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Jewish groups criticize UVM response to antisemitism complaint

Old Mill Building on the University  of Vermont campus (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Old Mill building at the University of Vermont (file)

Jewish organizations are criticizing the response by the president of the University of Vermont to a complaint filed on behalf of some students claiming anti-semitic incidents on campus have not been addressed.

This week the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus filed a complaint on behalf of some UVM students alleging that anti-semitic incidents on campus were not addressed by the college.

UVM President Suresh Garimella issued a statement Thursday saying the college responds decisively against those who perform hateful actions and outlined its response to the incidents in the complaint.

On Friday, 20 Jewish organizations said they are alarmed by what they say is the college president’s failure to “to condemn the existence of significant antisemitism on UVM’s campus.” The groups are calling on the college to acknowledge their concerns and take steps to address them.

Text of UVM President Suresh Garimella's response to complaint:

Office of the President
September 15, 2022

Dear Members of the UVM Community,

This week’s media coverage of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) into an anonymous third party’s allegations that the university failed to adequately respond to complaints of anti-Jewish, biased behavior at UVM has 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. These public allegations and our community’s deeply held values call for a strong and immediate response.

UVM is a community with a long, proud history of inclusiveness. We denounce hateful actions and respond briskly and decisively whenever those responsible are identified. UVM is home to a strong and vibrant Jewish community and is recognized as a place where—year after year—many Jewish students, faculty, and staff choose to study, teach, conduct research, practice medicine, and work. As a community, we adhere to Our Common Ground values of respect, integrity, innovation, openness, justice, and responsibility.

The uninformed narrative published this week has been harmful to UVM. Equally importantly, it is harmful to our Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni. There is no doubt that antisemitism exists in the world and, despite our best efforts, in our community. Exploitation of fear and divisiveness by advancing false claims that UVM failed to respond to complaints of antisemitic behavior creates confusion and a sense of insecurity for the entire community.

I therefore would like to set the record straight regarding the OCR complaint by sharing the core elements of UVM’s forthcoming response.

An OCR investigation is not triggered by any finding that a complaint has merit or that UVM has done something wrong. Rather, it signals that the person or entity that filed the complaint has alleged a civil rights violation against a college or university within the Department of Education’s jurisdiction.

​Once opened, the OCR investigation gives the university the opportunity to respond to the allegations. UVM vigorously denies the false allegation of an insufficient response to complaints of threats and discrimination, as will be demonstrated in our response to OCR.

The complaint alleges UVM failed to adequately respond to three specific incidents:

Allegation 1. The complaint alleges that the university did not adequately respond to student reports of antisemitism by a teaching assistant. University response to the incident: A university community member reported on September 6, 2021, that an undergraduate teaching assistant made antisemitic remarks and threatened to lower the grades of Jewish students on their personal social media accounts prior to serving as a TA. The university took prompt action to ensure that the objectionable statements did not adversely impact students in the classroom and further, to perform a thorough review to ensure all grades were awarded on a non-discriminatory basis. No student reported to the university that this teaching assistant harassed or discriminated against them. The university’s response to the report was completed by September 30, 2021.

Allegation 2. A group of university students threw rocks at the Hillel building. University’s response to the incident: On September 24, 2021, UVM Police responded to a report regarding students throwing small rocks at the Hillel building. The incident was reported to the university administration as an incident of hate and bias the following day. The investigation was immediate, and it was quickly determined that the students who threw the small rocks at a window of the Hillel building were doing so to get the attention of a friend who was convalescing in the building while recovering from an illness, that the throwing stopped after they got a student’s attention, and that there was no reported damage to the building. There was no evidence of any threatening behavior or that the conduct was motivated by antisemitic bias. The university’s review and response to the police and administrative reports was completed by September 28, 2021.

Allegation 3. Two UVM student organizations excluded students who “expressed support for Zionism” from membership in their organizations. University’s response to the incident: On September 30, 2021, students reported this conduct to university administration. The university investigated the report quickly and thoroughly and determined that the groups who apparently made these statements were not recognized UVM student organizations. The unrecognized organizations received no university support and were not bound by UVM’s policies governing student organizations. To ensure an inclusive environment within recognized UVM student organizations, student leaders were reminded of university policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, national origin, or any other protected category.

It is important that our community know the truth about what happened, and how the university responded. Although the allegations were investigated and addressed, we recognize we can and should do more to support the success of our students. University leaders have reached out on several occasions to our Jewish students over the last year to understand their experiences on our campus, to provide them with the tools they need to respond to incidents of bias and discrimination, and to work with them to better understand the climate in which they are living and learning.

Our work in understanding and eliminating antisemitism will never be complete. Over the past year, university leaders have reviewed, updated, and consolidated our bias reporting processes to make them more accessible to those who need them. A few weeks ago, I joined other university leaders, government officials, and civic leaders for Project Interchange, a hands-on immersive learning opportunity hosted in Israel by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Our provost and senior vice president, Patty Prelock, actively participated in a Summit to Combat Campus Antisemitism with more than 40 higher education leaders in New York. We will continue to learn and support UVM’s Jewish community to ensure that any future incidents that might occur will be addressed with immediacy and sensitivity to what they are experiencing.

If you have concerns or want to report an incident of antisemitism, please know that you can do so at any time at uvm.edu/reporting. The university’s response will be supportive, thorough, and timely.

Suresh V. Garimella

Response of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to President Garimella:

633 Third Avenue | 21st Floor | New York, NY 10017

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE September 16, 2022

We, the undersigned Jewish organizations, are alarmed, disappointed and troubled by the response issued yesterday by the President of the University of Vermont to the Title VI complaint filed on behalf of a number of UVM students by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus. Simply put, President Garimella fails to condemn the existence of significant antisemitism on UVM’s campus. And instead of summoning the courage that other university leaders across the country have shown in acknowledging the problem or offering support for Jewish students who are fearful about identifying publicly as Jewish, the UVM President’s statement doubles down and refuses to take responsibility. The statement only offers inadequate excuses while failing to denounce those who have created a climate of intolerance for Jews, especially those who choose to openly express their Jewish identity through their deeply felt ancestral and ethnic connection to Israel. All the more concerning is the inference that aggrieved Jewish students should not have sought recourse through a regular legal process that exists for the very purpose of investigating civil rights complaints, including those pertaining to antisemitism. As a consequence, the concerns of antisemitism are further delegitimized. The university has denied support to a targeted community, and, in suggesting that Jewish students need to learn how to better protect themselves, has essentially chosen to blame the victims. The students who filed the complaint raised awareness of a form of antisemitism that students at UVM have been experiencing for years, and gave a voice to students who felt unheard. Even now, the UVM President apparently has not really heard their voices of concern and anguish. We support these Jewish students at UVM and elsewhere who have the right to openly express their identification with Israel without being shunned, marginalized and excluded from campus opportunities. Every student at UVM is entitled to a college experience free from antisemitism and all other forms of discrimination. It is time for UVM to frankly acknowledge the serious concerns that have been raised and take concrete steps to address them.
Alums for Campus Fairness
CAMERA on Campus
Chabad on Campus at the University of Vermont
Club Z
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
Hasbara Fellowships
Hillel International
Israel Peace Initiative
Jewish Federations of North America
Jewish National Fund - USA
Jewish on Campus
The Louis D Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law
Simon Wiesenthal Center
StandWithUs & StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department