An Orthodox student of Barnard alleged that Professor Rachel McDermott, who chairs the department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, discouraged her from taking a course with Professor Joseph Massad due to his critical views of Israel. From what appeared to be an innocuous statement emerged considerable controversy, as some saw it as being indicative of an “inhospitable” learning setting where students must hesitate prior to selecting courses.
“The real issue in this case was not just the guidance but whether a hostile environment exists within Middle East Studies classes at Columbia,” explained Kenneth Marcus, who directs the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, and was responsible for filing the claim. Though his claim was ultimately dismissed, Marcus asserted that the filing of the case represented a success in and of itself. “This case establishes for the first time that Jewish college students have a legal right against racial steering,” said Marcus.
“Never before had [the Office of Civil Rights] acknowledged that they will assert jurisdiction if a student is given poor guidance based on the fact that they are Jewish,” he added.
The Office of Civil Rights noted insufficient evidence in its decision to drop the case. “Because of the conflicting version of events and no other evidence to support the complainant’s allegation, OCR determined that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the complainant’s allegation that the Chair discriminated against the Student, on the basis of her national origin, by discouraging her from enrolling in the Course,” the Office wrote in a letter sent to Barnard this past Wednesday. This seemed to suggest that, had the details of the exchange been verified, the student may have been legitimately justified in her claims that she was “racially steered.”
Barnard College announced that this decision was anticipated but still comforting. “Professor McDermott is beloved by her students and a highly regarded member of the Barnard community,” stated Barnard President Debora Spar. “We were happy to cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights and were pleased—thought not surprised—to receive this favorable determination.”