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UM, Education Department reach agreement over civil rights, hostile campus allegations

Santa J. Ono is installed as the 15th President of the University of Michigan
Erin Kirkland
Michigan Photography
3/7/23 Santa J. Ono is installed as the 15th President of the University of Michigan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The University of Michigan failed to assess whether protests and other incidents on campus in response to the Israel-Hamas war created a hostile environment for students, staff and faculty, according to the results of an investigation by the U.S. Education Department announced Monday.

The department's Office of Civil Rights investigated 75 instances of alleged discrimination and harassment based on shared Jewish ancestry and shared Palestinian or Muslim ancestry. The investigation found that the university's responses did not meet its Title VI requirements to remedy the hostile environment.

In one instance, when a Jewish student reported being called out for viewing a graduate student instructor’s social media post about pro-Palestinian topics, the university told the student that “formal conflict resolution is not a path forward at this time,” because the incident occurred on social media.

In another instance, when a student who participated in a pro-Palestinian protest was called a “terrorist,” the university said it held “restorative circles” to address the incident but did not take further action.

In its resolution agreement, the University of Michigan agreed to administer a climate assessment, implement additional training, and revise its policies as necessary. It also agreed to monitoring by the Office of Civil Rights through the end of the 2026 school year, reporting its responses to future incidents of discrimination to the department.

It’s the first investigation to reach a conclusion among dozens launched by the Education Department since Oct. 7, the day Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel.

The University of Michigan "will review existing policies and develop new ones related to discrimination and harassment, as part of a new effort that will be launched following an agreement announced June 17 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights," the university said in a statement issued on Monday.

The statement continued: "U-M is among the first higher-education institutions to come to an agreement with the Education Department from among scores of universities, colleges and school districts that are the subject of investigations into reports of discrimination and harassment on the basis of national origin and shared ancestry arising from campus tensions related to the Israel-Hamas war.

“The university condemns all forms of discrimination, racism and bias in the strongest possible terms. Since October 7, we have been deeply troubled by the statements and actions of some members of our community,” said President Santa J. Ono.

“U-M is required to uphold free speech under the First Amendment, even if that speech is reprehensible. We continually work to educate our community around the rights and privileges of free speech to ensure that debate does not tip over into targeted harassment or bullying.

“This agreement reflects the university’s commitment to ensuring it has the tools needed to determine whether an individual’s acts or speech creates a hostile environment, and taking the affirmative measures necessary to provide a safe and supportive educational environment for all.”

The agreement — which does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing — resolves two complaints filed with the Education Department that the university failed to respond appropriately to reports of alleged harassment of Jewish students. One complaint was brought by a medical student and the other was brought by someone who was not affiliated with the university.

In the months following the start of the war last October, universities and colleges have become centers of protest and many, including U of M, have seen an increase in reports of discrimination and harassment of Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students.

Schools that receive federal funding are caught between two sometimes-conflicting requirements: the First Amendment, which requires schools to protect freedom of speech — even speech that is offensive and harmful — and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires schools to take action against harassment and work to avoid a hostile environment related to race, color and national origin.

The Education Department issued a letter to education institutions on May 7 with additional guidance to help schools navigate the complicated issue.

At U of M, several offices — including Campus Climate Support, the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, and the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office — had been receiving and responding to reports related to discrimination and harassment. The agreement will streamline the process so all complaints of discrimination and harassment at U of M will be directed to ECRT. Safety concerns will continue to be sent to the Division of Public Safety and Security."

Complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia have led to inquiries at more than 100 universities and school districts, including Harvard and Yale, community colleges and public schools from Los Angeles to suburban Minneapolis.

The complaints vary widely but all accuse schools of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Colleges and schools are required to protect students from discrimination, and when they don't, the Education Department can invoke penalties up to termination of federal money.

Protests over the Israel-Hamas war upended the final weeks of the school year at many campuses across the country, with some cancelling graduation ceremonies or moving classes online after Pro-Palestinian protesters set up encampments in campus spaces.

The protests have tested schools as they aim to balance free speech rights and the safety of students. The Education Department has issued guidance detailing schools' responsibilities around Title VI, but the results of the agency’s investigations could provide a clearer line showing where political speech crosses into harassment.

Finding that boundary has been a struggle for colleges as they grapple with rhetoric that has different meaning to different people. Some chants commonly used by pro-Palestinian activists are seen by some as antisemitic.

Some of the federal complaints under investigation argue that those phrases should be barred, including “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “intifada revolution.”

Meanwhile, some complaints say Arab and Muslim students have faced abuses only to be ignored by campus officials. At Harvard, the Education Department is investigating separate complaints, one over alleged antisemitism and the other over alleged Islamophobia.

More investigations are expected to be resolved in the coming weeks, but Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said his agency is struggling to keep up with the influx of cases.

Republicans have rejected requests to increase money for the Office for Civil Rights in recent years, while the average case load increased to 42 per investigator in 2023. Without more money, that figure could increase to more than 70 cases per investigator, Cardona has said.

“We are desperately in need of additional support to make sure we can investigate the cases that we have in front of us,” Cardona told members of the House in May.

On average, cases take about six to eight months to resolve. The vast majority of the agency’s civil rights investigations end with voluntary resolutions. Schools usually promise to resolve any lingering problems and take steps to protect students in the future.

While the Education Department investigates, several colleges and school districts have separately been called before Congress to answer allegations of antisemitism. Republicans have held a series of hearings on the issue, grilling leaders accused of tolerating antisemitism.

The hearings contributed to the resignations of some college leaders, including Liz Magill at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard’s Claudine Gay, who was also embroiled in accusations of plagiarism.

Editor's note: The University of Michigan holds Michigan Public's broadcast license.

Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 KPCW]
Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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