New York may be the most Jewish city in the United States, but its publicly-funded higher education system has been warped by anti-Semitism. Worse still, the City University of New York (CUNY)’s leadership doesn’t seem motivated to address the systemic problem.
The New York City Council’s Higher Education Committee recently held a hearing to address rampant anti-Semitism across CUNY’s 25 campuses. Six of the City Council’s 51 elected representatives constructively investigated the matter at hand; a seventh threw rhetorical bombs.
Republican Councilwoman Inna Vernikov mentioned that the hearing had been rescheduled to accommodate CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez, who “said it was important for him to be here.” The chancellor canceled the day prior, however, dispatching three CUNY representatives in his stead. The trio appeared via Zoom, literally distancing themselves from the proceedings.
CUNY’s pitch was effectively summarized by Glenda Grace, senior vice chancellor for institutional affairs, strategic advancement and special counsel, who explained: “We’re here because we’re not perfect, but we’re trying to do everything in our power. We want to make our students thrive.” Grace subsequently spent significant time parrying with lawmakers, attempting to admit no consequential fault and commit CUNY to no new obligations.
It was striking how many questions stumped the CUNY representatives. They could recall no examples of CUNY disciplining anyone for anti-Semitism. They did not know the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported to CUNY or the likelihood that anti-Semitic incidents would be addressed within 60 days. Grace did not recall former President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding campus anti-Semitism. They were unsure how the law school handled concerns about a virulently anti-Israel commencement speaker. When Councilman Joe Borelli asked for examples of recent commencement speakers who were openly Zionist, conservative or Republican, Grace had none.
Listeners also learned that no CUNY special committee reviews anti-Semitic incidents. CUNY doesn’t use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition of anti-Semitism, believing the “definition of discrimination and harassment is clear.” No CUNY campus is known to have anti-Semitism training. Israel is the only country that’s been subject to CUNY boycott resolutions. While Grace says CUNY does not support BDS, she couldn’t “denounce” it on behalf of CUNY. Grace maintains CUNY is giving Jewish students (unspecified) tools to deal with anti-Semitism and people who don’t value who they are. And if David Duke were scheduled to speak at commencement, the event would proceed.
Some comments were out of touch. For example, Robin Garrell, president of the CUNY Graduate Center, cited the fact that CUNY professors signed the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism as a positive, even though the Declaration has been widely criticized for excusing left-wing anti-Semitism.
Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Dr. Denise Maybank expressed the “need to engage diverse perspectives,” but testimony from Jewish students and faculty made it clear that they feel shunned for their diverse views and identities. CUNY is now launching small affinity groups with Hillel, supposedly allowing students to discuss what they’ve “felt.” However, many Jewish students won’t want to share anything with CUNY, with good reason.
CUNY’s representatives repeatedly referenced free speech, as if others sought to limit allowable speech. Rather, witnesses wanted the right to also be heard on campus.
Rebuttals ramped up when James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), a CUNY union, testified. Davis said a 2021 faculty resolution did not support BDS. Holding the resolution, Higher Education Committee Chair Eric Dinowitz replied that it actually affirmed faculty’s right to boycott and divest, using “all the dangerous language that stifles debate.”
Davis claimed there was outreach to every union member interested in resigning over that resolution, an assertion refuted by Professor Jeffrey Lax. Davis said he felt fidelity to Israel had become a litmus test for Jewishness. Dinowitz noted nobody had said that. Vernikov asked Davis about his personal beliefs on BDS. He declined to disclose, before Vernikov revealed there’s an online video of Davis supporting BDS.
Councilman Kalman Yeger inquired about the safety of Jewish students when professors support such resolutions. Davis insisted that context matters, pointing to white Christian nationalism and the war on terror. Yeger pointed out that Christian nationalism is not the problem at CUNY.
Indeed, it’s not. The testimony from Jewish faculty, students and outside organizations combating anti-Semitism crystallized CUNY’s central problem: Jews fear discrimination or attacks if they are visibly Jewish or openly support Israel. They also lack support from CUNY leadership.
CUNY hasn’t properly defined anti-Semitism or tracked anti-Semitic incidents. Their leadership isn’t interested in seeing the anti-Semitic rot that’s infested their campuses. CUNY’s representatives can say that every student should feel free to be themselves on campus, but the current climate clearly doesn’t allow that. So at this point, New York’s taxpayers should ask two questions: Why does the chancellor still have his job, and when will CUNY be defunded?
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. State Department speechwriter, is now an independent writer in metro Washington.