Education Dept. Drops Columbia Probe
Controversial Mideast studies professor was involved in ‘steering’ charge
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education’s New York Office for Civil Rights dropped an investigation into a Columbia University professor who allegedly “steered” a Jewish student away from taking a class on the Middle East with a second professor who has been accused of cultivating classroom environments hostile to pro-Israel views. According to a spokesperson, Barnard, the all-women college at Columbia at which the professor under investigation, Rachel McDermott, teaches, was notified that the DOE has dismissed the complaint. In a letter to Barnard President Debora Spar, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) concluded, “There were conflicting versions regarding what transpired at the meeting” between McDermott and the student. “Neither the complainant nor the student provided, and OCR did not find, any evidence other than the student’s assertions to contradict [McDermott]’s statements.” McDermott reportedly recalled that her advice to the student was not based on the student’s Jewishness and that she had “no personal knowledge or opinion,” to quote the letter, “of the professor’s method or delivery of instruction.” OCR added that it found no evidence that McDermott had done what had been alleged with any other student. Also, according to OCR, the class in question was a senior seminar and the student, then a first-year, would have been ineligible to take it.
“I am grateful for the overwhelming support I have received from my colleagues, especially those in the Religion and [Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies] Departments, as well as current and former students and many others within the Barnard and Columbia community and beyond,” McDermott said in a statement. Added Spar, “Professor McDermott is beloved by her students and a highly regarded member of the Barnard community. We were happy to cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights and were pleased—though not surprised—to receive this favorable determination.”
In October, David Fine reported in Tablet Magazine that McDermott had advised an Orthodox student not to take a class taught by Professor Joseph Massad, who was one of several professors featured in the 2005 David Project-produced documentary Columbia Unbecoming that alleged a culture of tolerating anti-Israel views at the Middle Eastern studies department of the Ivy League university. The complaint was lodged by a pro-Israel group called
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Institute for Jewish & Community Research, whose legal task force head, Kenneth L. Marcus, explained that the purpose of the complaint was less to target the alleged “steering” of McDermott and more the alleged bias of Massad.
“I think that OCR got it wrong factually, but in terms of the law they established a very important principle, and I’m glad that we filed this suit,” Marcus said this evening. “It is extremely helpful that they did nothing in this opinion that undermines the principle that they established before. This will make university administrators more sensitive to the rights of Jewish students.” He argued that, “until this case, there had been no precedent establishing that Jewish students have rights against racial steering in higher education. This provides one more right than students had before.” He said his group has the right of appeal, and that they are considering it.
The DOE Office for Civil Rights did not return requests for comment.
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.