Education department investigates six colleges over Gaza protests

More probes expected after flood of complaints over demonstrations tied to Israel-Gaza conflict

November 17, 2023
Modern street art painted on the walls in the old city of Yafo, Israel.
Source: iStock

The US Department of Education has received complaints about more than 20 colleges and universities failing to protect students during protests over the Israel-Gaza conflict and has opened formal investigations of at least six.

The department is acting under a provision in federal law that requires campuses to create environments free from discrimination.

The 20 complaints about violations of that law all came in the last five weeks – concerning threats on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as compared with five such complaints all last year, a department official said.

The US secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, said he was aiming to move quickly to make clear to institutions that such problems would not be tolerated.

“Hate has no place in our schools, period,” the secretary said in announcing the six investigations at the postsecondary level and one at the grade school level. “When students are targeted because they are – or are perceived to be – Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn.”

The six campuses with open investigations are Cornell University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, Lafayette College, Wellesley College and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Representatives of the institutions gave a variety of responses to the announcement, generally indicating a willingness to work with the department to resolve the complaints.

An education department spokesperson said officials would work as quickly as possible on the matter, though they acknowledged that the department’s civil rights office was significantly understaffed. The office was “really strapped right now”, the spokesperson said. “They’re trying to move really quickly.”

The department can initiate its own investigations based on reports it sees, but for now the 20 complaints – including the six open investigations – are all based on complaints brought to the department. Formal investigations are likely to be opened in many of the other 20-plus cases, once the basic details of the allegations are affirmed, the spokesperson said. “To be completely frank with you, I think a lot more are coming,” the spokesperson said.

The campus turmoil over the Israeli-Gaza situation has become a growing political issue in the US, with Republicans controlling the US House of Representatives holding a hearing on the topic last week at which they blamed the problems on campus diversity efforts, leftist faculty and large numbers of international students. Some Democrats, in turn, accused Republicans of failing to properly fund the education department’s civil rights office.

A former head of that office, Kenneth Marcus, the founder and chair of the Louis D. Brandeis Centre for Human Rights Under Law, said after addressing the hearing that the office needed to be far more proactive in finding problems. Yet he also noted that the office had never used its authority to actually cut off federal funding at institutions that did not comply.

The education department spokesperson said that a history of no sanctions was a reflection of the fact that institutions took the complaints process seriously. “Every school that we worked with wants to work with us – they don’t want to get to the point where funds are withdrawn,” the spokesperson said.

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