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Dept. of Education finds Michigan, CUNY didn’t adequately investigate campus antisemitism, Islamophobia

Agreements reached with the University of Michigan and the City University of New York are the first to address campus antisemitism since Oct. 7

Adam J. Dewey/Anadolu via Getty Images

A protestor creates a pro-Palestine chalk mural on the ground as anti-Israel protestors continue protesting at the encampment of the University of Michigan on May 13, 2024.

Administrators at the University of Michigan and the City of University of New York failed to adequately investigate students’ reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the U.S. Department of Education announced on Monday. 

The department’s Office for Civil Rights, known as OCR, released the findings of its investigations into how both Michigan and CUNY handled antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents dating back to 2020, culminating in resolutions reached with both universities to end the investigations in exchange for the administrations promising to do more to take students’ complaints seriously. 

The agreements were the first to resolve investigations related to discrimination on the basis of shared ancestry — including antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Israel discrimination and anti-Palestinian racism — on college campuses since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel sparked a wave of antisemitism and ushered in a slew of more than 100 new investigations into potential civil rights violations. 

“There’s no question that this is a challenging moment for school communities across the country. The recent commitments made by the University of Michigan and CUNY mark a positive step forward,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights continues to hold schools accountable for compliance with civil rights standards, including by investigating allegations of discrimination or harassment based on shared Jewish ancestry and shared Palestinian or Muslim ancestry.” 

Jewish community advocates praised the department for resolving the complaints. In recent months, Jewish leaders have called on Congress to increase funding for OCR, which has been unable to hire additional attorneys to handle an immense increase in its caseloads since Oct. 7. More than twice as many shared ancestry investigations have been opened since Oct. 7 than in the previous seven years combined. 

“The findings are sobering, but not surprising. Both schools must take their obligations to protect students seriously,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a post on X

Investigators found that at Michigan, there was “no evidence” that the university complied with federal civil rights requirements mandating that the school assess whether 75 incidents of shared ancestry discrimination reported from late 2022 to early 2024 created a hostile environment for students. Because the university failed to determine whether Jewish and Muslim students faced a hostile environment, investigators also raised concerns that the university did not act “to end the hostile environment, remedy its effects and prevent its recurrence.” 

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon, who oversees OCR, said she was “grateful to the University of Michigan for its speedy commitment to course correct following the volatile campus conditions since October 2023.” The university pledged to review each report of discrimination from the 2023-2024 school year and to report on its progress assessing harassment over the next two years, as well as to better train employees to comply with federal civil rights guidelines.  

In a statement, Michigan President Santa Ono said the university “condemns all forms of discrimination, racism and bias in the strongest possible terms.” The agreement, Ono added, “reflects the university’s commitment to ensuring it has the tools needed to determine whether an individual’s acts or speech creates a hostile environment, and taking the affirmative measures necessary to provide a safe and supportive educational environment for all.” 

The resolution reached between CUNY and the Education Department combined nine open investigations alleging antisemitism and Islamophobia or anti-Arab discrimination at several CUNY campuses, including Hunter College, Brooklyn College and Queens College. The department specifically criticized the university for failing to investigate and address an alleged antisemitic incident that occurred in a 2021 class at Hunter College, and called on CUNY to reopen investigations into antisemitic or Islamophobic harassment. 

“The good news is that they are finally issuing resolution agreements for universities to make changes to address discrimination against Jewish students,” Ken Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which helps students file civil rights complaints against universities, said of the agreements. Adding a note of caution, Marcus, who headed OCR in the Trump administration, said he had hoped for “more specificity and detail” in the agreements. “Instead, the Education Department has kicked the can down the road, requiring [CUNY] to make some vaguely described changes to its policies.” 

In a statement, William C. Thompson Jr., the CUNY board of trustees chairman, promised the university would work closely with the Education Department. “We look forward to working with the Office of Civil Rights to ensure that all members of our community feel safe and included in the CUNY mission of equal access and opportunity,” said Thompson. 

That both agreements included mentions of both antisemitism and Islamophobia — even though the two OCR complaints against Michigan only referred to antisemitism — reflects a common Biden administration practice of linking the two forms of hatred, even when the incidents are not connected. 

“We all want universities to provide equal protection for all of their students, including Jewish and non-Jewish students alike. But it’s unusual for the agency to address claims by one group by insisting that multiple groups be treated in a different way,” said Marcus. “When women come forward and say that an institution is discriminating against women, the agency doesn’t come up with an order saying that both women and men need to be treated better in the future.” 

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