It’s possible Morningside Heights has found its annual autumn incident. A U.S. Department of Education committee is investigating whether a Columbia University department head “steered” a Jewish student away from taking a class on the Mideast taught by Professor Joseph Massad due to the perception that she would be “uncomfortable” because of the professor’s pro-Palestinian tilt, according to the Institute for Jewish & Community Research’s Kenneth L. Marcus, the complainant in the case. According to Marcus, Judith Jacobson, an epidemiology professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health who is also active in campus politics, informed him of the alleged incident. He also said that Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which he headed for a time during the Bush administration, informed him it had granted its request to launch a probe.
“The University has strong policies against discrimination and we treat allegations of discrimination of any kind very seriously,” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger said through a press officer. “It is important to note that the individual complaint appears to relate to academic advising at Barnard College and in no way involves Professor Joseph Massad. Based on these facts, therefore, it is extremely unfair for Professor Massad to be cited in a matter in which he played no part whatsoever.” Added Barnard Vice President for Communications Joanne Kwong: “We do not tolerate discrimination by any member of the College community, so we are carefully exploring and reviewing the claims made about this alleged incident. As this is a pending investigation, it would be inappropriate and premature to comment any further at this time.” OCR has not replied to a request for comment.
Massad was one of a few members of Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies faculty who came under fire in 2005 in a film produced by the David Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group. The documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, featured several students alleging that Massad and others had cultivated classrooms hostile to pro-Israel voices. Maybe most memorably, Massad was accused of asking one student, who had identified himself as a former Israeli soldier, how many Palestinians he had killed. Massad disputes the story. (He has not replied to a request for comment.) A subsequent investigation by Columbia did not lead to any of the professors leaving, prompting critics to call it a whitewash.
Technically, “Barnard’s Middle East studies department chair” (Barnard is an all-women college at Columbia) is accused of encouraging the student, who was dressed as an Orthodox Jewish woman would be, not to take a particular class in January 2011, in violation of federal civil rights law. (In the spring 2011 semester, Massad’s class was a seminar on “Contemporary Culture in the Arab World”; this fall, he is teaching an open lecture on “Palestinian-Israeli Politics and Society.”) But Marcus’ actual beef is not with the act of steering by the individual department head. It’s with Columbia’s alleged failure to address the perception that Massad’s classes might make Jewish students unduly uncomfortable.
“The big question is whether Massad is violating students’ rights too,” Marcus wrote. “If there is a problem in Professor 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.”
In an interview this morning, Marcus said that he looked forward to the investigation itself and for the potential for Columbia to negotiate a voluntary settlement. “We would want to see Columbia take firm actions to ensure not only that the steering problem is addressed, but more importantly that Jewish students are not facing a hostile environment in Middle East studies classes,” he told me. When asked if that meant he wanted Massad’s resignation, he demurred, slightly: “We would like for Columbia to look into what’s going on, especially in Professor Massad’s class, and reconsider whether the investigation they did a few years ago is really adequate,” he said. “If it turns out as a result of the investigation that there’s a hostile environment for Jewish students in any Columbia classes, then the instructors need to be dealt with.”
In addition to working at the OCR, as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, Marcus was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. That independent commission has a mandate to examine all charges of civil rights violations, although on its Website, the most prominently trumpeted specific issue is, “Ending Campus Anti-Semitism.” According to Marcus, he issued a guidance for the OCR to police campus anti-Semitism, which, he said, it not do since he left the office, in 2004, until last year, when, partly after the lobbying of several Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Obama administration adopted an anti-bullying policy that reinstated that mandate.
Marcus has also served as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Indeed, the legal notion of “steering” primarily comes out of that jurisprudence; “It is similar,” Marcus wrote of what allegedly happened to the student, “to what happens when a realtor tells a young African American couple that they would not be ‘comfortable’ living in a particular white neighborhood.” He told me that applying steering in this context was “a somewhat novel theory, but,” he added, “it fits exactly.”
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.