Special Reports

University of Michigan Faces Scrutiny for Failing to Address Discrimination Complaints


The University of Michigan has come under scrutiny for its handling of discrimination complaints, particularly those related to antisemitism and Islamophobia. In several high-profile incidents over the past academic year, university officials deemed certain actions and statements as protected free speech, prompting criticism from the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). This article delves into the key incidents, the university's response, and the subsequent OCR investigation.

University of Michigan Faces Scrutiny for Failing to Address Discrimination Complaints

(Photo : WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / AndrewHorne)

Incidents Prompting OCR Investigation

Several incidents at the University of Michigan highlighted potential failures in complying with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandates that federally funded institutions prevent harassment and discrimination based on shared ancestry. Among these incidents was the case of a Jewish student who reported a harassing social media post from a graduate student instructor. The university classified the post as free speech and declined to pursue formal conflict resolution. Similarly, complaints about posts from student groups containing the phrase "from the river to the sea" were dismissed on free speech grounds.

In another incident, a student who attended a pro-Palestinian protest was told she had "terrorist friends." The university responded with restorative circles for staff, faculty, and students but took no further action. These responses were criticized for not adequately addressing the hostile environments reported by students. OCR reviewed 75 reports of alleged shared ancestry discrimination or harassment during the 2023-24 academic year and found no evidence that the university complied with its Title VI obligations to assess whether these incidents created a hostile environment.

READ MORE: Yale, Michigan Presidents To Face Private Capitol Hill Questioning Over Campus Antisemitism Allegations 

OCR's Findings and Agreements

The OCR's investigation concluded that the University of Michigan failed to investigate and remedy situations to prevent a hostile environment. The university has since agreed to update its policies on handling Title VI complaints. This agreement is part of broader efforts by OCR to ensure universities comply with civil rights laws. The University of Michigan, along with the City University of New York (CUNY), has committed to several steps to improve its response to discrimination complaints.

These steps include reviewing or re-investigating reports of shared ancestry discrimination or harassment, conducting campus climate surveys, and training employees on how to respond to alleged discrimination. The goal is to bring institutions into compliance with Title VI, focusing on remediation rather than punishment. However, OCR's actions signal a stricter enforcement of Title VI, particularly in the context of increasing scrutiny on how universities handle antisemitism and Islamophobia.

The Implications for Higher Education

The resolution agreements with the University of Michigan and CUNY are significant as they reflect OCR's evolving approach to enforcing Title VI. This approach emphasizes thorough investigations into complaints, similar to how colleges handle reports of sexual harassment under Title IX. It requires universities to engage with witnesses and students involved in incidents to determine whether a hostile environment exists.

Higher education institutions are now under pressure to scrutinize incidents more closely and to distinguish between free speech and discriminatory harassment. As Brigid Harrington, a higher education attorney, noted, universities must thoroughly investigate allegations of harmful environments, balancing free speech rights with the need to prevent discrimination.

The agreements also underscore the importance of campus climate surveys and comprehensive training programs for staff and students. These measures are intended to foster an environment where all students can learn without fear of discrimination. While the OCR's initial goal is compliance, failure to adhere to these agreements could result in more severe consequences, including the potential loss of federal funding.

The University of Michigan and CUNY cases serve as a wake-up call for other universities. As OCR continues to investigate and enforce Title VI, institutions must be proactive in addressing discrimination complaints. This involves updating policies, improving training, and ensuring thorough investigations. The heightened scrutiny on university compliance with Title VI highlights the need for robust measures to protect students from discrimination based on shared ancestry, ensuring a safe and inclusive educational environment.

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