Claire Li/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The U.S. Department of Education announced Cornell as a subject of a Title VI investigation on Nov. 16 in connection with antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment on campus.

November 17, 2023

Cornell Under Investigation by Department of Education for Potential Antisemitism, Islamophobia

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The U.S. Department of Education announced an investigation into discrimination on the basis of shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics at Cornell — along with six other educational institutions including Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania — in connection with antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a Nov. 16 press release. 

In the press release, the Department of Education said five of the seven investigations will look into antisemitic harassment, while the remaining two allege anti-Muslim harassment. 

When contacted, a spokesperson from the Department of Education declined to disclose whether Cornell’s investigation was for antisemitic or anti-Muslim harassment, saying the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — which is conducting the investigation — does not comment on ongoing matters. A representative from Cornell also refused to comment.

Title VI prohibits any institution of any type that receives funding from the federal government — a category that includes Cornell — from discriminating based on race, color or national origin.

“Hate has no place in our schools, period. When students are targeted because they are — or are perceived to be — Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn,” wrote U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in the press release. “These investigations underscore how seriously the Biden-Harris Administration, including the U.S. Department of Education, takes our responsibility to protect students from hatred and discrimination.”

The Department of Education’s investigation follows a memo to educational institutions reminding them of their Title VI obligations in what is known as a “Dear Colleague” letter from Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, that was sent on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

“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,” Lhamon wrote in the letter.

The Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas — an organization in political control of Gaza — on Israel, along with Israel’s subsequent response to the attacks, have sparked protests both in support of Israel and Palestine across the United States.

The rising wave of tensions has impacted Cornell’s campus. In a speech at an Oct. 15 pro-Palestine rally on the Ithaca Commons, Prof. Russell Rickford, history, made remarks regarding Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack that many found controversial. Rickford subsequently apologized for his statement in an Oct. 18 statement in The Sun.

The controversy over Rickford’s remarks drew national attention, including an Oct. 18 statement from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) which called for Rickford’s termination. Rickford has since requested and been granted a leave of absence from the University.

Following Rickford’s speech, President Martha Pollack condemned statements that glorified Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks in an Oct. 16 email to the Cornell community. Pollack, along with Kraig Kayser, M.B.A. ’84, the chairman of Cornell’s Board of Trustees, then followed up with a second statement on Oct. 17 specifically condemning Rickford’s remarks.

Cornell then made national headlines again following a series of posts to the online forum Greekrank on Oct. 29, in which the poster called for the murder of Jewish Cornellians and threatened a mass shooting at 104 West, which is home to the Center for Jewish Living and the kosher dining hall.

College of Engineering student Patrick Dai ’24 has since been arrested and arraigned on federal charges of posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications in connection with the posts, which he confessed to making in a post-arrest interview with the Cornell University Police Department. Dai is currently being held in a Broome County prison without bail after Judge Therese W. Dancks of the Northern District of New York deemed him a potential danger to himself and others at a hearing in Syracuse on Thursday, Nov. 10. 

Pro-Palestinian students have also spoken out about being doxxed and harassed for their views since the beginning of hostilities, with many covering their faces during rallies and vigils to avoid their identity being leaked online. Several have also expressed their displeasure with President Pollack failing to mention the word “Palestine” or “Palestinians” until her third message to the Cornell community on the matter. The Student Assembly addressed these concerns in an Oct. 26 meeting, passing a resolution asking the University to condemn the doxxing of students.

Following the threatening posts, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) — on Oct. 30 — and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff — on Nov. 10 — both spoke at 104 West to address antisemitism at Cornell and met with Cornell’s Jewish community leaders. The University also canceled all classes on Friday, Nov. 3, citing the need for a “community restorative day.”