Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education’s New York Office for Civil Rights dropped an investigation into a Columbia University professor who allegedly “steered” a Jewish student away from taking a class on the Middle East with a second professor who has been accused of cultivating classroom environments hostile to pro-Israel views. According to a spokesperson, Barnard, the all-women college at Columbia at which the professor under investigation, Rachel McDermott, teaches, was notified that the DOE has dismissed the complaint. In a letter to Barnard President Debora Spar, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) concluded, “There were conflicting versions regarding what transpired at the meeting” between McDermott and the student. “Neither the complainant nor the student provided, and OCR did not find, any evidence other than the student’s assertions to contradict [McDermott]’s statements.” McDermott reportedly recalled that her advice to the student was not based on the student’s Jewishness and that she had “no personal knowledge or opinion,” to quote the letter, “of the professor’s method or delivery of instruction.” OCR added that it found no evidence that McDermott had done what had been alleged with any other student. Also, according to OCR, the class in question was a senior seminar and the student, then a first-year, would have been ineligible to take it.
“I am grateful for the overwhelming support I have received from my colleagues, especially those in the Religion and [Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies] Departments, as well as current and former students and many others within the Barnard and Columbia community and beyond,” McDermott said in a statement. Added Spar, “Professor McDermott is beloved by her students and a highly regarded member of the Barnard community. We were happy to cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights and were pleased—though not surprised—to receive this favorable determination.”
In October, David Fine reported in Tablet Magazine that McDermott had advised an Orthodox student not to take a class taught by Professor Joseph Massad, who was one of several professors featured in the 2005 David Project-produced documentary Columbia Unbecoming that alleged a culture of tolerating anti-Israel views at the Middle Eastern studies department of the Ivy League university. The complaint was lodged by a pro-Israel group called
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Institute for Jewish & Community Research, whose legal task force head, Kenneth L. Marcus, explained that the purpose of the complaint was less to target the alleged “steering” of McDermott and more the alleged bias of Massad.
“I think that OCR got it wrong factually, but in terms of the law they established a very important principle, and I’m glad that we filed this suit,” Marcus said this evening. “It is extremely helpful that they did nothing in this opinion that undermines the principle that they established before. This will make university administrators more sensitive to the rights of Jewish students.” He argued that, “until this case, there had been no precedent establishing that Jewish students have rights against racial steering in higher education. This provides one more right than students had before.” He said his group has the right of appeal, and that they are considering it.
The DOE Office for Civil Rights did not return requests for comment.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.