UVM President Suresh Garimella responds to civil rights allegations

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UVM President Suresh Garimella responds to civil rights allegations

Fri, 09/16/2022 - 1:12pm -- tim
Sept. 15, 2022
University of Vermont community from President Suresh Garimella

Dear Members of the UVM Community,

This week’s media coverage of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) into an anonymous third party’s allegations that the university failed to adequately respond to complaints of anti-Jewish, biased behavior at UVM has painted our community in a patently false light.

While common wisdom dictates remaining patiently silent as we cooperate diligently with an agency’s investigation, I simply cannot do so. These public allegations and our community’s deeply held values call for a strong and immediate response.

UVM is a community with a long, proud history of inclusiveness. We denounce hateful actions and respond briskly and decisively whenever those responsible are identified. UVM is home to a strong and vibrant Jewish community and is recognized as a place where—year after year—many Jewish students, faculty, and staff choose to study, teach, conduct research, practice medicine, and work. As a community, we adhere to Our Common Ground values of respect, integrity, innovation, openness, justice, and responsibility.

The uninformed narrative published this week has been harmful to UVM. Equally importantly, it is harmful to our Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni. There is no doubt that antisemitism exists in the world and, despite our best efforts, in our community. Exploitation of fear and divisiveness by advancing false claims that UVM failed to respond to complaints of antisemitic behavior creates confusion and a sense of insecurity for the entire community.

I therefore would like to set the record straight regarding the OCR complaint by sharing the core elements of UVM’s forthcoming response.

  • An OCR investigation is not triggered by any finding that a complaint has merit or that UVM has done something wrong. Rather, it signals that the person or entity that filed the complaint has alleged a civil rights violation against a college or university within the Department of Education’s jurisdiction.
  • Once opened, the OCR investigation gives the university the opportunity to respond to the allegations. UVM vigorously denies the false allegation of an insufficient response to complaints of threats and discrimination, as will be demonstrated in our response to OCR.
  • The complaint alleges UVM failed to adequately respond to three specific incidents:
  • Allegation 1. The complaint alleges that the university did not adequately respond to student reports of antisemitism by a teaching assistant. University response to the incident: A university community member reported on September 6, 2021, that an undergraduate teaching assistant made antisemitic remarks and threatened to lower the grades of Jewish students on their personal social media accounts prior to serving as a TA. The university took prompt action to ensure that the objectionable statements did not adversely impact students in the classroom and further, to perform a thorough review to ensure all grades were awarded on a non-discriminatory basis. No student reported to the university that this teaching assistant harassed or discriminated against them. The university’s response to the report was completed by September 30, 2021.
  • Allegation 2. A group of university students threw rocks at the Hillel building. University’s response to the incident: On September 24, 2021, UVM Police responded to a report regarding students throwing small rocks at the Hillel building. The incident was reported to the university administration as an incident of hate and bias the following day. The investigation was immediate, and it was quickly determined that the students who threw the small rocks at a window of the Hillel building were doing so to get the attention of a friend who was convalescing in the building while recovering from an illness, that the throwing stopped after they got a student’s attention, and that there was no reported damage to the building. There was no evidence of any threatening behavior or that the conduct was motivated by antisemitic bias. The university’s review and response to the police and administrative reports was completed by September 28, 2021.
  • Allegation 3. Two UVM student organizations excluded students who “expressed support for Zionism” from membership in their organizations. University’s response to the incident: On September 30, 2021, students reported this conduct to university administration. The university investigated the report quickly and thoroughly and determined that the groups who apparently made these statements were not recognized UVM student organizations. The unrecognized organizations received no university support and were not bound by UVM’s policies governing student organizations. To ensure an inclusive environment within recognized UVM student organizations, student leaders were reminded of university policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion, national origin, or any other protected category.

It is important that our community know the truth about what happened, and how the university responded. Although the allegations were investigated and addressed, we recognize we can and should do more to support the success of our students. University leaders have reached out on several occasions to our Jewish students over the last year to understand their experiences on our campus, to provide them with the tools they need to respond to incidents of bias and discrimination, and to work with them to better understand the climate in which they are living and learning.

Our work in understanding and eliminating antisemitism will never be complete. Over the past year, university leaders have reviewed, updated, and consolidated our bias reporting processes to make them more accessible to those who need them. A few weeks ago, I joined other university leaders, government officials, and civic leaders for Project Interchange, a hands-on immersive learning opportunity hosted in Israel by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Our provost and senior vice president, Patty Prelock, actively participated in a Summit to Combat Campus Antisemitism with more than 40 higher education leaders in New York. We will continue to learn and support UVM’s Jewish community to ensure that any future incidents that might occur will be addressed with immediacy and sensitivity to what they are experiencing. 

If you have concerns or want to report an incident of antisemitism, please know that you can do so at any time at uvm.edu/reporting. The university’s response will be supportive, thorough, and timely.

Sincerely,

Suresh V. Garimella

President