UNC pledges action in response to concerns over antisemitism: 'We will do more'

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Tuesday, December 12, 2023
UNC pledges action in response to concerns over antisemitism
Antisemitism concerns grow at UNC, with students calling on school leaders to do more to support Jewish students.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Amidst a national discourse on antisemitism, some members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community have voiced concerns over its campus environment.

"We had a student saying that they support Hamas. We had fliers calling for the destruction of the state of Israel," said Neill Motus, a junior who grew up in Israel.

"I hear Jewish jokes every single day. I hear antisemitism every single week. It's unfair. I've never in my entire life ever seen this," added sophomore Justin Sonnenreich.

Over the past two months, ABC11 has spoken with students, faculty, parents, and donors, who have expressed their hopes the university would take stronger measures to support Jewish students.

"The Jewish community at UNC represents below 2% of the student body. And I think it's imperative for the Jewish community to seek out growth, to seek out understanding and to bridge this gap," expressed Sonnenreich.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas attacks on October 7th, several co-sponsoring student groups announced plans to hold a rally in support of Palestine. A social media post, which has since been deleted, promoting the event featured cartoon images of paragliders, one tactic used by the terrorist group during the attacks.

The imagery drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Ted Budd, who referenced the post during a bipartisan roundtable in November.

"To be clear, Hamas terrorists used paragliders to attack innocent young people at a music festival and then hunted them down and murdered them on the side of the road. That was endorsed on a college campus," said Budd, whose office told ABC11 it has heard directly from constituents regarding antisemitism on campus and has been in communication with university officials on the topic.

The day following the rally, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz released a letter to the university community, in which he condemned Hamas' attacks in Israel as "horrifying," adding that "there is no place for antisemitism" on-campus. However, he did not directly address the preceding day's event.

"What concerned me was the fact that the administration didn't immediately come out and condemn these kind of activities. It was their silence that really got to me," said UNC alum Bud Schiff.

Schiff emphasized his frustration was not with student participants of the rally, but with university administrators directly.

"I thought for the first time that they surrendered their moral compass and they failed to uphold what I thought was their great proclaimed values of equity and belonging," Schiff said.

For Schiff, it represented a contrast to his experience as a student at the university in the 1960s.

"It was so welcoming. I never felt any antisemitism whatsoever," Schiff explained.

In response to those reservations, Schiff has cancelled plans to attend his 60th reunion next year, and ceased contributions to the university, including a planned six-figure donation as part of his will.

"I used to endorse candidates all the time who I thought would be decent candidates for (UNC). I won't be doing that anymore," Schiff said.

Other instances which have elicited concern on-campus include a Hebrew class temporarily moving off-campus and chalk drawings expressing support for the PFLP, a designated terrorist group.

Questions regarding the role and obligations of universities to step in to address such matters have drawn increasing attention, including on Capitol Hill, where the House Committee on Education & the Workforce held a hearing last week featuring Presidents at UPenn, Harvard, and MIT. The testimony, which was roundly criticized over the leaders' answers regarding how their respective schools would handle protestors calling for the "genocide of Jews," led the Committee to open a formal investigation into the learning environments, policies and disciplinary procedures at the respective universities. Following mounting pressure, Penn President Liz Magill announced her voluntary resignation.

The Committee is chaired by North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. A day following the hearing, fellow North Carolina Congresswoman Kathy Manning signed on to a letter sent to the three universities, writing in part, "The university presidents' responses to questions aimed at addressing the growing trend of antisemitism on college and university campuses were unacceptable."

ABC11 sat down with Vice Provost of Equity and Inclusion Dr. Leah Cox, who serves as the university's Chief Diversity Officer, two days following the hearing; she does not implement policy as part of her role. Cox said in her opinion, calls for violence are not acceptable, stating her interpretation that chants of "intifada, intifada" and "there is only one solution, intifada revolution," are calls for violence.

Video shared with ABC11 by the advocacy group North Carolina Coalition for Israel shows demonstrators chanting "intifada, intifada" during a rally on-campus last month. The term "intifada" was specifically mentioned during the House hearing, notably as part of questioning between Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and Harvard President Dr. Claudine Gay.

A survey released last month from the Anti-Defamation League further highlighted the scale of the issue. The report notes that prior to the October 7th attacks, 63.7% of Jewish students felt "very" or "extremely" comfortable with others on campus; that figure is now 38.6%.

Further, respondents gave universities a failing grade for their responses, with 70% saying the universities should do more.

"It's up to institutions that hold education at its highest pursuit like UNC to stand up for our community," said Sonnenreich.

Last month, UNC released the findings of a 2022 Campus Climate Survey, in which more than 5,000 employees and 4,100 students participated. While the questions did not specifically break down students religious affiliations, results state that a majority of respondents, including 80% of administrators and nearly 80% of students, willing to recommend it to others. Further, more than 86% of faculty and just under 89% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I am treated with respect by students (based on my race/ethnicity)." Cox said Hillel was included in the Climate Survey.

An event two weeks ago featured an invited speaker, who is not a faculty member or student, making inflammatory remarks about the October 7th attacks, as part of an event co-sponsored by Student Life & Leadership, the Department of Geography and Environment, and UNC Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies.

In a statement, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz responded to the event:

"I was appalled by the remarks of a visiting speaker at a recent event on our campus regarding the war in the Middle East. Her language did not align with the values of our university community. Our university strives for discussions made rich by expertise and a variety of perspectives. We expect those conversations to bring learning and understanding, not applause or support for violence or prejudice. We have made our expectations clear to our campus and will continue to do so. The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences is reviewing the practices and policies for how panels are organized, and how we support free speech, and also host events that encourage respectful debate rather than hate."

The on-campus forum was disappointing to Motus.

"It's very personal, especially for me. My siblings lost three friends (during Hamas' attacks) and we had just days after that, people celebrating it and then the university officially celebrating it with my money and my tuition (referring to this event). It's heartbreaking," said Motus.

It's also drawn a sharp rebuke from some university personnel, as more than 100 faculty members have signed on to an open letter criticizing the language used during the event and insisting on "respectful engagement with challenging topics."

"We don't always have say over who is invited because it is a public institution, but it is not something we condone," added Dr. Cox, who said the speaker was not paid. The speaker has not responded to requests for comment.

The ACLU has defended the right of individuals to express offensive rhetoric, sharing on its website:

"The First Amendment to the Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive. An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech."

"The primary concern is making sure that that none of this rhetoric escalates to violence," said UNC Board of Trustees member Dave Boliek, who praised the work of UNC Police Chief Brian James in ensuring safety during such demonstrations.

Boliek shared he has heard from "a large number of stakeholders" about antisemitism over the past two months.

"I think that free speech, particularly on campus, is extremely important. I think it's part of the fabric of this nation. I think on college campuses, free speech is something that becomes and helps inform future leaders across our nation. The ability to have that freedom to speak your mind and give your opinion is something that young students on college campuses get to experience and get to understand and hopefully can use that to be leaders in the future. It becomes a problem when free speech crosses the line to hate speech," said Boliek.

He added that he is aware the university is working to answer student needs to ensure they are comfortable on-campus.

"I don't think antisemitism is political. I think antisemitism is wrong. And our university and me personally stand against antisemitism," Boliek said.

On November 9th, Chancellor Guskiewicz and Provost J. Christopher Clemens wrote a campus e-mail, stressing protections for freedom of speech, while issuing a "call on our community to lead by example by engaging in peaceful dialogues."

The faculty open letter included a link to an op-ed published in both the News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, praising an event held earlier in the month by two professors with the university's Peace, War, and Defense Program, about both the history and current dynamics of the war. Cox shared hopes to help facilitate a separate event bringing together student groups who hold strong, opposing views of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, to strive for more constructive dialogue.

"We have to do some preparation, but I think that it's something that our faculty, our students, our staff and the community are ready to start talking about these things, because you can't live in this space forever," said Cox, who hopes this will take place in January.

She emphasized other efforts to foster understanding amongst all students.

"I know that we are planning to do a lot more training around issues of antisemitism, discrimination, Islamophobia. I think that that we can step it up and engage more folks in the conversation. It's a large campus. And in talking with some of our students, they're not even aware of what's going on in the world in terms of Israel and Hamas, so I think we have to do a better job of making sure that they're engaged in those conversations because these are their fellow classmates that are feeling this pain and this hurt and these threats. And so we can do more and I think we will do more," Cox explained, adding university officials have participated in panel discussions with Jewish, Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students.

Dr. Cox further highlighted available resources with the counseling center, Heels Care, and the Employee Assistance Program.

"Things pop up and sometimes we're not aware of how they're going to play out. (Issues) come up and then we've got to react. I think we're doing as good a job and maybe better than many of the universities in the country in terms of how we're responding to and engaging with our students," Cox shared.

In early December, a Title VI complaint was filed with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education against UNC-Chapel Hill, for "unlawful discrimination and for breach of a resolution agreement." The resolution agreement referenced was agreed to in 2019 following a controversial conference which was held on-campus.

In a statement, a spokesperson with the Department of Education told ABC11 that, "The Office for Civil Rights does not confirm complaints."

Per protocol, upon receipt of a complaint, the Office for Civil Rights will establish whether it has sufficient information to proceed to investigation; a list of open investigations are posted monthly. This specific complaint was filed following the December update.

A complaint is "a written statement to the Department (of Education) alleging that the rights of one or more persons have been violated and requesting that the Department take action."

As of late Tuesday morning, a university spokesperson told ABC11 they had not received notice regarding the complaint.