OPINION: Higher education must confront harassment and intimidation of Jewish students or risk losing millions in federal funding
The Department of Education must use its authority under Title VI to lance the boil of antisemitism festering throughout higher education.
Ken Tashjy served as General Counsel for the Massachusetts Community College System for over 21 years and currently serves as a higher education attorney and consultant. He has taught as an adjunct instructor at Suffolk University since 2008, and previously at Brandeis University as a Guberman Teaching Fellow. He received a B.A. in Psychology from Susquehanna University, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his J.D. from Suffolk University Law School.
In the wake of the terrorist attack on Israel, one thing has become painfully clear, higher education continues to have an antisemitism problem.
Unfortunately, antisemitism in higher education is nothing new.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the rise of Jewish immigration into the U.S., many colleges and universities began implementing admission requirements and standards intended to limit the number of Jews admitted, including non-intellectual requirements, letters of recommendation, in-person interviews, psychological testing, and legacy admissions.
In recent weeks, we have seen countless examples of violent antisemitism rearing its ugly head again at institutions like Harvard University, Cornell University, Cooper Union College in Manhattan, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with some Jewish students facing death threats and physical assault.
These and similar incidents of intimidation and harassment throughout higher education have left many Jewish students feeling threatened and unsafe on their own campuses.
Institutions that have been ambivalent or indifferent to the harassment and intimidation of their Jewish students are being confronted by angry alumni, with some resigning from their board appointments, and/or threatening to end all future philanthropic support.
Following the recent disastrous congressional testimony by three university presidents, University of Pennsylvania President, Dr. Elizabeth Magill, has been forced to resign, with many also calling for the removal of the presidents at Harvard University and MIT.
Now, these institutions face another damning consequence for their inaction in the face of growing antisemitism on their campuses, the potential loss of millions in federal funding for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1967.
Title VI protects people from discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance, which includes almost every public and private institution of higher education in the U.S.
In 2019, after a series of violent attacks on Jews, President Donald Trump took the unprecedented step of issuing an Executive Order directing multiple federal agencies, including the Department of Education, to use Title VI to combat antisemitism in schools and higher education.
Although Title VI does not specifically prohibit religious discrimination, its prohibition against discrimination and harassment of students based on race, color, or national origin, extends to students who are subject to such conduct if based on their actual or perceived: (i) shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics; or (ii) citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity.
President Trump’s order not only recognized Title VI protections against discrimination and harassment for Jewish students, but for any student who is, or is perceived to be, a member of a religious group. An institution’s failure to take immediate, remedial action to end the illegal conduct could jeopardize millions in federal funding.
While President Biden has moved to rescind many of his predecessor’s executive actions, Trump’s antisemitism executive order remains in effect and Biden’s Department of Education has reaffirmed its use of Title VI to combat discrimination and harassment of Jewish students.
Recognizing the power that the Department of Education now wields to use Title VI to combat discrimination and harassment of Jewish students, institutions that fail to act do so at their financial and reputational peril.
To be clear, as a firm supporter of free speech on college campuses, I am not advocating that students be muzzled or disciplined simply because they may express opposition to Israel.
Indeed, statements like “Israel is a racist state,” “Palestine from the river to the sea,” which clearly implies the elimination of the State of Israel, or claims that “Israel supports apartheid” are viewed by many Jewish students as not only offensive, but as so-called “hate speech.”
Nevertheless, while these statements should be condemned vehemently by administrators to the same extent they admonish other alleged bias-based conduct, these statements constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.
Alternatively, pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas protesters who engage in verbal or physical conduct that includes threats, intimidation, incitement of imminent violence, assault or discrimination, find no cover under the First Amendment and institutions must halt and remediate such conduct, including taking disciplinary action, up to and including expulsion, or face the consequences.
Unfortunately, since many institutions will resist taking the necessary steps to eradicate the festering boil of antisemitism from their campuses, the Department of Education must intervene with a heavy hand and hold higher education accountable.
A day of reckoning in higher education is upon us, and not a minute too soon.
Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.