By: Dion J. Pierre | The Algemeiner | April 5, 2023
The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has opened an investigation into George Washington University to determine whether administrators allowed a professor to discriminate against Jewish students.
In January, StandWithUs, an educational nonprofit, filed a civil rights complaint alleging that the university would not intervene when Psychology Professor Lara Sheehi, who teaches a mandatory diversity course, invited an antisemitic speaker to address her class, launched a smear campaign against Jewish students, and later filed disciplinary charges against them in retaliation for their accusing her of antisemitism.
“We thank OCR for opening a full investigation into our complaint against GW and sending the clear message that whatever the bounds of academic freedom may be, they do not extend to professors mistreating and retaliating against students based on their Jewish and Israeli identities under the guise of political expression,” StandWithUs legal department director Yael Lerman said on Tuesday.
According to the complaint, Sheehi expressed contempt for Jews on the first day of class, when, in August, she asked every student to share information about their backgrounds and cultures. Replying to a student who revealed that she is Israeli, Sheehi said, “It’s not your fault you were born in Israel.” The students claim they made several attempts to persuade the university to correct Sheehi’s behavior or arrange an alternative option for fulfilling the requirements of her course. Each time, StandWithUs alleged, administrators said nothing could be done.
Later, the complaint continued, Sheehi spread rumors that the students were “combative” racists, and filed misconduct charges against them. In January, one student told The Algemeiner that she has never learned what university policies Sheehi accused her and her classmates of violating.
On March 27, George Washington University said there is no evidence to substantiate the students’ claims, citing an independent investigation it paid Crowell & Morning, a law firm based in Washington DC, to conduct. On Wednesday, a spokesperson told The Algemeiner that it “will fully participate in the department’s inquiry.”
That same day, the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) claimed victory and charged that StandWithUs “fabricated a complaint and intended to find traction because of anti-Arab racism and anti-Palestinian sentiment.”
The Algemeiner has asked ADC to comment on the government’s investigation. This story will be updated accordingly.
Roz Rothstein, StandWithUs CEO, endorsed the veracity of the students’ claims on Wednesday and expressed gratitude that they will be investigated by OCR.
“While professors may enjoy the right to spew wrongheaded and even hateful ideologies in some circumstances, they do not have the right to subject students to discriminatory conduct based on those views,” she said. “University administrators have an affirmative obligation to respond adequately when students report allegations of misconduct.”
George Washington University’s Jewish Law Student Association (JLSA) also commented on OCR’s investigation, expressing its “disappointment” with the university’s “dismissal” of evidence supporting the students’ retaliation claims. The group, citing a 2019 Executive Order on campus antisemitism, also said the university has shown “disregard for the federal standards for such complaints” and wrongly refused to share the report issued by Crowell & Morning.
JLSA noted that OCR, ruling against University of Vermont in a recent civil rights complaint alleging antisemitism, has said that a “university must not harass, coerce, intimidate, discriminate, or otherwise retaliate against an individual because that individual asserts a right to privilege under a law enforced by OCR.”
In the case, OCR also ruled that discriminating against Jew students because they are Zionists violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, a decision legal experts described as “historic.”