Some CUNY students & faculty felt unsafe after Nerdeen Kiswani spoke at CUNY School of Law
Some CUNY students & faculty felt unsafe after Nerdeen Kiswani spoke at CUNY School of LawCourtesy

The US Department of Education determined that two large public universities failed to protect Jewish students from discrimination in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The cases at the University of Michigan and the City University of New York are the first to conclude since Oct. 7. The attack, and subsequent war in Gaza, ignited a flurry of protest activity on college campuses that some Jewish students and groups said created an antisemitic climate.

Both universities faced those accusations, and have agreed to improve training about antisemitism and to reevaluate past allegations of antisemitism on their campuses. Such outcomes are common in cases opened under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits a range of types of discrimination at federally-funded institutions and has become a first line of defense for advocates distressed by campus antisemitism.

“Hate has no place on our college campuses — ever. Sadly, we have witnessed a series of deeply concerning incidents in recent months,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “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.”

In the case of Michigan, the education department said it reviewed 75 reports alleging “shared ancestry harassment and/or discrimination” dating from the 2022-2023 academic year — prior to Oct. 7 — and through February 2024, including harassment or discrimination based on “shared Jewish ancestry and shared Palestinian or Muslim ancestry,” and found “no evidence” that the university complied with Title VI requirements to investigate whether campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war created a “hostile environment” for students, faculty, and staff.

In one incident, investigators found, the university rejected a Jewish student’s request for conflict resolution after the student said a graduate student instructor had harassed them on social media in October 2023. Social media, the university told the student, “is largely going to be protected as free speech,” according to the Office of Civil Rights report.

In another incident in October, investigators found, the school did not take steps to investigate or address an allegation that protesters on campus shouted, “F— education, Nazi liberation.”

Michigan also failed to protect pro-Palestinian students from discrimination, the civil rights office concluded. After a student reported that someone had accused her of having “terrorist” friends because of her participation in a pro-Palestinian protest, the university held “restorative circles” but took no further steps to address the situation, investigators found. (The person who made that accusation was identified as a Jewish donor and member of the Information School’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion board.)

Michigan emphasized in its own announcement about the resolution that the conclusion of the cases did not constitute an admission of wrongdoing. President Santa Ono said in a statement that the agreed-upon action items would benefit all students.

“We continually work to educate our community around the rights and privileges of free speech to ensure that debate does not tip over into targeted harassment or bullying,” Ono said. “This agreement 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.”

In the case of CUNY, which has long drawn criticism for allowing an antisemitic climate to take root, the Department of Education agreement covers nine separate schools that had each drawn Title VI complaints.

Many of the complaints dealt with incidents since Oct. 7, though the civil rights office’s report devoted the most focus to an incident in 2021 when, investigators confirmed, students and faculty at Hunter College disrupted two different sessions of a required course by “commandeering” the class “to call for the decolonization of Palestine,” leading to several students becoming fearful, and at least one student leaving class early. One Jewish student testified that when Jewish students spoke or tried to speak, they were told they should be listening, not speaking.

The civil rights office found that Hunter College concluded that the disruption did not deny access to learning for those Jewish students — but also found that there was no way for Hunter College to determine that without interviewing the affected students, which it did not do. The office also found no evidence that Hunter College “took any action to communicate to affected students the results of its investigation.”

Under the terms of the agreement, CUNY has committed to reopening several cases. It is also continuing third-party reviews of its nondiscrimination and antisemitism policies, which are currently being conducted at the request of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul as well as by an advocacy group “focused on combating antisemitism.”

“CUNY is committed to providing an environment that is free from discrimination and hate and these new steps will ensure that there is consistency and transparency in how complaints are investigated and resolved,” Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said in a statement. “We are grateful to the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for working with CUNY to create a holistic plan that builds on our ongoing efforts to combat hate and ensure that every member of our community is safe on our campuses.”

Jewish activists behind some of the complaints said they were hopeful about the resolutions but would withhold judgment until the promised actions are successfully taken.

“The CUNY agreement is a step in the right direction as it recognizes that CUNY failed to adequately address the problem and sets up federal monitoring and oversight,” said Alyza Lewin, president of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a firm that has filed Title VI complaints on behalf of Jewish and pro-Israel students before and after Oct. 7. “It is a far cry, however, from an ‘all clear’ for CUNY. The devil will be in the details.”

Dozens of additional Title VI investigations of antisemitism allegations since Oct. 7 remain open, covering campuses across the United States. A handful have been closed when the schools they targeted were sued over the same incidents; one such case recently came to a legal settlement in which Columbia University made several commitments, including to provide security protection for Jewish students on campus.