UVM President Responds to Education Dept. Investigation, Denies University Improperly Handled Antisemitism

“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,” Garimella said. “No student reported to the university that this teaching assistant harassed or discriminated against them.”
September 19, 2022

University of Vermont President Suresh V. Garimella issued a statement on September 15 addressing the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR)’s pending investigation into the school’s handling of antisemitism, denying any wrongdoing.

Garimella lauded UVM’s “strong and vibrant Jewish community” and said that the “uninformed narrative” in the October 2021 complaint filed by the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus to OCR that sparked the investigation is “harmful to UVM.” He then addressed the core elements of the complaint, starting with the teacher’s assistant (TA) who “made antisemitic remarks and threatened to lower the grades of Jewish students.” “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,” Garimella said. “No student reported to the university that this teaching assistant harassed or discriminated against them.”

The second main allegation in the report is that students pelted the UVM Hillel’s Hillel for 30-40 minutes and the university didn’t classify it as a bias incident. “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,” Garimella said. “There was no evidence of any threatening behavior or that the conduct was motivated by antisemitic bias.”

The third main allegation was that two UVM student groups openly excluded Zionist students from joining their groups, including the Empowering Survivors UVM group for sexual assault survivors. “The university investigated the report quickly and thoroughly and determined that the groups who apparently made these statements were not recognized UVM student organizations,” Garimella said. “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.”

Garimella added: “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.”

Adam Gordon, New England Campus Advisor for CAMERA on Campus, said in a September 16 statement that Garimella’s response to the investigation “demonstrates a preference for denialism and defensiveness instead of genuine concern and willingness to listen to a minority on his campus. This can hardly inspire confidence among UVM’s Jewish community that their future concerns will be taken seriously.” 

Gordon then addressed Garimella’s statement point-by-point. “Garimella asserts that there ‘was no evidence’ that a rock-throwing incident ‘was motivated by antisemitic bias,’ notwithstanding the rock throwers were targeting a Hillel building and shouted ‘Are you Jewish?’ when one of the students in the building asked them to stop,” Gordon said. “Similarly, the President seeks to evade responsibility by claiming ‘Empowering Survivors UVM’ wasn’t a recognized student organization. No one claimed it was, but that doesn’t exonerate the university. The fact remains that the student organization was a university-wide movement, ‘the largest and most impactful support group on campus,’ composed of UVM students, which was creating a deeply hostile environment for Jewish students.  Additionally, vague references to ‘prompt action to ensure that the objectionable statements [of a university teaching assistant] did not adversely impact students in the classroom’ will not exonerate UVM. This is particularly so given that this teaching assistant remained in their position, notwithstanding the harassment of Jewish students outside the classroom.”

Several Jewish groups––including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee (AJC), Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs, the Brandeis Center, and CAMERA on Campus––signed onto a September 16 statement by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations expressing “grave alarm” at Garimela’s statement.

“Simply put, President Garimella fails to condemn the existence of significant antisemitism on UVM’s campus,” the statement read. “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.”

AJC Director of Academic Affairs Sara Coodin said in a statement that Garrimela cited the university’s participation in two AJC initiatives as part of his defense of the university. While we are committed to working with UVM administrators and Jewish students on campus to help bridge the clear gaps in understanding, we are deeply disappointed that the university chose to speak on behalf of Jewish students, rather than stage a more robust and much-needed conversation with them about the antisemitism being reported on campus,” Coodin said. “Listening to Jewish students is essential to fostering the inclusive environment that UVM strives to maintain on campus.”

Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action Agenda Rabbi Abraham Cooper said in a statement that the complaint against UVM was “shocking and wide ranging” and that the university’s “response to threats against Jewish students amounts to malpractice.” “These kinds of threats and intimidation based on ideology is something that Americans would have expected to hear about only in the days of the Soviet Union or China’s Cultural Revolution,” Cooper said. “No individual or group should be allowed to be harassed and excluded from university life because of their religious identities and beliefs. Any university administrator that doesn’t abide and protect this fundamental of American life, should be removed.”

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) said in a statement that they are “troubled” by Garimella’s statement. “We note that his statement is far more equivocal than the reactions by other university and college presidents and administrations to manifestations of antisemitism on their campuses,” the WJC said. “We look forward to the resolution of the Department of Education’s Title VI investigation and reiterate our full support for the Jewish students at UVM who must be allowed to freely assert their Jewishness and openly identify with and express their support for the State of Israel without fear of being shunned, marginalized and excluded from campus opportunities by fellow students or, far worse, by the university establishment as a whole.”

UVM Hillel Executive Director Matt Vogel also said in a September 16 letter to the community: “For many months, we have been at the forefront of meeting with the university administration to amplify student voices and express concerns about the campus climate on behalf of the UVM Jewish community. We stand unequivocally with our Jewish students, allies, friends, and family and are committed to helping them bring their voices to the table and be heard by the university.” However, Vogel said the Hillel will not be commenting on the specific allegations laid out in the complaint while the OCR investigation is underway.

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