University of Vermont vehemently rejects federal probe into antisemitism complaints

School president says claims that Jewish students were discriminated against already dealt with; head of group that filed complaint argues university not taking issue seriously

The campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The president of the University of Vermont issued a blistering denial Thursday of allegations the university failed to adequately respond to complaints of anti-Jewish behavior on the Burlington campus.

In a message to the university community, President Suresh Garimella said the complaints being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights have “painted our community in a patently false light.”

“While common wisdom dictates remaining patiently silent as we cooperate diligently with an agency’s investigation, I simply cannot do so,” Garimella’s message said. “These public allegations and our community’s deeply held values call for a strong and immediate response.”

Garimella said the university promptly and thoroughly investigated the allegations outlined in the complaint last year after learning of them.

“The uninformed narrative published this week has been harmful to UVM,” he said. “Equally importantly, it is harmful to our Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

On Tuesday, when the complaint and the Department of Education’s investigation were made public, the university told The Times of Israel it was aware of the complaint and cooperating. At the time, the university reiterated its commitment to inclusiveness.

University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella speaks with reporters on Monday, July 1, 2019, in Burlington, Vermont. (AP/Lisa Rathke)

Alyza Lewin, the president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, who helped file the complaint, said it was discouraging to see the university double-down on its denial of antisemitism on its campus.

“The rationalizations they provide are the same excuses that they gave me a year ago when I spoke to them,” she said Thursday. “They are stubbornly refusing to see and acknowledge that Jewish students on their campus are being targeted and marginalized and excluded on the basis of a key component of their Jewish identity.”

The allegations in the complaint filed by the Center for Human Rights and the organization Jewish on Campus said that Jewish students were excluded from campus clubs, a teaching assistant threatened to reduce the grades of students who supported the state of Israel and reveled in cyberbullying Jews, and rocks were thrown at a building where Jewish students lived.

After investigating the complaint made September 30, 2021, that two groups excluded from membership students who supported Israel as the homeland for Jewish people, the university determined the groups were not recognized student organizations, received no university support and were not bound by the university’s policies governing student organizations.

An Instagram post from a University of Vermont sexual assault survivors support group announcing the exclusion of Zionists. (Courtesy)

The university also investigated allegations that an undergraduate teaching assistant made antisemitic remarks and had threatened to lower the grades of Jewish students. The university determined that no grades were lowered and no student reported they had been discriminated against. The statement did not deny that the teaching assistant was still employed by the university, which was alleged in the complaint.

Finally, after learning that rocks had been thrown at a campus Hillel building where Jewish students lived, police determined small rocks were thrown at the building to get the attention of a friend, and there was no evidence it was motivated by antisemitic bias, Garimella said.

The complaint said the students throwing rocks were intoxicated, threw the stones for over 30 minutes, and asked residents who requested that they stop if they were Jewish. The complaint also said the assailants threw an unidentified sticky substance against the rear door of the Hillel building during the same incident.

Lewin said all three explanations from the university fell short, and the administration should have forcefully spoken out against antisemitism in all the cases.

Noting, “OK, maybe they reviewed the incident at the Hillel building. We can put that aside,” Lewin said that the university still had a duty to more forcefully and publicly condemn the other incidents as part of its formal response to them.

The Burack Hillel Center near the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Jewish students also appealed to the administration for support following the incidents, to no avail, the complaint said.

While Garimella said in his statement that an Office of Civil Rights investigation simply acknowledges the existence of a complaint, not that the complaint has merit, the office’s official guidelines for investigating complaints state that not every complaint makes it to the investigation stage.

The allegations of antisemitism at the university come after antisemitic incidents in the US reached a record high last year. Earlier this year The Anti-Defamation League counted 2,717 antisemitic incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism in 2021, a 34% increase over the previous year and the highest number since the New York City-based group began tracking such incidents in 1979.

Matt Vogel, executive director of UVM Hillel, told The Times of Israel, “We know there is still so much more to be done to create an environment at UVM where all Jewish students feel safe and welcome on campus — and we’re committed to continuing to work with our partners at the University and beyond to do just that.”

“There is no place for hatred at the University of Vermont,” he said. “Our campus and our community should be a safe space for all students — including Jewish students.”

In an email to parents at the start of the fall semester, Vogel also wrote, “Antisemitism keeps me awake at night.”

Before the federal investigation, Jewish students at the flagship Vermont state college reported widespread discrimination. A report by Jewish on Campus released earlier this year found that the University of Vermont had more reported antisemitic incidents than any other campus in 2021.

Other universities that have had federal antisemitism civil rights investigations opened against them since 2019, the year the Trump administration altered the Education Department’s guidelines to incorporate the charge, have responded more tentatively while investigations have been underway.

The University of Southern California and Brooklyn College both responded to their own investigations this year without addressing specific charges in the complaints. Federal antisemitism cases at Duke University and the University of North Carolina were later resolved by the universities; as part of the resolutions, the universities issued statements against antisemitism, updated their discrimination policies and hosted meetings for students and staff to discuss antisemitism.

A case at the University of Illinois has resulted in the school opening a new dormitory specifically for Jewish students and pledging to do better to protect its Jewish and pro-Israel students.

“Our work in understanding and eliminating antisemitism will never be complete,” Garimella concluded, noting that he had recently joined an American Jewish Committee trip to Israel, among other initiatives designed to combat campus antisemitism. But the complaint’s specific allegations, he said, “were investigated and addressed,” and publicizing them further was “exploitation of fear and divisiveness by advancing false claims.”

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