CUNY investigation retaliatory, Jewish professors say

The professors at Kingsborough Community College tell JNS that the university is punishing them for complaining about campus antisemitism.

Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Credit: Shutterstock.
Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Credit: Shutterstock.

Two Jewish professors at Kingsborough Community College say the New York City community college is targeting them with retaliatory investigations for their complaints about antisemitism on campus. They further allege that the college and its outside counsel acted in bad faith, failing to provide either with a copy of the complaint.

To complicate matters, the college insinuates that the two professors shared the complainant’s address with a news outlet, causing her to fear for her safety. JNS has viewed evidence that the school, which is part of the City University of New York, included the complainant’s address on a letter it sent to her, upon which it copied the accused professors. The letter did not provide the accused any indication of the nature of the complaint.

One of the accused, Michael Goldstein, a business professor at the college, told JNS that the investigation is “definitely retaliatory. There’s no doubt about it.”

“They’re doing this because we’ve made accusations against them,” he added. “This has been going on for years. This is their way of getting back at us.”

JNS has viewed documents confirming that active CUNY investigations are underway against Goldstein and Jeffrey Lax, chair of the school’s business department, for “discrimination” and “harassment.”

Kingsborough is part of CUNY, which has been under fire for years for failing to take action against rampant antisemitism throughout its system, including within faculty, union and administrative ranks.

In 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, found evidence of discrimination against Jewish CUNY faculty, following an investigation launched by one of Lax’s complaints.

Lax and Goldstein are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against CUNY administrators and its Professional Staff Congress (PSC), a union that holds exclusive rights to bargain on behalf of CUNY faculty members, irrespective of their union membership. PSC has endorsed the BDS movement that boycotts Israel, and Goldstein asserts that union advocates are behind a harassment campaign aiming to get him fired. Goldstein, Lax and their colleagues lost a lower court decision but have since appealed.

Lax and Goldstein are members of S.A.F.E. CUNY, which supports Zionist and observant Jewish members of the university community.

‘It’s an antisemitic movement’

According to now-public documents, Lili Shi, an assistant professor of communications at Kingsborough, is the one who filed the complaint against Lax and Goldstein.

Last August, Lax filed a complaint when Kingsborough appointed Shi to a search committee to fill the new position of assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. The position was created, in part, to tackle antisemitism on campus, per a job listing that remains on LinkedIn, though none of the committee’s seven members was Jewish.

Not only did CUNY find no Jewish search committee members to fill a role that was supposed to address antisemitism but in May 2021, Shi signed a statement demanding that CUNY and its 25 campuses endorse and support an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, among other measures.

Ironically, Lax’s grievance was turned over to Saly Abd Alla, CUNY’s chief diversity officer and a former civil-rights director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR has defended terrorist groups, including Hamas. Only following Lax’s protest did the college forward his complaint to outside counsel for review.

The complaints did not stop there. Shi lodged her own a little over a month later, which CUNY immediately turned over to outside counsel. CUNY confirmed it was investigating Shi’s complaint in a general notice it sent to Shi last November. It copied Lax and Goldstein on both the email and in an attached letter, but it did not explain the circumstances of Shi’s complaint or how they might be involved.

The university did not say why it copied the two professors, and it used an incorrect email address for Goldstein.

Jeffrey Lax, a professor of business at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. N.Y. Credit: Courtesy.

CUNY selected David Holley, a partner at global firm StoneTurn, which advises companies on investigations and business disputes, to handle Shi’s complaint. JNS has viewed documents, which show Holley initially refused to tell Lax and Goldstein about the nature of the complaints against them.

After several email exchanges, Holley finally informed Lax on Jan. 24 that Shi alleged experiencing “targeted cyberbullying” by Lax, and asserted “a case of race and gender discrimination,” as well as her “vulnerability as an immigrant.”

Holley wrote that the complaint stemmed from actions, including Twitter messages and online media articles. Holley provided them with only five words from Shi’s complaint—that the text “a Jew-hater” appeared alongside her photo and “an obituary” naming her.

A tweet from the S.A.F.E. CUNY account called Shi a Jew hater, although neither Holley nor anyone else could know who, among the several members of the group with access to the account, authored the tweet. Goldstein admits he retweeted the message on his personal account.

“Anyone who supports the BDS movement is a Jew-hater. It’s an antisemitic movement,” Goldstein told JNS. He said he uses “antisemite” and “Jew hater” interchangeably since they essentially mean the same thing.

Lax did not retweet the S.A.F.E CUNY tweet from his personal account, but he told JNS he agrees fully with the tweet’s sentiment.

Lax and Goldstein told JNS they have no idea what the reference to an “obituary” is in Shi’s complaint, and neither has made or disseminated comments about Shi’s race, gender or immigrant status. Neither has attempted to contact Shi, either in person or electronically, they said.

Lax and Goldstein have asked CUNY repeatedly to provide them with a copy of Shi’s full complaint, so they can prepare their defense. Holley has refused, according to documents JNS has reviewed.

Writing to the professors, Holley cited concerns for Shi’s safety and privacy, given that her home address was made public when the Washington Free Beacon published the university’s notification letter in its coverage of the story. Newsmax republished the Free Beacon story.

Holley wrote to Lax and Goldstein that the two were quoted in the Free Beacon article and that neither Shi nor CUNY shared the letter with reporters. “Out of an abundance of caution,” Holley wrote them, he was withholding the complaint to avoid it “repeating the same extensive travel as the November 21, 2022 letter.”

He added “deep concerns for Professor Shi’s privacy and safety” were factors. “I am confident that should the university have a contrary view, they will raise it.”

Holley failed to note that the university placed Shi’s address on the letter and copied the professors on the email—the very colleagues she alleges are placing her safety at risk. And Lax says that as soon as he saw Shi’s address was made public, he—not the university—asked the Free Beacon to redact it. JNS viewed emails confirming that Lax asked the Free Beacon to protect Shi’s personal information and that the publication agreed to redact it.

Lax told JNS that it was “completely outrageous” that CUNY provided him with Shi’s home address. “I am actually the only one at every point who protected her personal information,” he said. “I redacted her address when I posted the letter on Twitter on my personal account. I fixed their mistake.”

If CUNY or Holley was so concerned about Shi’s safety, one or both would have asked the Free Beacon to remove it as soon as they saw it was published, said Lax. Instead, he thinks, they are dispatching a cynical strategy to hobble Lax’s and Goldstein’s abilities to defend themselves.

“How long have they known that the Free Beacon posted that letter? What did they do about it? Nothing,” said Lax. He noted it took a single email to the story author to get the address removed.

“These guys didn’t care about her privacy. They only cared about using it as a strategy to conceal the complaint against me, which is really disgusting,” Lax said.

Documents that JNS reviewed also indicate Holley made a false statement to Goldstein when attempting to arrange a conversation. On Jan. 12, Holley wrote to Goldstein that “while there are no allegations of you violating any specific CUNY policies, we are investigating some social media and other online posts mentioning Professor Shi, and are hoping you may provide assistance in our effort.”

Only after Goldstein attempted several times to get Holley to clarify whether he was asking Goldstein to speak as a witness or whether he was under investigation did Holley acknowledge that Shi’s complaint accused Goldstein.

When JNS sought comment, a CUNY spokesman said, “CUNY does not comment on confidential personnel matters.” An email to Shi went unanswered, and when reached by phone, Holley declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations.

Meanwhile, JNS has seen documents indicating Holley is pressing for Lax and Goldstein to cooperate so he can complete his work on CUNY’s timeline. Both say the investigation is a pretext to discipline them, and they believe possible termination is on the table.

“Imagine if this was an African-American person calling out racism. This would never happen,” said Goldstein. “Jews don’t count anymore in this country, and definitely not at CUNY.”

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