Dept. of Education chides Brown University for taking ‘no or little action’ in response to complaints of antisemitism
Pro-Palestinian students celebrate reaching a deal with the administration at Brown University, bringing an end to their encampment, in Providence, Rhode Island on April 30, 2024. Photo: Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images

By Andrew Lapin
July 9, 2024

(JTA) — A federal civil rights investigation into reports of antisemitism at Brown University since Oct. 7 concluded Monday by criticizing what investigators said was the Ivy League school’s lack of response to its Jewish students amid a reported surge in campus antisemitism nationwide.

The school also failed to adequately address complaints of anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim harassment, the U.S. Department of Edcuation said. 

The Brown investigation was initially triggered in January following a complaint by a Jewish right-wing activist with no connection to the university. But the final report cites a combined 75 incidents of purported antisemitic, anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim harassment between October and March. The school didn’t handle these complaints properly and must revise its process for doing so, investigators said.

“The university appears to have taken no or little action in response other than to acknowledge receipt of the reports, list support resources, and request to meet with the complainant, consistent with its policies then in effect,” a statement from the department read. 

The investigation was one of dozens of Title VI cases that the department’s Office for Civil Rights opened in the wake of Oct. 7, and was among the first at an elite school to formally wrap. It comes as other prominent schools, including Harvard and Stanford, have issued in-house reports highlighting their own shortcomings in responding to antisemitism. 

A letter from OCR attorney Paul Easton to Brown President Christina Paxson, who is Jewish, details some of the complaints lodged against the school. They included violent threats directed at the school’s Hillel leaders; comments including “Zionist pig Jew” directed at Jewish students, and death threats directed at Jewish students on social media. More than half of these complaints originated with students as opposed to third parties. OCR allows anyone, even those with no affiliation to the university, to file complaints.

As part of its agreement with the Deartment of Education, Brown says it will continue to revise its policies around discrimination and harassment, including how it handles protests — a much-disputed area of concern for Jews and free-speech advocates as pro-Palestinian demonstrations swept campuses this academic year. (Nearly two dozen members of the progressive group Jews for Ceasefire Now were arrested at a Brown protest in the fall.) It also commits to new discrimination and harassment training for staff and to continue reviewing its discrimination responses over the next year.

Despite its criticism, the Department of Education had praise for Brown’s response to the investigation. “I commend Brown University for assessing its own campus climate and undertaking responsive reforms to comply with Title VI, in addition to the terms it agrees today to undertake in response to OCR’s investigation,” the department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine Lhamon, said in a statement.

Nonetheless, the department said it was “concerned” that Brown chose to stop investigating complaints if the person who raised them stopped responding to the administration’s emails. Schools that do so may not be compliant with Title VI regulations, OCR warned. Brown changed its policies in the spring.

As in its other recent agreements, OCR did not make recommendations for how Brown should address pro-Palestinian activism that Jewish groups contend is antisemitic. The report also did not address Brown’s controversial decision this spring to strike a deal with its pro-Palestinian encampment, which will allow organizers to argue in favor of divesting from Israel at a fall regents’ meeting. Brown was one of the first schools to strike such a deal, leading to several more. Some Jewish groups have argued that the deals rewarded campus antisemitism, while others, including the leader of Brown’s Hillel, said they helped to curb it in a peaceful manner.

In a statement, Brown reiterated its objections to the initial complaint, saying, “The complaint had been filed by the editor of the Campus Reform online media outlet who has no affiliation with Brown or presence on its campus.” The school also said it did not violate Title VI and that it had already been working on many of the changes outlined in the resolution.

“The University is satisfied that the voluntary resolution with OCR enforces and reaffirms Brown’s commitment to strengthening our policies, systems and operations to ensure a campus environment where students, faculty and staff are safe and supported,” Brown administrator Russell C. Carey said in a statement.

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