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Ken Marcus

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Learn from Barnard "steering" controversy

Naomi Volk, The Justice
October 11, 2011

In a recent controversy at Columbia University, a Jewish student from Barnard was "steered" away from taking a class with Joseph Massad, a professor of Arab politics at Columbia. The Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, reported that Massad has been a sharp critic of Israel in the past and has been accused of anti-Semitism. But that's not where the problem lies. The Center for Student Advising at Columbia has come under fire by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights because it attempted to dissuade the student from taking the class solely because she was Jewish.

While chances are that the reasons behind the advice were benign, it poses a serious problem in that "steering" is against the law. According to the article, Kenneth Marcus, the director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research who filed the complaint, said, "Columbia is being investigated for ‘steering,' a term commonly used in housing discrimination cases to describe realtors directing black families away from white neighborhoods, and vice versa."

What I find disturbing, however, is the possibility that this might be a more widespread problem that takes place, but also throughout higher education. Is it possible that there is a sort of unofficial "steering" that happens among students? If advisers at Columbia were willing to discourage a Jewish student from taking a class because they thought he or she would be offended as a result of her Jewish identity, is it possible that students feel an internal pressure not to take certain classes as a result of their defining characteristics?

For example, is it possible that a student would feel uncomfortable taking a queer studies class because he or she is not gay? What about a student taking an African-American studies class who is not African-American? I don't mean to imply that there is a problem at Brandeis, because it may not actually affect us here. However, there may be certain pressures at work that cause people to be uncomfortable about taking certain classes because of specific defining characteristics they possess.

Judith Jacobsen, a professor at Columbia, told the Spectator, "I mean, suppose it were a black student who was steered away from taking a course because he or she was black." While it may not be as systematic as an adviser telling someone not to take a certain class because of his or her ethnicity, the case points out the possibility that things like this may be happening all of the time under the radar.

What can we, as a Brandeis community, do to ensure that this doesn't become our problem? While only those directly feeling the pressure would really know whether it exists on our campus, we are taking steps to help ameliorate the discomfort. After all, one of our core values is to embrace diversity. There are many things we are already doing, officially, to ensure that students don't feel limitations of defining characteristics. We have a non-Western requirement—we must take a class about a culture outside that of the Western experience. For the majority of Brandeisians, our experience is that of Western culture, so we are forced to see the world through another, perspective.

If the administration is doing all that it can, what can we as students do? Take classes that are distinctly different from your own experience, see the world through the eyes of others. There may be no solution to the potential feelings of discomfort that might result from taking a class that is markedly different from your own experience, but there is a solution to letting that discomfort impact your actions.

Make sure that you aren't the student who is discouraged from taking a class because of who you are. Fight through your discomfort so that Brandeis can continue to be a place where students are not steered away from taking classes that only align with their personal experience. This may not be the easiest thing in the world to do, but remember, you've got a community behind you.

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