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Barnard College cleared in bias case

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Investigation finds no discrimination at Barnard

Sammy Roth and Jeremy Budd, Columbia Spectator
January 13, 2012

Barnard has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, following allegations that a professor discriminated against a Jewish student.

Barnard professor Rachel McDermott had been accused of discriminating against an Orthodox Jewish student last year by discouraging her from taking a class with Columbia professor Joseph Massad, a critic of Israel who has been accused of anti-Semitism.

The complaint against Barnard was filed by Kenneth Marcus, the director of the Initiative on Anti-Semitism at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, who alleged that McDermott illegally “steered” the student away from the class because of her religion. But the OCR found that there was “insufficient evidence” to prove discrimination, according to a letter the office sent to Barnard President Debora Spar on Wednesday.

The student—now a Barnard sophomore—had discussed class selection with McDermott, then the chair of Barnard’s Asian and Middle Eastern culture department, in January 2011.

"I am grateful for the overwhelming support I have received from my colleagues, especially those in the Religion and MESAAS [Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies] Departments, as well as current and former students and many others within the Barnard and Columbia community and beyond,” McDermott said in a statement.

According to the complaint described in the OCR letter, the student said McDermott told her that she “‘would not be comfortable’” in Massad’s class. McDermott denied having said this.

“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 letter read.

The letter stated that the investigation has been closed, and no action will be taken against Barnard. In a statement, Spar said that McDermott is "beloved by her students and a highly regarded member of the Barnard community."

"We were happy to cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights and were pleased—though not surprised—to receive this favorable determination," Spar said.

Marcus, who headed the OCR himself between 2003 and 2004, said he is “considering his appellate rights," noting that he thinks the OCR got the case “wrong, factually.”

“This is just the initial determination, so it is subject to appeal,” he said. “We knew from the beginning that there was a chance that the professor would deny the facts that the students alleged, but in this case there is evidence supporting the student's statement, but no evidence supporting the professor."

Marcus added that these allegations have forced the OCR to consider the right against "steering" as applied to students. "Steering" is a term commonly used in housing discrimination cases to describe realtors directing black families away from white neighborhoods, and vice versa.

“It is an important step forward not just for Jewish students but for colleges students of every group,” he said. “But I think it is unfortunate that OCR was unable to sort things out more carefully.”

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