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UNC resolves Education Department complaint over anti-Semitism at Gaza conference

The government's claim stemmed from a performace by a Palestinian hip-hop artist on campus earlier this year.

Students walk through the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in Feb. 2019. Photo by Dennis Ludlow/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the U.S. Department of Education have resolved a complaint stemming from a campus conference on Gaza earlier this year in which a hip-hop artist allegedly made an anti-Semitic comment.

The complaint, filed in April with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, claimed the university discriminated against students of Jewish descent after Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar’s performance at a conference titled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities.”

At issue was whether Nafar’s comment — and by extension the university that invited him — violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program receiving federal dollars from the Department of Education.

While not admitting to a violation of Title VI, the university agreed to take steps to ensure students are not subjected to a hostile environment and to respond to allegations of anti-Semitic harassment.

“As part of that agreement, I reaffirm the University’s commitment to creating a place where every member of our community feels safe and respected and can thrive in an environment free from anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and harassment,” Kevin M. Guskiewicz, UNC’s interim chancellor, wrote in a statement.

But the agreement, signed Oct. 14 but made public Monday (Nov. 25), does not end the Department of Education’s probe into the Middle East studies program run jointly by the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

In August, the department ordered the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its offerings or risk losing future funding from a federal grant that’s awarded to dozens of universities to support foreign language instruction.

That probe is ongoing, said Angela Morabito, a Department of Education spokesperson.

The consortium received a four-year grant for $235,000 per year in 2018.

In a letter published in the Federal Register in August, the Department of Education claimed “a lack of balance” in the Duke-UNC consortium’s programming and suggested Islam was treated favorably compared with religious minority groups in the Middle East, including Christianity and Judaism.

According to the department, “foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken ‘a back seat’ to other priorities.”

It also criticized the Duke-UNC center for not placing enough graduates in government jobs.

Nineteen academic organizations, including the American Academy of Religion, signed a letter objecting to the investigation. The letter said the department’s allegations constitute an “unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.”

Earlier this month, Democrats in the U.S. Congress launched an inquiry into whether the Department of Education singled out the Duke-UNC program.

Rep. Andy Levin and Rep. Susan A. Davis said the department’s review “appears to add requirements beyond those in the statute, regulations, or published guidance” for the federal Title VI program. They asked that the department answer a series of questions related to its review.