You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Hunter College students protest. A white sign with black letters says “Defend Gaza”

Students at Hunter College alleged that the CUNY system failed to respond effectively to reported threats and incidents of harassment after a pro-Palestinian rally in October 2023. The Office for Civil Rights said Monday it’s concerned that the college is treating Arab and Muslim students differently.

Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

When a Jewish student at the University of Michigan reported a harassing social media post from a graduate student instructor last October, university officials said the conduct was protected as free speech and that “formal conflict resolution is not a path forward.” Similarly, when Michigan students complained about online posts from student groups that included the phrase “from the river to the sea,” officials said they wouldn’t take action, categorizing it as a free-speech issue.

And in November, when a student was told she had “terrorist friends” after attending a pro-Palestinian protest and reported the incident, the university held restorative circles for staff, faculty and students but took no other action.

Time and time again over the past academic year, the University of Michigan did not comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said Monday in announcing an agreement with the university to end its two investigations. Title VI requires federally funded institutions to prevent harassment and discrimination based on shared ancestry, which includes both antisemitism and Islamophobia. When a university receives a report of prohibited harassment or discrimination, they are obligated to respond, investigate and remedy the situation to prevent a hostile environment from persisting—as OCR has made clear in multiple announcements in recent months.

OCR reviewed 75 reports of alleged shared ancestry discrimination or harassment that Michigan received during the 2023–24 academic year, through February, and found “no evidence that the university complied with its Title VI requirements” to assess whether incidents created a hostile environment. The university has since told OCR that it’s updating its policies that dictate how it handles Title VI complaints.

A settlement agreement announced Monday, along with another system-wide agreement with City University of New York, marks the first that OCR has reached in its dozens of investigations into shared ancestry violations of Title VI since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. The pair of agreements offers a glimpse into how OCR is interpreting and enforcing Title VI at a time when universities’ compliance with the law is under heightened scrutiny. (The agency says its letters and agreements don’t set a precedent and only represent a determination on an individual case.)

“The number-one thing I learned is that if something appears to be free speech, you can’t just dismiss it as free speech,” said Brigid Harrington, a higher education attorney at Bowditch & Dewey who focuses on compliance with civil rights laws. “If people are saying they’re experiencing a harmful environment, OCR is going to really scrutinize your decision of what is the antisemitic speech versus what is political speech … That’s something you really have to look into.”

Any investigation must be thorough, she added—similar to how colleges handle reports of sexual harassment and misconduct under Title IX, the gender equity law. When complaints are filed at universities, for instance, they must talk to witnesses and the students involved to help determine whether a hostile environment exists. The University of Michigan and CUNY were dinged for not taking steps to gauge whether a hostile environment existed.

“They’re saying that if you want to comply with Title VI, you do have a duty to investigate and do a very thorough investigation,” Harrington said.

The University of Michigan and CUNY both agreed to a number of steps as part of the resolution agreements, including reviewing or re-investigating reports of shared ancestry discrimination or harassment, conducting campus climate surveys and training employees on how to respond to alleged discrimination. Those measures stop well short of what some in Congress have called for. Several Republican lawmakers have urged the Education Department to put more pressure on institutions to comply with Title VI—with penalties including ending a college’s access to federal financial aid.

But the OCR process isn’t meant to be punitive, at least not at first. The goal is to bring the institutions back into compliance. Pulling federal funds from colleges would be an unprecedented step for the Education Department, and would only come after a college or university refused to comply with Title VI.

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

CUNY Probes and Critical Questions

The system-wide CUNY resolution agreement resolved nine investigations into five CUNY campuses as well as its central office. Six of the nine investigations involved alleged harassment of Jewish students while the other three looked into alleged anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim, or anti-Arab harassment. OCR’s investigations into alleged antisemitism on CUNY campuses stretch back before October 2023, but all the complaints about anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab harassment involved allegations made since the start of the war.

At Hunter College, for example, students alleged that officials failed to respond effectively to reported threats and incidents of harassment after a pro-Palestinian rally in October 2023, while providing other students support and canceling a pro-Palestine film screening while allowing pro-Israel events.

OCR, which didn’t complete all of its CUNY investigations before reaching the agreement, identified several concerns, including that Hunter and other campuses “may treat students differently based on their national origin with respect to implementation of policies and procedures governing student conduct and events on campus.” Additionally, OCR is concerned that Hunter, the Law School and Brooklyn College didn’t take sufficient action in response to potentially hostile environments.

Two outside reviews into nondiscrimination and antisemitism policies and procedures at CUNY are already underway, which officials expect to lead to policy revisions. The agreement requires the system to reopen or initiate investigations of complaints and reports alleging shared ancestry discrimination and then provide OCR with the results for review. Additionally, CUNY will conduct an annual orientation for those in charge of Title VI compliance and hold a specific Title VI training for public safety officers that will address “how to interact effectively with the campus community with a focus on cultural diversity, bias-related incidents, and a primer on constitutional rights.”

“Everyone has a right to learn in an environment free from discriminatory harassment based on who they are,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a statement. “In fully executing the important commitments announced today, the City University of New York will ensure that its students may learn in the nondiscriminatory environment federal law promises to them and that each CUNY school fulfills its Title VI obligation to evaluate the facts needed to protect all students’ nondiscrimination rights.”

The resolutions are welcome but not sufficient, said Kenneth Marcus, the founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law who led OCR during the Trump administration. The center has filed numerous complaints over how universities have responded or not to reports of antisemitic harassment, including the Brooklyn College complaint that spurred the OCR investigation. He said he’d hoped to see a more comprehensive investigation and more specific action steps for the universities to address antisemitism.

“OCR certainly could be much more specific and forceful with respect to antisemitism than we’re seeing in these new resolution agreements,” he said. “While it’s great that they are resolving the complaints and requiring changes, the changes appear to be described at a vague, high level of generality. That could lead to effective work and monitoring, but it’s somewhat uncertain. I’d like to see much more specific, forceful and bold work by OCR and complaint resolution in the future.”

For example, Marcus said that provision in the agreement requiring CUNY to reopen or initiate investigations into alleged shared ancestry discrimination puts the onus back on the university system, “even after CUNY has failed to conduct appropriate investigations.”

“It means that the monitoring process is going to have to be much more extensive and burdensome than might otherwise have been,” he said, questioning whether the office has the manpower to conduct the necessary oversight of the resolution agreements, given that the Education Department has said it doesn’t have the personnel to handle the current backlog of cases.

Marcus hopes that universities will see the action from OCR and move quickly to prepare for potential problems in the coming academic year.

“The real question is whether this set of messages from Secretary Cardona and the Education Department is sufficient to really get the attention of higher education,” he said. “I think that the congressional investigations have put a spotlight on campus antisemitism. Now the question is whether the forcefulness of the Education Department is meeting the moment and whether it will properly spur changes from the university. We have just a short amount of time before students return for a new academic year.”

Next Story

Found In

More from Government