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University of Minnesota Probed in Federal Inquiry Over Antisemitic Environment

A U.S. Department of Education investigation into allegations of antisemitism at the University of Minnesota continues. Richard Painter, who teaches at the law school and was one of two individuals who filed the initial complaint over faculty postings on university websites, spoke with Minnesota Lawyer about why he believes this investigation is warranted.

“Faculty members, they have a lot of power over the students,” Painter said Thursday. “This is where this crosses the line. We have obligations under Title VI to be as hospitable as we can to as broad a range of students, consistent with our pedagogical objectives, of course. I think faculty members believe they have the power to do what they want, and then they do it. They don’t think.”

On Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis and captured more than 200 hostages in a surprise attack. The effects of this attack and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza were felt profoundly in the United States, specifically in higher education institutions. At colleges and universities across the country, faculty members issued statements of support for Israel or the Palestinians. Some faculty have been accused of crossing  the line between criticizing Israel and outright antisemitism.

Painter, the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law, and former Regent Michael Hsu filed a complaint against the University of Minnesota in December alleging antisemitism in messages posted on university websites in October 2023.

For instance, tenure-line faculty in the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature department posted a joint statement, in which they said: “As scholars committed to the critique of settler colonialisms, state-sanctioned violence, displacement of indigenous peoples, and violations of human rights, we refute the one-sided logic that the Hamas attack is solely responsible for the current war on Gaza and that the Israeli state now has the right to wage that war with impunity.”

The Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies department also issued a statement on its website. “We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people,” they wrote. “Israel’s response is not self-defense but the continuation of a genocidal war against Gaza and against Palestinian freedom, self-determination, and life.”

Painter says that the key issue is that the statements were put on an official university website rather than faculty’s personal social media. Even though there are disclaimers on the statements—that the statements address the views of the faculty and not the University of Minnesota—Painter still finds them problematic.

“When faculty members are in the building, in front of the students, in the classroom, when they are using then departmental websites—these are spaces for everyone,” Painter said.

Painter points to his own social media, where he frequently lambastes Donald Trump. “I don’t have the University of Minnesota on there,” Painter said. “I want students who like Donald Trump to feel comfortable in my class, even though I have a very low opinion of Donald Trump.”

The statements Painter and Hsu found objectionable remain on official University of Minnesota websites. After refusal to remove the statements from official websites onto personal feeds, Hsu and Painter filed their complaint in December. They alleged that the College of Liberal Arts violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under the act, institutions receiving federal funding must protect students from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin (which includes shared ancestry).

In their complaint, Hsu and Painter wrote: “Antisemitism is a pressing problem in CLA, and a focused and expeditious investigation by the Department could help alleviate an increasingly oppressive academic atmosphere for our students.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would launch an investigation into the antisemitism complaints. University of Minnesota is far from the only institution under investigation, however. Multiple investigations regarding antisemitism on college campuses across the country are underway.

“Hate has no place in our schools, period. 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,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement released on Nov. 16, 2023.

On Feb. 20, a panel, including Painter and Hsu and moderated by James Dickey, senior trial counsel at the Upper Midwest Law Center, examined the alleged incidents of antisemitism on campus. “These posts send a very clear message. No Jews are welcome here, unless you are one of the few who is willing to say that the state of Israel has no right to exist,” said Painter. “That’s what these professors are doing with your taxpayer dollars, and we have created an environment that is unacceptable and intimidating for Jewish students. It’s a violation of Title VI, and therefore we’ve asked the Department of Education to investigate.”

In a statement, the University of Minnesota said, “The University will be fully responsive to the Office for Civil Rights throughout its inquiry. The University 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.”

https://minnlawyer.com/2024/03/11/complaint-faculty-stridency-crosses-line/