. Three Jewish students at New York University sued the school this week, saying it failed to address persistent antisemitism that has worsened since the Oct. 7 incursion of Israel by Hamas militants.

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