UNC to update policies following complaint of anti-Semitism
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has agreed to expand its anti-bias training and expressly forbid anti-Semitism in campus policies as part of an agreement with the U.S. Education Department following complaints about a March conference featuring a rapper accused of anti-Jewish bias.
The university announced the changes Monday after reaching a resolution with the department’s Office for Civil Rights. The deal puts an end to the inquiry without any admission of wrongdoing on the school’s part, and without any official finding from the department on the allegation of illegal discrimination.
Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz reiterated that the university will not tolerate any form of harassment, and he encouraged students and faculty to report any problems.
“I reaffirm the university’s commitment to creating a place where every member of our community feels safe and respected and can thrive in an environment free from anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and harassment,” Guskiewicz wrote in a letter that was sent across campus Monday.
Under the agreement, the university must add a statement to its policies saying that anti-Semitic harassment is prohibited and may violate federal law. The school’s current rules prohibit discrimination based on religion or ethnic ancestry but do not specifically address anti-Semitism.
The school is also required to add a new section on anti-Semitism to existing training programs for students, faculty and staff. And for each of the next two academic years, the university must hold at least one campus meeting to discuss any concerns about anti-Semitism or other forms of harassment.
A Nov. 6 letter from the Education Department says the provisions detailed in the agreement will “fully resolve the issues giving rise to the complaint.”
The agency opened a civil rights investigation after receiving a complaint about a March academic conference titled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities.” The event included a Palestinian rapper who performed a song that some critics called anti-Semitic. The university’s chancellor said the performance left him “heartbroken and deeply offended.”
Two weeks after the conference, anti-Semitic flyers were found on campus warning of an “evil Jewish plot to enslave and kill,” according to the Education Department. The complaint argued that the school’s support of the conference amounted to discrimination against students of Jewish descent. It said the flyers were further evidence of a “hostile environment” created by the event.
On April 15, U.S. Rep. George Holding, a North Carolina Republican, wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raising concerns that the conference was supported with federal grant funding. He described the rap performance as “brazenly anti-Semitic.”
In response, DeVos ordered a separate investigation examining the organization behind the conference, the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, which is housed at UNC and jointly operated with Duke University.
That inquiry, which is still ongoing, aims to determine whether the consortium is properly using a federal grant that’s awarded to dozens of universities to support foreign language instruction. The Duke-UNC consortium received $235,000 from the grant last year.
An Aug. 29 letter from the department threatened to cut the program’s grant funding, saying the consortium offered too many classes on art, film and culture and not enough on Middle Eastern languages. It also said the program promoted “positive aspects” of Islam but not other religions.
Officials at UNC rebuffed the claims, saying the program has hosted events including a visit to a Jewish center to explore Jewish traditions, and presentations on Christianity in Lebanon. The school also said it ranks among the top in the nation in enrollment of students studying the Arabic, Turkish and Urdu languages.
Still, the school agreed to review the program’s activities and document how its expenses relate to the goals of the federal grant.
In October, the department agreed to release grant money to the program for next year, but a department spokeswoman on Tuesday said future funding beyond that could be in question.
The inquiry has provoked a wide outcry from academic groups and free speech advocates who call it a threat to academic freedom. Two Democrats in Congress have asked DeVos to provide information on the inquiry, saying it’s dangerous to tie federal funding to specific curriculum demands.
The Middle East Studies Association recently called the investigation “an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula.” But in a response to the group, Robert King, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said the department has a duty to make sure grants are being used for their intended purpose.
“Federal grants are not blank checks from public coffers,” he said, “and the department intends to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent in alignment with Congressional directives.”
Collin Binkley can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley