Federal Government Initiates New Investigation Into UC Irvine’s Response To Campus Anti-Semitism
By letter to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) dated April 25, 2008, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has indicated that it will be investigating several incidents of alleged anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation and discrimination that occurred in May 2007, at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). The ZOA had brought these incidents to OCR’s attention almost one year ago, asserting that the incidents show that UCI has continued to respond ineffectively to campus anti-Semitism, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI). Title VI requires that recipients of federal funding (like UCI) ensure that their programs and activities are free discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin.” If the recipient is found to have violated Title VI, it can lose its federal funding.
The ZOA first brought UCI’s alleged violation of Title VI to OCR’s attention in October 2004, when the ZOA filed a Title VI complaint on behalf of Jewish students with OCR, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the law. The ZOA’s complaint alleged that Jewish students had been facing a longstanding pattern of anti-Semitic harassment and hostility on the campus, and that UCI had failed to respond effectively to the problem, in violation of its obligations under Title VI. After reviewing the ZOA’s allegations, OCR decided that an investigation into UCI’s conduct was warranted.
In the course of that investigation, the ZOA furnished OCR with evidence about several incidents of harassment that had occurred at UCI as late as May 2007. The ZOA repeatedly urged OCR to interview witnesses with pertinent information about these incidents. Even though these incidents were relevant to the allegations of the ZOA’s October 2004 complaint asserting a pattern or practice of anti-Semitic discrimination at UCI, OCR refused to investigate the incidents or to interview crucial witnesses.
OCR typically resolves Title VI complaints within 180 days after they are filed. It took OCR more than three years to issue a decision on the ZOA’s October 2004 complaint. In November 2007, when OCR finally issued its decision, it absolved UCI of wrongdoing. It was plain from the decision that OCR had applied a narrower interpretation of Title VI than the one that OCR had said it would enforce when it issued two policy statements in the fall of 2004. At that time, OCR had made it clear that consistent with federal precedent recognizing that Jews were a racial or national origin group for purposes of affording civil rights protections, OCR would likewise protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment under Title VI. Later, under new leadership at OCR, that policy was whittled down, so that Jewish students would no longer be afforded the protections of Title VI as a racial or national origin group.
OCR’s decision in November 2007 engendered deep concern from Members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, which was expressed in powerful letters to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. In the letter from U.S. Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA), Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) – all three of whom are Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary – they questioned the decision that OCR reached in the ZOA’s case against UCI, and the interpretation of Title VI that OCR had applied in the case. According to the Senators, OCR’s conclusion in the ZOA’s case “is inconsistent with its prior policy statements.” The Senators asked probing questions of Secretary Spellings, including why there were witnesses “that the ZOA proffered . . . whom OCR did not interview.”
The letter from Members of the House also raised troubling concerns about OCR’s decision in the ZOA’s case, and demanded answers from Secretary Spellings about whether OCR’s policy for enforcing Title VI was affording Jewish students the protections they need. U.S. Representatives Brad Sherman (D-CA), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Steven Rothman (D-NJ), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), Robert Wexler (D-FL) and Shelley Berkley (D-NV) emphasized that OCR’s conclusion in the ZOA’s case “reversed OCR policy, as clarified in 2004, of protecting Jews against anti-Semitism.”
The leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group for more than 50 national Jewish organizations across the religious and political spectrums, also criticized OCR’s decision in the ZOA’s case against UCI. In a letter to Stephanie Monroe, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, the Presidents’ Conference urged OCR to reconsider its decision in the ZOA’s case. The decision “will affect Jewish students not only at UCI, but also at other colleges and universities across the United States. At a time when reports of anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on college campuses is [sic] increasing, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), whose mission is to redress racial and ethnic discrimination, should be seeking to expand the protections of the law.”
When, in the April 25, 2008 letter, OCR notified the ZOA about the new investigation of incidents that occurred at UCI in May 2007, OCR indicated that it had determined that several of the ZOA’s allegations “are appropriate for investigation under the laws enforced by OCR. . . . We will contact you soon to discuss the allegations and complaint resolution process.”
Morton A. Klein, the ZOA’s National President, and Susan B. Tuchman, Esq., the Director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, said, “We are pleased to know that the Office for Civil Rights is finally looking into incidents that the ZOA brought to OCR’s attention almost one year ago. The witnesses who were ready and willing to come forward at that time are just as eager to furnish information to OCR now. As we did during OCR’s first investigation, we stand ready to assist the agency in every way possible.
“Since the time that OCR issued its decision in November 2007, OCR has gotten the clear message from Members of the House and the Senate, and from the Presidents’ Conference, that OCR’s narrower interpretation of Title VI is of deep concern. We hope that OCR will rethink that more restrictive policy. When it conducts this new investigation, we urge OCR to keep an open mind and apply the policy it clarified in 2004 – that OCR would protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment under Title VI. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recognized in April 2006, Jewish students are entitled to the protections of Title VI, and the Office for Civil Rights should be vigorously enforcing the law to ensure that they are protected.”