You’re Wrong about Columbia’s ‘Steering,’ Ken

I disagree with Kenneth L. Marcus’s post here approving the Education Department’s pending investigation of Columbia University for allegedly “steering” a Jewish student at Barnard College away from a course taught by Joseph Massad. While I’m in sympathy with Marcus’s efforts to show up Massad for the unreconstructed ideologue and tiresome non-scholar that he is, I’m dubious about the Education Department’s apparent aim of expanding the authority of its Office for Civil Rights into the terrain of student advising. Soon, I fear, we’ll be reading about Education Department probes involving female students supposedly “steered” into art history instead of engineering, and black students “steered” into black studies instead of business administration. Do we really want the federal government–not to mention litigation-hungry lawyers–looking over the shoulders of college professors who have taken on advising chores as they attempt to fit undergraduate students with courses that match their interests and abilities?

Here is what happened at Barnard/Columbia, according to news accounts and an interview with the student in question by the Jewish online magazine Tablet: The student (whose name has not been released), a Barnard sophomore in January 2011, wanted to major in Middle Eastern studies, so she consulted with Rachel McDermott, then chairman of Barnard's Asian and Middle Eastern cultures department. The student mentioned a course taught by Massad at Columbia, where Barnard students can cross-register. "Oh, he's very anti-Israel," was McDermott's alleged response, apparently taking a clue from the student's modest dress that she was Orthodox Jewish. Although the student allegedly informed McDermott that she had no problems dealing with a "culture clash," McDermott allegedly insisted that the student would feel "uncomfortable" in Massad's class and recommended a class in ancient Jewish history, which the student took instead.

Here is the legal theory on which the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights seems to be proceeding: "Steering" is a concept borrowed from some court cases resulting from enforcement of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which forbids racial and other kinds of discrimination in the selling and renting of residential property. Judges have interpreted the act to ban the once-common practice among real estate agents of "steering" black home buyers into majority-black neighborhoods either by concealing listings in majority-white neighborhoods from them or by simply refusing to show them white-neighborhood houses. Encouraged by Marcus, who headed the Office for Civil Rights from 2002 through 2004, the Education Department appears ready to apply the concept of "steering" to enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination by educational institutions receiving federal funds, as nearly all colleges and universities do.

But there is a problem with the black homebuyer analogy. In a real estate context, the act of "steering" itself amounts to racial discrimination; the agent is trying to deprive blacks of access to desirable properties to which whites have full access. In the Barnard case, by contrast, it's hard to figure out where the discrimination lay. How did McDermott's alleged "steering" of a Jewish student away from a class taught by an anti-Israel fanatic deprive the student of anything of value? The anti-Semitism lay, if anywhere, not in McDermott's advising but in Massad's pedagogy. You might even argue that McDermott did her advisee a favor by saving her from blatant ethnic and religious discrimination at worst, and a time-wasting classroom experience at best.  Even in the home buying analogy, I doubt that merely telling people they would feel "uncomfortable" would violate the Fair Housing Act absent a withholding of listings in that neighborhood. What if the agent were black himself and were simply warning the family about reports of cross-burnings on the lawns? McDermott might have been guilty of over protectiveness, but it is difficult to construe her conduct as discriminatory.

This, of course, points to the real problem: Joseph Massad. And also Columbia University, not for being Rachel McDermott's employer but for being Massad'sMassad's thin scholarly record—so unimpressive that even ultra-liberal Columbia balked at giving him tenure until he switched his field from political science to "cultural studies"—has consisted largely of essays arguing that the Jews who founded Israel were racist European colonialists who modeled themselves after the Nazis in Germany. Massad was one of several Columbia professors featured in the 2004 student movie "Columbia Unbecoming" for their overt hostility to pro-Israel students. One student, an Israeli, said that Massad had retorted, "How many Palestinians did you kill today?" when the student asked him a question at a public lecture. (Massad has never denied making the remark.) What is most telling is that, although Columbia, after a 2005 investigation, cleared Massad and other Mideast studies professors of charges of anti-Semitism, everyone on the Columbia campus knows perfectly well that his classroom is not a pleasant place for Jews who support Israel's right to exist. McDermott apparently knew all about Massad—and she warned off a Jewish student who was thinking about taking one of his courses. Columbia's Middle Eastern program is obviously so infested with instructors who are incapable of fostering honest debate about contemporary politics in their classrooms that it must shunt off its pro-Israel students into the "safe" field of ancient Judaism. Columbia is effectively maintaining a system of academic apartheid when it comes to studying the Middle East.

Worse still, Columbia continues to pretend that Massad and a few others of his ilk are not the problem. After the Office of Civil Rights announced its investigation, Columbia president Lee Bollinger declared in a written statement: "It is important to note that the allegations of the complaint appear to relate to an individual incident of academic advising at Barnard College and in no way involve Professor Joseph Massad. Based on these facts, therefore, it is extremely unfair for Professor Massad to be cited in a matter in which he played no part whatsoever."

To which one might respond, "Oh, really?" The wrong being committed at Columbia isn't "steering" but the university's continued support of professors who have turned their classrooms into bully pulpits for preaching religious and ethnic hatred. There doesn't seem to be much that anyone can do about that—so critics such as Kenneth Marcus are attempting an end-run via the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. My fear is that in doing so, they have cleared the way for the department, which is already expanding its rule-making turf alarmingly in such areas as sexual harassment, to start micro managing student advising. That cure could be even worse than the disease infecting Mideast studies at Columbia.


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