Brooklyn College bungled the handling of an anti-Israel forum two months ago, allowing for the unjustified ouster of four Jewish students attending the event, according to a report issued Friday by the City University of New York.
But the report, prepared by CUNY’s general counsel, Frederick Schaffer, and an outside lawyer, James Gill, also found that no religious discrimination was behind the ouster, as suggested by the four students and the college’s Tanger Hillel.
“It is clear that there was no justification for the removal of the four students,” the report said, adding that they “did not create a ‘disturbance’” and that the speaker at the time could be clearly heard. But in light of the fact that other Jewish students also attended the event, and none of them were removed, “there is no support for an inference of discrimination,” the report continued. “A more plausible inference can be drawn that the removal of the four students was motivated by their political viewpoint.”
The report has already led to an apology to the four students from the college’s president, Karen Gould, and to a pledge to implement “new policies and procedures for all public events on our campus.” Gould made the apology Tuesday in separate letters to the students and in an email to the college community.
But the report drew criticism from Councilman Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn), who called the document a “whitewash.” Fidler, president of the Hillel foundation’s board of directors in the 1990s, said in a statement that the report “fails to discuss, even for a moment,” the process by which the college’s political science department “chose to sponsor this event and not others.”
Criticism also came from the Hillel foundation’s current president, Howard Wohl, who wrote in an email to The Jewish Week that the issuance of the report “late on Friday is indicative of a wish to dismiss this issue as quickly and with the least impact… It is sad that CUNY has chosen to circle the wagons and protect its legal positions rather than to own up to its failures and dedicate itself to reform.”
Organizationally, though, the college’s Hillel and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York said they were pleased that it validated the account of the four ousted students and that it recommended several areas for remedial action.
The Hillel statement added, however, that the forum also raised other issues that need to be addressed by the college’s administration, including the “eagerness of the Political Science Department to take positions that are politically-oriented,” the department’s hiring practices and a perception on the part of Jewish students that the faculty is “woefully biased” against Israel.
The Feb. 7 forum was organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, a national group with chapters throughout the country, and featured two leading figures in the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. But it captured headlines several weeks before the event because of the role of the college’s political science department, which signed on as a sponsor. The college claimed that sponsorship of an event doesn’t imply an endorsement of its views — a stance backed at the time by CUNY officials — but others had serious doubts. In the days and weeks before the event, the registration process for the forum changed more than once, forcing students who registered early to reregister. It also led to foul-ups on the evening of the forum, as students stood on line to enter the event. But, for many, the most disturbing aspect of the event took place when four Jewish students were ousted after one of the organizers, Carlos Guzman, spotted them passing flyers to each other and concluded they were making a disturbance.
Worse in the eyes of many is that campus guards escorted them out of the room at Guzman’s request; Milga Morales, the college’s vice president for student affairs, was quoted as saying that leaders of SJP — and not college officials — were “calling the shots”; and that a college spokesman, Jeremy Thompson, backed SJP’s version without seeking the other version from the four ousted students.
The CUNY report examined that episode and three other “distinct issues” raised by the forum — the registration process, the handling of the press and a question-and-answer period toward the end of the event — concluding that, in many instances, the administration botched things, failed to establish clear protocol or abdicated its role. In the area of security, for instance, the report said it “was probably a mistake … to give the students primary responsibility for maintaining order” — a reference to SJP.
In addition to Fidler and Wohl, criticism of the 37-page report also came from a faculty member, Mitchell Langbert. A business professor, Langbert said the report should have compared how the college handled the BDS forum to how it handled other events, including a 2011 appearance by David Horowitz, a conservative figure brought to the campus by pro-Israel students. Langbert recalled that college administrators refused to provide security for that event until CUNY instructed them to do so. Moreover, in vivid contrast to how campus security behaved during this year’s BDS forum, he said, security officers declined to intervene when protesters shouted down Horowitz.
Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations, said CUNY officials “welcome the views of all parties in order to make appropriate improvements.”