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Steering Committee

The government cleared a Barnard professor of discriminating against a Jewish student. Now the student claims investigators weren’t told the whole truth.

David Fine
January 30, 2012
Columbia University.(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)
Columbia University.(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The Orthodox Jewish student at the center of a recently dismissed federal investigation at Barnard is alleging that the professor she accused of steering her away from an Arab-studies course at Columbia University misrepresented the incident in question to federal investigators.

“She was completely misconstruing the situation and twisting it,” the student, who wished to remain anonymous, said of Barnard professor Rachel McDermott’s testimony to investigators from the U.S. Department of Education, which is documented in a letter sent by the department’s Office for Civil Rights to Barnard dismissing the case. As Tablet Magazine reported in October, the Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation at Barnard probing whether McDermott, then the chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures department, had in fact steered this student away from a course because the student is Jewish.

The course in question was taught by Joseph Massad, a professor who teaches in the Middle East studies department at Columbia. (Barnard and Columbia have separate Middle East studies departments.) In 2005, Massad was accused of academic intimidation when several students relayed their experiences with the professor in a documentary titled Columbia Unbecoming. But Massad was cleared of wrongdoing by an ad hoc grievance committee set up by Columbia, and he was tenured in 2009.

In this case, the student claims that she met with McDermott in January 2011 to seek advice about what courses to take. She claims that when she mentioned the possibility of taking Massad’s course, McDermott, perhaps noticing her modest dress, told the student to take another class because she “would not be comfortable” in Massad’s course.

McDermott, who declined to comment for this story, denied the student’s account in her testimony to the investigators, which is documented in the Office for Civil Rights letter: “[T]he Chair [McDermott] stated that it was the student who opened the meeting by stating that she was concerned about feeling uncomfortable in the Professor’s [Massad’s] class, and asked for the Chair’s opinion of her potentially taking a course with the Professor.”

The student, both in her official testimony and in an interview with Tablet Magazine this week, contends that this isn’t what happened. “When [McDermott] said, ‘No, she came to me and mentioned professor Massad and her concerns with him,’ ” the student said, “it was a blatant lie because I had never heard of him or what he had done, or Columbia Unbecoming, or any of that, before I went to her. And she was the one who mentioned to me that he was more anti-Israel.”

Faced with no clear documentary proof either way, the Office for Civil Rights wrote in its ruling that “there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the complainant’s allegation that the Chair discriminated against the Student … by discouraging her from enrolling in the Course.”

The Education Department’s investigation focused on the allegation that McDermott “steered” the student away from the class predominantly because of the student’s Jewish identity. Steering is a legal concept traditionally applied to the housing market, when a real-estate agent, for instance, tells a black family that they would feel “uncomfortable” in a particular neighborhood because of its predominantly white population. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to outlaw the practice. In this case, the Office of Civil Rights exercised jurisdiction under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And had McDermott been found guilty of steering, it would have likely resulted in an overhaul of Barnard’s advising policies and, at worst, could have jeopardized the university’s federal funding.

The official complainant for the Barnard student, Kenneth L. Marcus, the director of the Anti-Semitism Initiative at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a San Francisco-based think tank, contends that the case should never have centered on McDermott and her alleged steering. “There is no question that we urged OCR to focus on Professor Massad,” Marcus, who once headed the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, told me. He believes that the Office for Civil Rights focused solely on McDermott because Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger “seemed to throw his Barnard colleague under the bus, as it were, insisting that the problem was at Barnard College and not at Columbia.” Bollinger’s office declined comment.

Beyond his involvement in the Columbia case, Marcus is engaging in a wider effort to combat extreme anti-Israel rhetoric, which he deems anti-Semitic speech, on American campuses through legal maneuverings, sometimes termed “lawfare.” A handful of other cases brought by several advocacy groups are pending at universities such as the University of California at Santa Cruz. As of now, different organizations are advocating for different cases. Marcus wants to change that by establishing an umbrella group to investigate all such cases.
The organization, which is slated to be up and running in the next few months, will pursue, according to Marcus, “cases where Jewish students are harassed on campus, cases where there’s a hostile environment for Jewish students, and cases where Jewish students are treated less well than non-Jewish students.”

The Columbia case illustrates the pitfalls of pursuing such cases without documentary evidence or effective legal guidance. For example, students who want to pursue legal action often go to other university professors before seeking out proper representation, as was the case at Barnard.

The student said that before Marcus was involved, she came in contact with Judith S. Jacobson, a professor of public health at Columbia who is involved with the Israel advocacy organization Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. (Both Jacobson and Marcus serve on its board.) Recognizing the need for evidence beyond testimony, Jacobson told the student that she should write an email to McDermott outlining the student’s version of what happened in order to get something on the record.

“She spoke to me on the phone and said, ‘But in order for this to happen we need concrete evidence that this meeting happened,’ ” the student recalled Jacobson telling her. “Would you mind emailing her and mentioning what happened in the email?” The student sent that email on May 6, 2011, detailing her version of the event in an effort to have McDermott tacitly acknowledge her version. “I had contemplated taking ‘Arabs in the Arab World’ with Professor Joseph Massad and you had advised me that he was very anti Israel and I may not be comfortable in the class. After speaking with many of my friends they confirmed for me that this was the case and it would not be a wise class to take as a freshman,” the student wrote. “Thank you so much for your advice and I hope to continue to work with you towards my MEALAC major in the future.”

“What a nice message to receive!” McDermott responded the next morning. “Thanks for taking the time to write, and I look forward to see you again in the fall!”

David Fine is a senior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.

David Fine is a senior at Columbia. He is editor emeritus of The Current.