Ever since Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government, attacked Israel in early October, colleges nationwide have struggled to regulate protests and combat rising antisemitic and Islamophobic acts.
Institutions of all sorts have seen turmoil — from the small private nonprofit Cooper Union, where Jewish students sheltered in a library while pro-Palestinian protesters banged on the building’s doors, to the prominent New York University, where students alleged in a lawsuit last week that the college allowed campus antisemitism to flourish.
Meanwhile, at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, Muslim students have reportedly been called terrorists.
The U.S. Department of Education is now investigating a handful of colleges, including Cooper Union.
The Biden administration has mobilized federal agencies, particularly the Education Department, to try to tamp down on prejudicial acts. Congressional representatives have also weighed in, with some House Republicans recently blaming colleges’ diversity programming on the uptick in antisemitism.
Below, we summarize some of the executive wing's and lawmakers’ efforts.
The Education Department investigates six colleges, one K-12 school district
The Education Department said Thursday it had begun investigating six colleges and one K-12 school district over allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses. Three of the colleges under scrutiny are Ivy League institutions.
The institutions are:
- Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania.
- Cornell University, in New York.
- Columbia University, in New York.
- Wellesley College, in Massachusetts.
- University of Pennsylvania.
- Cooper Union, in New York.
“These investigations underscore how seriously the Biden-Harris Administration, including the U.S. Department of Education, takes our responsibility to protect students from hatred and discrimination,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
In early November, the Education Department published guidance reminding K-12 schools and colleges that they must combat prejudice against Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Colleges found not to be in compliance could lose access to federal aid.
The letter, signed by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon, does not say how colleges should respond to specific incidents.
But it does detail broader concepts, like how harassment can be either verbal or physical. The action also doesn't need to be directed at a particular person to be considered harassment. Colleges need to respond to any behavior “that creates a hostile environment,” the letter reads.
The missive does define a hostile environment as any “unwelcome conduct based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” that is so severe and pervasive that it interferes or stops students from continuing their education.
However, it’s still up to colleges to determine what constitutes harassment versus protected political speech.
The letter also links to an Education Department fact sheet from January that further delves into Title VI obligations.
A cross-agency push
In mid-November, the Education Department pushed out more resources for K-12 schools and colleges. The agency framed it as an extension of a full-court press strategy to mitigate antisemitism nationwide, which the Biden administration had announced in May.
At the time, the White House said more than two dozen federal agencies would take “over 100 meaningful actions” to counter antisemitic acts.
New initiatives unveiled this month include guidance on addressing campus discrimination from Education Department-funded technical centers, like the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. The center conducts campus climate surveys and gives advice on improving institutional safety.
Around the same time, the FBI published a “hate crime threat response guide” that illustrates how to respond to different types of threats, whether that be verbal, electronic or physical.
A White House official also told CNN last month that the Justice and Homeland Security departments “have disseminated public safety information to and hosted multiple calls with campus law enforcement, as well as state, local, tribal and territorial officials to address the threat environment and share information about available resources.”
Federal lawmakers pipe up
Lawmakers have recently held multiple hearings and discussions on the campus antisemitism, including one by the House’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development.
At that event, Rep. Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican and the subcommittee’s chair, attributed the recent wave of antisemitism to college’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs, arguing they are “a fraud.”
Republicans nationwide have railed against DEI efforts, accusing them of promoting divisiveness. Conservatives on the subcommittee echoed these complaints, and some said the current slate of DEI programming doesn’t present Jewish students as being oppressed.
“Offices of diversity, equity and inclusion steeped deeply in the doctrine of Marxism are anything but inclusive for Jews,” Owens said during the hearing.
Democrats pushed back on this characterization.
Diversity initiatives are key in combating antisemitism, according to Stacy Burdett, a subcommittee witness recruited by Democrats. Burdett is an antisemitism expert and a former vice-president of the Anti-Defamation League.
“A lot of experts believe you can’t adequately understand hate in America without knowing about antisemitism,” Burdett said.
However, lawmakers of all political stripes on the committee insinuated college leaders are not adequately mitigating antisemitism.
Rep. Kathy Manning, a North Carolina Democrat, said that “too many college leaders have failed to fulfill their moral responsibility to totally reject hatred and violence and antisemitism.”
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has requested a confidential briefing with the FBI and the Education Department about rising hate crimes on college campuses.
“I strongly urge college and university presidents and school leaders to be firm about protecting the safety and well-being of all students, faculty, and staff, and to make it clear that bigotry on campuses and in schools will not be tolerated,” Sanders said in a statement.
Sanders said he backed President Joe Biden’s budget request to boost funding for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights by 27%, up to $178 million for fiscal 2024. OCR handles discrimination complaints against federally funded schools and colleges.