Rob’s Report: Department of Education’s Hollow Response to Campus Antisemitism

 (Editor’s Note: This op-ed originally ran on May 15, 2024, in Brother Derdiger’s Times of Israel blog.)

Last week’s “Dear Colleague” letter from the US Department of Education (DOE) is just another bureaucratic exercise, rather than a meaningful step toward combatting discrimination and antisemitism on campuses. While this glaring example of governmental nonsense pays lip service to the protection of students from diverse backgrounds, its content is simply repetition of a long list of guidance, and particularly redundant of its own May 2023 letter and fact sheet. This reeks of continued complacency rather than genuine commitment to combating the issue of rampant antisemitism on college campuses. When will the DOE recognize that all previous guidance has been ignored and that legal policies have been violated for years despite all warnings? Political diversion tactics may have worked in the past, but I am not buying it anymore and neither should you. At a time when Jewish students are deeply fearful to step onto campuses, this guidance is more toothless rhetoric that lacks an appropriate level of urgency.  

It is now more apparent than ever that the DOE is not willing to take bold action to protect Jewish community during this time of need, and therefore is against us.  

That statement is not a political one; the same has been the case over multiple administrations. The difference is that the untreated cancer is metastasizing. The DOE is prioritizing institutions over the safety and well-being of citizens, and sending a dangerous message that the violation of government policies is tolerated. This approach perpetuates a culture of impunity in which perpetrators face no consequences for their actions and are therefore not incentivized to recognize antisemitism, nonetheless, address its root causes. If the DOE truly wishes to combat discrimination effectively, it should be willing to hold universities accountable for upholding them, just as Title VI was designed to do. 

On April 25, Alpha Epsilon Pi, the world’s largest and leading Jewish fraternity with undergraduate members on more than 150 campuses around the world, sent a letter to Rep. Virginia Foxx and the entire House Committee on Education and the Workforce, expressing our grave concern over the Committee’s written recognition of pervasive Title VI violations at Columbia University while demanding no governmental action. Their letter was just another feeble warning. The only thing less understandable than the ineptitude within higher education, is the staggering unwillingness by our government to enforce longstanding policy. It seems that the House Committee and DOE are both inclined to pay lip service rather than to act. 

To say any of this was impossible to predict is an impressive display of burying one’s head in the sand. As a matter of fact, each summer, including in July 2023, Alpha Epsilon Pi has sent a memo to over four hundred university officials outlining the specific safety concerns for Jewish students on campus, and asking that proactive measures be taken by administrators. The asks were simple and straightforward including codifying the IHRA definition of antisemitism, training DEI offices on Jewish narratives and issues, utilizing the student code of conduct to prevent antisemitic rhetoric being utilized by campus groups or disbursed utilizing campus resources, and ensuring that campus police are prepared to liaise with federal agencies on matters of antisemitism. As a greek organization, we also discussed issues with enforcement of student codes of conduct asking that strong systems of individual accountability be put into place. 

As an aside, we also advocated for students’ rights of free speech and free association to not be violated. Unfortunately, disregard for these rights is commonplace within higher education, making it even more insulting when used as reasoning for inaction on issues having nothing to do with free speech or free association. Citing free speech in the context of current campus antisemitism and student code of conduct violations is simply a diversion tactic to take our attention away from the issue at hand. 

After October 7, I sensed what was coming and sent a reminder to this same group of administrators of their responsibilities under Title VI and providing information about the rapid reactivation of dangerous student organizations across North America. I asked them to monitor anti-Israel student group activity for violations of their student code. We followed up with several more letters giving applicable updates and offering our support. As the Jewish communal organization with the most interaction with administrators in student affairs, we tried to use our allyship to help them do their jobs at a moment in history where doing so would be exceedingly difficult. Some stepped up to the plate, including 133 who attended a virtual panel hosted by AEPi about campus antisemitism. Others, like the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Penn, and Columbia have utterly failed.   

For those who failed, real action must be taken today. These schools have known the issue for years, they had access to resources they needed to address them, and they made a choice not to do so.   

The DOE needs to suspend all government funding to the worst offenders immediately while their Title VI cases proceed. They may do so through consultation with the Attorney General under the “exceptional circumstances” provision of Title 28 Section 50.3 in the Code of Federal Regulations, for those that have exhibited such brazen negligence at the expense of their Jewish students. If what we are currently seeing is not “exceptional circumstances” what is? Jewish students and faculty have been crying for support and protection. Our voices must be heard, and actions must be taken.

For 111 years, Alpha Epsilon Pi has been in the unique position of operating at the intersection of campus life and Jewish communal life. The hard-fought lessons learned along the way have given us unique insight for this moment in history. We are fierce advocates for higher education which is why enforcement of Title VI is so critical to us. Campuses must be places where all people are safe and may express their ideas and identities. I am imploring universities across North America to utilize the summer break to gain expertise, implement resources from organizations like AEPi, and set yourselves up for success come the fall semester. Our demands from our government to hold universities accountable go hand in hand with our offer to help them comply with the law.