The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether discrimination occurred at the University of Minnesota, one month after it received a complaint raising concerns about antisemitism at the Twin Cities campus.
The U is one of 99 schools “that are currently under investigation for discrimination involving shared ancestry,” a term the department uses to describe incidents that occur based on someone’s ancestry or nationality.
“An institution named on this list means that [the department’s Office for Civil Rights] has initiated an investigation of a case concerning that institution,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website. “Inclusion on the list does not mean that OCR has made a decision about the case.”
University administrators said in a statement that they “will be fully responsive to the Office for Civil Rights throughout its inquiry.”
The Department of Education announced this fall that it would “take aggressive action” to combat what it described as an “alarming nationwide rise” in reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October.
Leaders at universities across the country are facing renewed pressure to balance concerns about academic freedom — which generally protects an instructor’s ability to teach and do research in their area of expertise — with a desire to ensure that students from varying backgrounds feel safe and welcome on campus. Presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT faced backlash after they testified before Congress on how their schools might handle complaints about antisemitism — and two of them have since resigned.
In December, U law Prof. Richard Painter and former U Regent Michael Hsu asked the U.S. Department of Education to investigate concerns about antisemitism at the University of Minnesota. The pair raised concerns about the university’s decision to allow some faculty members to post pro-Palestinian statements on an official university website.
In messages to university leaders and interviews, Painter and Hsu have criticized a statement from the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies department. The chair of that department couldn’t be reached Wednesday. That department’s initial statement said, “We stand against antisemitism” and went on to note that objecting to the war is not antisemitic.
The complaint filed by Painter and Hsu also listed five incidents for potential investigation, some of which predate the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. Among other instances, the complaint alleged that a department was “soliciting rabidly antisemitic external reviewers” in the tenure process and that a Jewish faculty member was “accosted” while filming what the pair described as a “pro-Hamas rally.” That description has drawn criticism from some other faculty members who said they were aware of pro-Palestinian rallies but not pro-Hamas rallies.
Both Painter and Hsu said Wednesday that they welcomed the federal investigation and looked forward to seeing how the case resolves.
“I think the university has been too deferential to academic freedom, where the professors can do anything and say anything based on academic freedom,” Hsu said.
The university’s statement said it “stands firmly in support of speech and actions that provide an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from any form of prejudice and intolerance, as our Board of Regents policies state. We will continue to work every day to uphold these values while balancing our legal responsibilities to honor free speech.”
The federal investigation could take months and typically involves conducting interviews and requesting records from the schools under investigation. In past cases where the Department of Education found violations at other universities, it required schools to boost trainings for harassment or tighten their policies prohibiting discrimination.