Sorry, Charlotte, I Only Wish I Were Wrong About Columbia

In her thoughtful and intelligent critique of my case against Columbia University, Charlotte Allen agrees with my basic concern when she writes that what’s wrong at Columbia is “the university’s continued support of professors who have turned their classrooms into bully pulpits for preaching religious and ethnic hatred.”  She disagrees, however, with whether OCR should (also) look into whether the departmental chair’s conduct has subjected at least one Jewish student to unlawful discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Charlotte makes one strong point:  ironically enough, the chair’s advice may have been factually correct, in the sense that a reasonable Jewish student might be made to feel objectively offended or “uncomfortable” by what transpires in Prof. Massad’s classroom.  Since a prior internal investigation of Massad’s alleged anti-Semitism was dismissed by many observers as a “whitewash,” we will not know how right the departmental chair was absent a full, impartial investigation such as OCR could provide.  To say that the advisor may be right factually is not however to concede that she was correct legally or ethically.

In the first place, it should be emphasized that we are not talking about any ordinary advisor.  If the departmental chair in Middle East studies, albeit at Barnard, was on actual notice of a hostile environment in Massad’s classroom, then she clearly should have done more to address the problem than to try to convince Jewish students not to go there.  It is unacceptable for any taxpayer-assisted university to conduct federally subsidized classroom instruction that is only tolerable for only some groups.  For Columbia to protect (and tenure) Massad while steering orthodox Jewish students away from his classroom, is hardly the sort of activity that deserves federal support.  That is why the nub of the pending complaint is that federal dollars should be withdrawn unless Columbia can clean up its act.

Although Charlotte suggests that the department chair was doing the student a favor by steering her away from Massad’s class, it is no favor to deprive a Middle East studies major of the ability to study Arab cultures, nor are other Middle East studies majors benefited by the restriction of orthodox Jewish voices in such classes.  In the same way, it does women no favor to steer them away from engineering courses based on stereotypes about female abilities or to steer minorities into identity studies courses based on liberal assumptions about what classes they should want to take.

Charlotte disagrees with my theory that Columbia should risk its federal funding over the chair’s advice (and not only Massad’s conduct).  In particular, Charlotte does not buy my argument that the chair’s conduct is tantamount to the unlawful “racial steering” which takes place when a real estate agent urges an African American couple to avoid a white neighborhood on the ground that they might be “uncomfortable” there.  Despite Charlotte’s understanding, in the real estate context the Supreme Court defined racial steering as “directing prospective home buyers interested in equivalent properties to different areas according to their race.”  The Court has made clear for over thirty years, since at least the case of Gladstone v. Village of Bellwood, that it is unlawful to direct real estate clients to different neighborhoods to look at houses based on the color of the clients’ skin.  This is essentially what happened here.  It is not immediately clear why Ivy League universities should be entitled to receive taxpayer dollars to treat college students worse than private real estate agents are permitted to treat adult clients.

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Kenneth L. Marcus

Kenneth L. Marcus is the Lillie and Nathan Ackerman Chair in Equality and Justice in America at Baruch College.

2 thoughts on “Sorry, Charlotte, I Only Wish I Were Wrong About Columbia

  1. If I understand the situation correctly, the chair was simply giving what he considered good advice. To interpret this as illegal and discrimnatory “steering” would essentially put chairs (and others in advisory situations) on notice that anything they say can and will be used against them by the OCR and other wings of the federal government. Do we really want to create a university environment in which people are afraid to open their mouths without consulting an attorney?

  2. I’m not familiar with Prof. Massad. What exactly defines “anti-semitism” these PC days – a critical view of political Zionism?
    If so then heck, there are thousands of orthodox Jews who are anti-semites then!

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