Special Reports

Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Brown University Settles With Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on Title VI


The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education said it reached a settlement with Brown University over the institution's handling of a string of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents reported from October 2023 to March 2024.

Gross failures in Brown's response to the complaints outlined in the settlement cast questions on whether the institution has complied with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Brown University Settles with Office for Civil Rights on Title VI

(Photo : WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / Kenneth C. Zirkel)

The Incidents and Brown's Response

During this period, Brown University recorded about 75 incidents of antisemitism and islamophobia. Among them were a Jewish student being referred to as a "Zionist pig Jew" and another one involving a Palestinian student who was assaulted. In addition, despite all the rampant allegations of antisemitism floating about at Brown, OCR found that the university failed in its efforts to investigate such incidents. In some cases, the university simply dropped the complaints if the complainants did not respond to follow-up emails.

OCR criticized Brown for this response, as the university had described its action as dependent on the cooperation of the complainants and not on the substance of the complaints themselves. In particular, OCR determined that Brown failed to conduct thorough investigations and analyses as mandated by Title VI, neglecting its obligations to prevent discrimination based on race, national origin, or shared ancestry.

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Title VI Compliance and Institutional Failures

Brown University mishandled these incidents amidst pro-Palestinian protests at its campus, two of which ended with arrests. These incidents spotlighted just a very tough environment at the university surrounding issues of shared ancestry and discrimination. Institutions that have students and are federally funded have a duty to care for their students from discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This mishandling by Brown in investigating the incidents that were reported showed disregard for what is mandated by law.

In its communication to Brown's President Christina PaxsonOCR pointed out that the university mishandled the Title VI complaints. Noting that Brown had failed to consider whether the reports individually or in the aggregate created a hostile environment requiring redress, the office found this to be a grave error on Brown's part in its obligation to ensure it maintains a safe and non-discriminatory learning environment.

Improving Measures and Future Action

In response to such complaints, Brown University had also begun revising its Title VI procedures. In February, it added a new policy whereby a newly created campus Office of Equity Compliance and Reporting would step in as complainant if the complainant didn't wish to pursue an investigation. That meant that no matter how little interest a complainant held in pursuing her complaint, it would be fully investigated.

Although OCR commended Brown for these proactive policy changes and initiatives to improve Title VI education and training, OCR remained concerned about how far these efforts would go, in practice, to actually cover complaints by non-university-affiliated individuals.

Under the terms of the resolution agreement, Brown University agreed to several steps going forward to further its anti-discrimination efforts. These actions will involve yearly training on anti-discrimination, meticulous record-keeping of all Title VI complaints, and a thorough review of Brown University's response to Title VI, incorporating an action strategy guided by findings from a campus survey on shared-ancestry discrimination.

Russell C. Carey, Brown's executive vice president for planning and policy, expressed satisfaction with the voluntary agreement, highlighting its reinforcement of the university's commitment to a safe, inclusive environment benefiting all community members.

The agreement signed between Brown University and the Office for Civil Rights is major in its stride toward redressal in how the varsity handles incidents relating to antisemitism and islamophobia. In the quest to establish an environment of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination, Brown takes very seriously its commitment to a thorough re-examination of policies and procedures and the implementation of rigorous training and record-keeping practices. The case places in stark relief the necessity for institutions of higher learning to take seriously both Title VI obligations and the necessity of responding effectively to complaints of discrimination in order to safeguard campus communities from harm.

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