US education sec. warns colleges may face funding cuts if they ignore antisemitism

With rising antisemitic incidents on campuses, Secretary Miguel Cardona says federally funded schools are obligated to protect Jews and other minorities

US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an event at the Department of Labor, in Washington, Nov. 18, 2021. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an event at the Department of Labor, in Washington, Nov. 18, 2021. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said American colleges could lose federal funding if they fail to address antisemitism and other bigotries, following up on a meeting last month with Jewish leaders alarmed by rising antisemitism on campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

Cardona made his warning in an interview on CNN earlier in the week ahead of the release of a letter reminding federally funded schools of their obligation to protect Jews and other minorities.

“I would want to provide support for these universities, provide guidance. And if there are egregious acts, I want to make sure that we’re investigating,” he told the network. “Ultimately, if we have to withhold dollars from a campus refusing to comply, we would.”

Cardona’s comments do not represent a new policy, but they suggest that he is prepared to be aggressive in pressing colleges to act. In a release on Tuesday formally announcing the letter, Cardona tied the letter’s instructions to what Jewish organizations have said is a massive spike in antisemitism on campuses since Hamas terrorists struck Israel on October 7, launching the war.

War erupted when some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists breached the Gaza border on October 7, slaughtering around 1,400 people — mainly civilians — in communities in southern Israel. They also took at least 240 hostages to the Strip, including at least 30 children.

“The rise of reports of hate incidents on our college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict is deeply traumatic for students and should be alarming to all Americans. antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of hatred go against everything we stand for as a nation,” he said.

The letter sent Tuesday to colleges that receive federal funds, signed by Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, describes in its first paragraph “an alarming rise in disturbing antisemitic incidents and threats to Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students on college campuses and in P-12 schools.”

Posters of some of those kidnapped by Hamas in Israel on October 7, 2023, are displayed on a pole outside of New York University (NYU) as tensions between supporters of Palestine and Israel increase on college campuses across the nation, on October 30, 2023, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

In her second paragraph, Lhamon ties the money the schools get from the government to their legal obligations to protect minority students. Both public and private universities receive federal funds through a variety of pathways.

“I write to remind colleges, universities, and schools that receive federal financial assistance of their legal responsibility under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations (Title VI) to provide all students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics,” Lhamon said in her letter. “It is your legal obligation under Title VI to address prohibited discrimination against students and others on your campus—including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian — in the ways described in this letter.”

In his October 30 meeting with Jewish leaders, Cardona noted that the Biden administration had already, prior to the October 7 Hamas deadly attack on Israel, extended Civil Rights Act protections to religious minorities, including Jews and Muslims. He promised a two-week deadline to come up with a plan.

Jewish leaders at that meeting noted that the federal government in recent years has expanded Title IX of the same act, which bans gender discrimination, to allow for funding to be withheld from universities that do not address sexual harassment and assault. They suggested that the department could apply similar measures to Title VI as an incentive for compliance.

Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Jewish Democrat from Nevada, last week had sent a letter urging the Education Department to issue “updated guidance to college and university administrators making clear the consequences of failing to ensure the safety of Jewish students,” among other measures.

Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled “CBP Oversight: Examining the Evolving Challenges Facing the Agency,” Thursday, June 25, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Tom Williams/Pool via AP)

Rosen, who cofounded an antisemitism task force in the Senate, welcomed Cardona’s letter issued Tuesday. “I’m glad to see the US Department of Education is taking action at my urging to remind school administrators of their legal responsibility to keep students safe from antisemitism and other forms of discrimination – or face consequences,” she said. “I’m continuing to urge the department to form a task force to counter campus antisemitism.”

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