The federal government opened discrimination investigations this week into half a dozen universities, including Columbia, Cooper Union and Cornell in New York, following complaints about antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment after the Israel-Hamas war broke out.
Since the start of the war on Oct. 7, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has also opened inquiries into Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the University of Pennsylvania and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, along with a K-12 school district, Maize Unified in Kansas.
The Biden administration opened the investigations as part of “efforts to take aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and other forms of discrimination,” according to a news release published by the Office for Civil Rights.
Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, said that the appearance of a school on the list does not “reflect a conclusion that the law has been violated.”
The office is investigating possible violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects students in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin. The federal agency did not share any details about what incidents led to the investigations, except to say that they stem from five complaints of antisemitic harassment and two of anti-Muslim harassment.
Protests by pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups on college campuses have intensified tensions between students groups, faculty and administrations in recent weeks. Universities have struggled to contain the blowback as students and faculty raise concerns over both security and free speech.
The conflict over the war has been particularly bitter in New York, which is seeing almost daily demonstrations. The number of hate crimes logged in the city during October was more than double that of the previous October. Antisemitic incidents more than tripled.
On Tuesday, about 400 students gathered at Columbia University to protest the war and to criticize university leaders for suspending two pro-Palestinian student groups through the end of the semester. In the days after the war started, an Israeli student there was assaulted by another student.
Ben Chang, a spokesman for Columbia, said the university had received notification from the civil rights office “and will cooperate with any investigation.”
Earlier this month, Columbia announced the formation of a task force on antisemitism and a group to support individuals whose personal information has been posted online.
Also this month, a student at Cornell University was arrested and charged with making violent antisemitic threats, leading the university to cancel classes for a day. The campus has been on edge, and hosted a visit earlier this month from Gov. Kathy Hochul who condemned the threats. Cornell officials declined to respond to a request for comment.
At Cooper Union, a confrontation between opposing sides, in which pro-Palestinian students banged on the doors and windows of a library where Jewish students had relocated after a demonstration, became part of the national conversation about the war. There were no arrests or summonses as a result of the incident, the police said.
An email to the university requesting comment was not immediately answered.
And the University of Pennsylvania was already dealing with a backlash over a Palestinian literary conference it hosted before the war broke out. Since then, the campus has been buffeted by criticisms from different sides over its response.
The university said it would cooperate with the investigation and said it was taking steps to address antisemitism.
Other universities are also facing scrutiny over the climate on campus related to the war. Three Jewish students sued New York University this week over what they said was a hostile environment that had allowed antisemitism to go unchecked.
On Wednesday, N.Y.U. announced it would create a Center for the Study of Antisemitism. And John Beckman, a spokesman for N.Y.U., said Wednesday that the claims made in the suit were inaccurate. N.Y.U. was not listed one of the institutions the federal agency is investigating.