The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has just opened a new investigation into anti-Semitism at Columbia University. At this author’s urging, OCR is looking into whether a Jewish Barnard student was unlawfully “steered” away from a course taught by controversial Columbia Professor Joseph Massad. Massad has been accused of anti-Semitism before. This case though has a twist. The basic allegation is that a Barnard student was unlawfully “steered” away from Massad’s class by a departmental chair, Dr. Rachel McDermott, who urged her to study ancient Israel instead. The chair insisted that the student, who is an Orthodox Jew, would be made to feel uncomfortable if she took Prof. Massad’s class.
In the past, when Massad was accused of anti-Semitism, an ad hoc Columbia committee largely exonerated him, although some Columbia insiders argued that the committee was stacked in his favor and that the report was a whitewash. Apparently at least one Barnard chair seems to think that problems remain in Massad’s classroom. Prof. McDermott may have wanted to protect the student from a problematic classroom situation, but by treating the student differently based on her Jewish heritage, she ran afoul of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That statute prohibits disparate treatment at federally funded universities. But the real problem is not even Prof. McDermott, who appears to be otherwise well regarded.
Ironically, Columbia President Lee Bollinger is reportedly telling journalists that it is “extremely unfair” to bring Prof. Massad into this, since the case is about academic advising at Barnard. This is a rather astonishing response, since the case is about the fact that one of Prof. Massad’s colleagues apparently finds it necessary to suggest that orthodox Jewish students avoid Massad’s courses. In a sense, the case is about advising. But the bigger issue is not what Prof. McDermott said, though this may have been illegal, but rather whether the advice was accurately based, in which case we really will need to know more about Prof. Massad’s class – and why his colleagues think that his orthodox Jewish students will be so uncomfortable there that they need to avoid taking his classes and to study different topics entirely.
This is in part a “steering” case analogous to the situation in which a real estate agent tells a black family that they would not be “comfortable” living in a particular neighborhood. The agent’s conduct violates Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits such real estate practices. In both cases, though, the real problem is the underlying discrimination, whether in a neighborhood or in a classroom. In the real estate context, racist behavior within a neighborhood is generally not the federal government’s business. For this reason, it is usually only the real estate who may be liable. In higher education though the situation is different, because the federal government funds Columbia University and requires its dollars to be used in a way that ensures equal opportunity. If Columbia is creating an unpalatable situation for orthodox students in some of its classrooms, the answer is not to steer those students away from the problematic professors; and if Columbia is caught doing so, the right response is not to insist that its only error is in its advisement.