When the business department search committee members saw the CV, they felt like they had hit pay dirt.
The applicant for the accounting assistant professor position not only was a certified public accountant, but also had a Ph.D. in accounting and several published articles under his belt. The committee voted unanimously to hire him, expecting the decision to sail through the usually pro forma administration approval process.
They were wrong. The candidate was turned down.
According to Jeffrey Lax, a professor of business law who chairs the business department at Kingsborough Community College, this was not a one-off. He had noticed that some members of the administration, most noticeably the school’s provost, Stuart Suss, spoke disparagingly of Jewish staff members. After several years of this he had come to feel that a persistent bias against Jews existed among several officials in the upper reaches of the school’s administration.
Their refusal to hire the accounting Ph.D., who wore a kipa to the interview, added to his suspicions.
“There was no legitimate reason to deny him and he was given no legitimate reason,” Lax’s attorney, Brooke Goldstein, said via email. “He was such a shoe-in … a published Ph.D.”
After that incident, Lax began advising applicants not to wear anything that would indicate they were Jewish during their interviews with administrators.
Four years later, he sued.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York on Feb. 16, Lax contends that the administration’s refusal to hire the accounting Ph.D. is part of a pattern of “hiring/promotion practices designed to limit and eliminate Outward [obvious] Jews from Kingsborough’s faculty.” The lawsuit also accuses the school of having “created, promoted and maintained a pervasively hostile work environment and atmosphere,” in which Lax and other Jewish professors were subjected to “constant discrimination” that included “comments, innuendos and verbal harassment” regarding their religion.
Lax also filed a lawsuit last summer in New York State Supreme Court, Nassau County against CUNY, Suss and several other administrators claiming, among other things, that the school failed to act on a formal discrimination complaint Lax filed against Suss in 2014, unfairly denied his application for promotion and then refused to hear an appeal on the decision. It also claims that Suss “worked relentlessly to marginalize, exclude, disparage, humiliate and discredit” Lax and the only other Jewish department chair.
Because of the pending litigation, Lax declined to speak to The Jewish Week about the lawsuit. But five other Jewish professors echoed his complaints in interviews with the paper. All of them spoke on the condition that their names not be used because of fear of retaliation by the administration. Even with the promise of anonymity, several other professors said they were too afraid of retribution to speak to the paper directly. One relayed her experiences through a third party.
Several of the professors interviewed brought up the passed-over accounting Ph.D. “He had pristine credentials: a Ph.D. in accounting — they really wanted him,” said one longtime professor at the college. The candidate was hired for a tenure-track position at a four-year CUNY school soon after.
Kingsborough spokeswoman Dawn Walker said that the candidate was turned down for reasons having nothing to do with his religion. Kingsborough President Farley Herzek released a statement calling Lax’s entire federal lawsuit “entirely without merit.” (In the statement he also said that as the son of a Holocaust survivor he has “worked tirelessly to break down the barriers that contribute to such discriminatory practices and beliefs.”)
But the alleged anti-Semitism is said to have begun long before Herzek arrived on campus in 2015. In extensive interviews with The Jewish Week, the professors painted a picture of a campus that, over at least the last decade, has come to feel increasingly “oppressive” to them.
Although teaching at a community college is not as prestigious as working at a four-year institution, most newly minted Ph.Ds are likely to view an opening at Kingsborough as a plum position. College-level teaching positions of any kind are coveted in New York City, and Kingsborough gives faculty access to the resources of the full City University of New York network. In addition, Kingsborough’s extremely diverse 14,000-person student body has the reputation of being “great to work with” and the school has won several honors, including being named one of the top four community colleges in the U.S. in 2013. Most uniquely for an urban college, the campus is located directly on the Atlantic and includes a private beach.
But the professors interviewed described a dark undercurrent at this idyllic campus: a place where visibly Jewish faculty members are blatantly discriminated against and publicly insulted; where Israeli flags and maps are vandalized; and where swastika graffiti pops up with such regularity that covering it over has become routine.
Claims that City University of New York is ignoring BDS-fueled anti-Semitism at schools including Hunter, John Jay and Brooklyn College have been regularly in the headlines. But the BDS activity at Kingsborough is relatively minor compared to other campuses. The crux of the concern voiced by the professors who spoke with The Jewish Week is about pervasive anti-Semitic employment discrimination by top administrators.
Employment discrimination cases aren’t easy to win, said Minna Kotkin, director of the Brooklyn Law School Employment Law Clinic.
“Sometimes there’s discrimination that is hard to prove; there are no smoking guns out there anymore,” she said.
Most of the accusations in both lawsuits focus on Suss, whom Lax accuses of perpetrating employment discrimination and creating a hostile atmosphere for Jewish faculty. Suss, a non-Orthodox Jew, taught history at Kingsborough before becoming vice president of academic affairs and provost in 1999. He became interim president in 2014 and retired in 2015. Recently, Suss was hired at CUNY’s Guttman Community College as dean of academic affairs and provost.
Asked whether CUNY took Lax’s 2014 discrimination complaint against Suss into account when deciding whether to hire him for the Guttman position, CUNY spokesman Michael Arena sent the following statement: “Dr. Stuart Suss has had a distinguished career spanning more than 45 years at Kingsborough Community College. He has served as the college’s vice president of academic affairs and provost, and as its interim president. His longstanding experience and service at Kingsborough is a matter of public record. We do not comment on allegations or pending litigation.”
The accusations against Kingsborough come at a time when universities across the country are actively trying to increase the diversity of faculty as well as students. It also comes as university affirmative action programs are back in the spotlight. The Supreme Court is debating Fisher v. University of Texas this year, in which Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was rejected by the school, is arguing that the school’s use of race in its admissions policy is unconstitutional.
Asked about affirmative action hiring policies at CUNY, a spokeswoman sent a statement explaining that the administration “encourages CUNY presidents to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion among faculty and administrators.” However, both CUNY and Kingsborough’s guidelines for search committees instruct members to try to diversify the faculty by actively recruiting underrepresented minorities to apply for positions, not by choosing them over more qualified non-minorities.
Walker, Kingsborough’s spokeswoman, said she couldn’t comment on pending litigation, and Suss did not respond to a message requesting comment left on his home phone. However, she categorically denied that Jewish professors are being discriminated against at the school.
Three professors interviewed by The Jewish Week said they had direct experience with the administration refusing to hire highly qualified Jewish candidates for tenure-track positions or of department chairs saying outright that they wouldn’t hire any more Jewish professors.
One example in the federal lawsuit claims that administrators “dissuaded” a Jewish professor at another CUNY school from applying at Kingsborough because “there are too many Jews already.”
The state lawsuit alleges that sometimes, “in order to hire a qualified, outwardly Jewish faculty member, a department chair was forced to ‘make a deal’ with Defendant Suss to hire one or more faculty members of Suss’ choosing in order to ‘pay for’ the hire of the outwardly Jewish candidate.”
One professor said he heard his department chair say, while eating lunch with several other faculty members: “I’m not going to take [on] a white Jewish male.” That professor, however, saw the statement as coming from a desire to increase multiculturalism on campus rather than as animosity towards Jews.
“There has been virtually, I wouldn’t say no hiring of Jews, but certainly not people who are identifiable as Jews, for probably the last 12 to 13 years,” one professor said.
The state lawsuit also alleges that a department chair complained to Suss that some departments at the college “would never hire a Jew,” and Suss responded, “I know.”
This allegation was described in more detail by several professors. “I don’t wear my Star of David [on campus],” one professor said. “If you’re interviewing for a position and wearing a kipa you’re told [by people trying to help you] to take it off. People are told to take anything Jewish off of their resume.”
In one department, another professor said, it was so hard to get Jewish professors hired that the chair agree to hire several professors from underrepresented minority groups in order to offer the fourth position to a Jewish man. The professor said this has been done in other departments as well.
The lawsuits against Kingsborough highlight the murky legal waters when it comes to hiring and diversity. “A certain amount of affirmative action is legal to expand the educational experience of the student,” Kotkin said, especially if the diversity comes from expanded recruitment.
But Marc Stern, general counsel at the global Jewish advocacy group AJC, said that in the past, the Supreme Court has only upheld affirmative action cases when it comes at a “modest cost to others.”
“If they are saying there are too many Jews, that’s flat out religious discrimination,” he said. “The court would never uphold that sort of racial engineering.”
Walker said the administration “has no knowledge of any such claim” that candidates were rejected because they were Jewish.
According to Lax’s state lawsuit, Suss not only refused to hire Jews, he also tried to remove them from positions of authority, especially department chairs. Department chairs are chosen by a vote of the faculty in each department. However, the lawsuit claims that Suss “dedicated much effort to influencing and effectuating the removal of Jews as department chairs.”
When Suss became provost in 1999, more than half of the chairs (nine out of 15) were Jewish, according to a professor who reviewed a list of department chairs for that year provided by Walker. This year, only two Jewish chairs remain.
Both lawsuits also accuse Suss of blocking the promotion of Jewish faculty members and creating a hostile atmosphere for them. Specifically, the lawsuit accuses Suss of “mocking the religious head coverings of Jewish faculty members,” “voicing support for suicide bombers,” referring to Jews as “horrible,” “the devil” and “evil,” “acknowledging that some departments never hire Jews” and “denigrating people for keeping kosher.”
Three of the professors interviewed by The Jewish Week said they’ve witnessed Suss make hostile comments to or about Orthodox professors. But a half dozen other Jewish employees, a mix of faculty and staff members who were connected to The Jewish Week by Walker, said they’ve never witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism from Suss or elsewhere at the school. A seventh, not provided by Walker, said the same.
“There are a whole host of things that I would happily complain to you about concerning the City University of New York, but anti-Semitism isn’t one of them,” one said.
The professors and staff who say they’ve witnessed anti-Semitic discrimination aren’t surprised that not all faculty and staff members have experienced it. Unless you have been involved in the hiring process, one said, there’s a good chance you might never cross paths with the employment discrimination the other professors describe.
Another repeated concern voiced by professors is the administration’s failure to adequately address the anti-Semitic graffiti that pops up at the school “at least once a month,” according to one professor’s estimate.
While the graffiti is quickly painted over, the school does not usually report it to the police despite a school policy saying it should be. Often the graffiti is scratched into the walls and is still visible even after it has been painted over, several professors said. One professor sent The Jewish Week photos of two swastikas he came across in a bathroom on campus. One was partially covered over. The other remained on the bathroom stall wall for several days until The Jewish Week asked the administration about it. Walker said the school hadn’t known about it. At that point the school reported it to the police and then painted over it.
Walker said the school’s public safety department receives very few reports of anti-Semitic graffiti (eight since 2011), and can’t address it if it isn’t reported.
Professors and staff also brought up other anti-Semitic incidents on campus that were not included in the lawsuit:
♦ One professor and one student said that although they had never expressed support for Israel, students have made anti-Israel comments to them during class discussions on unrelated topics.
♦ Israeli and American flags were ripped off a professor’s car, twice while it was parked on campus. (Kingsborough said the vandalism was never reported; the professor said she reported it to public safety officers, who suggested lots with better safety monitoring where she could park.)
♦ More than 250 students signed a petition saying that the speakers slated for a panel on religious pluralism were all anti-Israel. (The panel was postponed in order to select new people. Walker said a committee that included students chose the panelists. Jewish groups were encouraged to send students to join the panel but none did.)
♦ A student collecting signatures for the petition was called a “f-cking Jew” by a student passing by, according to a professor who said he witnessed the exchange.
The Kingsborough professors interviewed said that whatever steps CUNY decides to take to address BDS-fueled anti-Semitism, the discrimination they’re seeing at Kingsborough is only getting worse.
Three professors said they’ve overheard students making anti-Semitic comments among themselves while waiting for class to begin and two professors said that visibly Jewish students have complained of anti-Semitic comments made to them.
“I feel like there’s tons of anti-Semitism on the campus,” one student wrote in an email to a professor, who shared the email with The Jewish Week.
“It doesn’t make me feel scared, it makes me feel sad,” one professor observed. “For the first time ever at Kingsborough it’s OK to say things about Jews and Israel without consequence.”
Note: This story was updated on May 11 to include that Guttman Community College recently hired Stuart Suss and CUNY’s statement regarding the hire.
Top: Professor Jeffrex Lax in his Kingsborough Community College office. Right: Kingsborough Community College: Diverse student body, leafy campus and a private beach. Courtesty of Kingsborough Community College. Left: Swastika graffiti found in a men’s bathroom on campus.