Student Speaks on Steering Complaint

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The Barnard Orthodox Jewish student who was allegedly “steered” from taking Joseph Massad’s class because of the professor’s anti-Israel views, has given her first interview. The article for Tablet, written by David Fine, CC’13, reveals that the student wanted to take the class with Massad, despite his reputation, but was still “steered” away by her major advisor, Barnard Professor Rachel McDermott.

“I went to her to speak about the major and talk to her about classes that I was looking at,” the student, who asked not to be named, said of a January, 2011 meeting in which she sought advice from McDermott, the longtime chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department at Barnard. “I mentioned a course taught by Joseph Massad.”

“Oh, he’s very anti-Israel,” McDermott responded, according to the student. “And I said, ‘That’s fine, I’ve heard anti-Israel things before, and I’m fine if it’s a culture clash.'”

But McDermott insisted Massad’s course would make the student “uncomfortable,” the student said in the interview. In the end, the student, then a sophomore, took the Jewish history class instead.

If the student’s story is true, it appears that she was steered away from taking the class not because she disagreed with the professor on an academic or political level, but because of her religious and ethnic identity. The situation seems to have more in common with an advisor telling a student “don’t take this class because you’re black and the professor hates blacks” (which is illegal) than with an advisor telling a student, “don’t take this class because you don’t like math and the professor uses a lot of math,” (which is fine).

The article also explains exactly how the January steering incident culminated in an official inquiry by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, who confirmed to Tablet that they’re currently “investigating a complaint alleging Columbia University discriminated against a student of Jewish ancestry/ethnicity on the basis of national origin.”

…she [the student] wasn’t much surprised by McDermott’s advice until last May. That month, she met Peter Haas, a professor of Jewish studies at Case Western University and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a network of pro-Israel academics and professors, and told him about what happened. Another member of the pro-Israel professors’ network, Judith Jacobson, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s School of Public Health, followed up by calling the student. Jacobson wanted to know if the student was interested in talking to Kenneth L. Marcus, the group’s legal adviser. The student agreed.

McDermott stepped down as chair of the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department in September. She has declined to comment for Bwog or any other media organization.

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  1. CC'13  

    this sounds like something that's been blown WAY out of proportion. inappropriate (though well intentioned) advising? yes. antisemitism? absolutely not.

  2. Anonymous

    This sounds insane. If I were friends with this Barnard girl, I would have given her the same advice as McDermott. Massadc's an asshole, McDrrmott was just givibg advice and the registrar would not have prevented her from taking the class. I call BS. No one wins in skirmishes like this and only incite anger and illogical people.

  3. This is complete bullshit

    I can't believe there is an actual investigation over this. I mean, doesn't the Department of Education have more pressing matter, like gee idk the fucking illiteracy problem that is plaguing our country, the growing numbers of failure rates in high schools, etc, etc. This case sounds pretty trivial to me, if you plan on taking courses in college, you better realize that even professors have their own views, and God forbid they may not resonate with yours. Seems like a fuck-up the chair of the department made, and it should have just stopped there.

    To be quite fair, had it been a Palestinian kid filing a report against an pr-israeli professor, there would have never been a case to begin with.

    • Kenneth Marcus on "Steering"

      “I certainly never saw something like this in education,” he said. “It’s a novel theory as applied to universities.”

      Hmm, I wonder why that is the case, perhaps because it's a completely fabricated idea, which is only based and applicable to a housing issue in the 1960's.

  4. Anonymous

    Of course this is trivial. But supporters of Israel have this entire country in a vise grip.

    America is going to crumble within our lifetimes, and bullshit like this contributes to its certain downfall.

  5. So basically...

    ...this student didn't see anything wrong with the advice she got (because there wasn't anything wrong with it; she asked for advice, got some, had complete freedom of choice about whether to take the course or not, and went on with her life accordingly). Until an organized political group who are constantly on the lookout for ways to get their hooks into Columbia for "anti-semitism" (why the focus on Columbia as opposed to other schools where Jews are ACTUALLY underrepresented, I will never understand) manipulated her into going over EVERYONE's head and filing a complaint directly with the Feds.

    IF this student felt, upon reflection, that the advice she got was inappropriate, she should have taken it up with her adviser directly or, if not comfortable doing that, should have gone to the Dean of Students' office at Barnard and asked them to mediate. Until you've exhausted the actual grievance procedures available to you at the institution, you have no business "appealing" to a government agency. I don't blame the student; she obviously didn't feel aggrieved and that's why she didn't initiate any of the appropriate conversations/procedures. But Judith Jacobson, herself a professor, should have known better. You DO NOT manipulate a student for your own political ends and you DO NOT go over everyone's head and denounce a fellow faculty member to the Feds without alerting either her or anyone else at the institution to the fact that anything is wrong. Are we living in the Soviet Union or what??

    Someone should denounce Jacobson to the Feds for her inappropriate behavior. See how she likes it. I feel terrible for Prof. McDermott, who is the kindest lady imaginable and absolutely does not deserve to be going through this very public defamation.

  6. ...  

    sounds like a roundabout way of making life difficult for joseph massad.

    problem is, as this episode illustrates, columbia kids love squealing about stuff in the name of getting attention. if massad's class was truly a problem, we would have all heard about it long before this...

    and honestly, as far as the "steering" argument goes... i find it rather offensive. it's similar to the righty-tighty people and their "university as left wing indoctrination" argument. these silly arguments all rest on the incredibly offensive premise that young people are unable to think for themselves and will think and do exactly as they're told. sorry guys, but i really don't think it works that way.

  7. Anonymous  

    Professor McDermott is an incredibly open, encouraging, and positive woman. I can't even frankly imagine anything she said "steering" this student away from class with Massad being anything but her trying to give helpful and well-intentioned advice.

    Anyone who's in an academically rigorous humanities or social sciences program here has certainly had a mentor or advisor "steer" him or her from taking a particular course because said mentor knows the professor in question's opinions or teaching style would clash with the student's. On any issue, this would be considered a thoughtful and helpful bit of advice; when Israel comes into the mix, though, it becomes an act of anti-semitism. This seems a bit problematic.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed. I had McDermott a couple semester ago and I thought she was exceptionally kind, sensitive, and intelligent. It's absurd that she's been implicated in this boondoggle. If anything, Massad himself is the issue at hand. But the fact of the matter is -- agree with him or not -- he's just not that nice of a guy. There's always going to be more people like him and if you don't like his politics, the best thing to do is to avoid direct -- or in this case, relatively direct -- contact with him. From a distance and up close, petty arguments make the accuser, the defendant, and the moderator look ridiculous.

    • Anonymous  

      I used to have McDermott as my advisor. She is absolutely the nicest and most well-intentioned person ever. She was the best advisor I ever had!

  8. And I should add...

    "The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments." - Nietzsche ("The Gay Science")

  9. Poindexterous

    As I try to deal with the fact that I still read Bwog after graduating, now I have to deal with the fact that I'm commenting, here we go.

    "The situation seems to have more in common with an advisor telling a student “don’t take this class because you’re black and the professor hates blacks” (which is illegal) than with an advisor telling a student, “don’t take this class because you don’t like math and the professor uses a lot of math,” (which is fine)."

    What the f word are you guys even talking about? "He's very anti-Israel" is not the same as "he hates jewish people" or "he hates blacks." How is that not obvious? (really nice, by the way...blacks?)

    Seems like she never said "don't take the class." Student punked out by listening to her advisor and not taking a class that challenged her/upset her/encouraged her to listen to someone she disagreed with (training for the rest of your life). Learn how to deal with getting your feelings hurt. Build your effing character. Sit in one class with Professor Tom Roma (and he'll let you, just go) and let him tell you you're a total moron and realize you won't melt or crap yourself.

    Maybe the advisor was wrong for coddling so hard (and man I'll bet she regrets it now), but the shittier thing is that the girl listened and "opted for the Jewish History class instead." Wowza. And now wants to/is being encouraged to turn her advisor's life into a sh*t storm. She gets a call, "Do you want to speak to our lawyer about this?" "Uh.....sure." Seems like she's generally just into taking any advice given to her. She even says in the tablet interview that she knew her advisor was just trying to protect her. Is it often that people get steered/coerced and honestly believe it was for their own good? ("The realtor lady was right, there really were just too many white people in that neighborhood. So glad she protected us. From all those white people.) If she was really truly hurt by her advisor I wish she would step out of the anonymity closet and speak up and explain with her name behind her and just commit to fighting the injustice/prejudice/civil rights violation she feels like she was on the receiving end of. NUT UP, babygurrrl!.

    Damn, I don't know why but this seems especially sad to me. Maybe I'm about to get my period.

    And one more thing: Every single time an orthodox person takes a class with a prof who is known to have opposing beliefs, every time a not black kid takes and af am studies course, or an engineer takes a painting class or whatever it's amazing. Because that's a big part of what college is for. More advisor's should be pushing for this kind of thing. And that's some real rap.

  10. Pdexter

    k now find all my typos and pick on me about them!

  11. Anonymous

    Rachel McDermott is everything a university professor should be. She is brilliant, well-meaning, and genuinely cares about her students. It is absurd that she is involved in this in a way that paints her in the wrong.

    She is a true educator. This is blown out of proportion and the student should realize that she has made a mistake in letting this escalate.

    Advice to that student: Put it to rest. You are hurting good people.

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