UVM faculty, staff seek apology for administration’s handling of federal antisemitism investigation

Suresh Garimella
In an open letter to university President Suresh Garimella, more than 150 faculty members raised “serious concerns about (his) leadership and trustworthiness.” File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Last month, federal education officials completed an investigation into the University of Vermont. 

After students alleged a series of antisemitic incidents on campus, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched a probe in August 2022. That investigation culminated in a resolution agreement last month, in which the Burlington university agreed to tighten anti-discrimination protections and allow greater federal oversight.

“The resolution reflects an important step in UVM’s engagement with our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the surrounding community,” UVM President Suresh Garimella said in an April 3 message to community members. “We sincerely appreciate the insights of those who joined us in conversation over the past several months, and we have grown closer as a community because of those conversations.”

But the reality on campus appears to be more complicated. One month after the end of the investigation, UVM’s administration has drawn criticism from students, faculty and staff for its handling of the probe.

As of Wednesday, more than 150 faculty members have signed an open letter calling on Garimella to apologize and to “provide an accurate account of what transpired that led to the (Office of Civil Rights) investigation.” 

The signatories “have serious concerns about your leadership and trustworthiness,” the letter reads.

The university’s faculty senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution calling for more transparency from administrators about the investigation’s results and for faculty to “play a more active role” in protecting students from harassment and discrimination.

UVM Staff United, a campus staff union, also urged Garimella to apologize, saying in a separate statement that he “must accept responsibility for the harm caused by his response.”

“UVM students share the concerns of staff and faculty,” Olivia Eisenberg, the president of the university’s Student Government Association, said in an emailed statement. “The prevalence of antisemitism on campus is deeply alarming and we are looking for (the) administration to take a more active role in advocating for the safety of the Jewish community on campus and combatting antisemitism.”

‘The uninformed narrative’

The Department of Education opened its investigation into the university last summer after receiving a complaint from two Jewish advocacy groups, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish On Campus.

That complaint alleged multiple incidents of antisemitism on campus, including tweets from a teaching assistant about reducing the grades of Zionist students, vandalism of the university Hillel Building and exclusion of pro-Israel Jewish students from campus organizations. 

Jewish students had repeatedly met with administrators and raised complaints about a “hostile anti-Semitic environment on campus,” according to the complaint, and the university had allegedly failed to act. 

Days after that investigation was reported in the media, Garimella pushed back against the allegations.

“While common wisdom dictates remaining patiently silent as we cooperate diligently with an agency’s investigation, I simply cannot do so,” Garimella wrote in a Sept. 15 message. “These public allegations and our community’s deeply held values call for a strong and immediate response.”

The president forcefully denied the claims and criticized media coverage of the investigation, saying that “the uninformed narrative published this week has been harmful to UVM.”

‘Egregious malpractice’

But UVM students, faculty and staff — as well as national Jewish organizations — said that it was in fact the president’s message that was damaging.

“(Garimella’s) letter was really just egregious malpractice,” said David Feurzeig, a UVM music professor. 

The message amounted to “victim-blaming,” according to Feurzeig, who was among the signatories of the faculty’s open letter. “He's basically accusing the people who are trying to call attention to the problem and ultimately help UVM to fix it.”

That message “misinformed the university community,” faculty members wrote in their open letter, adding later, “We believe a formal apology is necessary to begin a process of healing within both the campus Jewish community, and the broader UVM community.”

Federal investigators echoed that view when they released the results of their investigation last month. 

“(The Office of Civil Rights) is concerned that the President’s statements may have discouraged these students from speaking with (the Office) about their experiences,” department officials wrote in a letter to UVM administrators outlining the results of their investigation, referring to the president’s Sept. 15 message. 

The results of the investigation also appeared to undercut the president’s denials. In an April 3 press release announcing the conclusion of the investigation, Department of Education officials pointed to “concerns” with UVM’s handling of allegations of antisemitic incidents.

Administrators failed to investigate complaints brought by students, “even though they notified the university regarding serious allegations of harassment,” the department wrote. The university took delayed action that was not “designed to rectify concerns communicated to the university … and may have discouraged students and staff from raising further concerns with the university,” federal officials said. 

UVM ultimately agreed to update its anti-harassment policies, procedures and trainings, and publicly commit to address discrimination including antisemitism. The university is  also required to submit extensive documentation to the Department of Education to prove that it is adhering to those terms.  

“At the heart of the resolution agreement is our reaffirmation that when an act of antisemitism occurs, we will take appropriate and necessary action to address the act, prevent its recurrence, and support those impacted,” Patty Prelock, UVM’s senior vice president and provost, said in a message to community members on the same day the agreement was released.

But the faculty senate resolution that is up for a vote Thursday notes that the university’s agreement with the Office of Civil Rights does not appear to be available on the university’s website — nor has it been linked to in any of the university’s communications about the end of the investigation, according to the resolution, which would call on the administration to make that information more accessible. 

Sophie Ostrovitz, another UVM student, said that the university was “still hiding behind closed doors, making it almost impossible to access the resolution,” in a texted statement.

Ostrovitz is the student president of UVM Hillel, but she emphasized that she was speaking in her individual capacity and not for the organization.

“This makes me lose faith in (the) administration once again, and I question if the efforts and next steps to protect and uplift Jewish students as they often claim to have are genuine,” she said. 

‘Willing to put in the work’

Enrique Corredera, a UVM spokesperson, declined to make administrators available for an interview on Wednesday.

"UVM unequivocally condemns, and will not tolerate, antisemitism in any form,” Corredera wrote in an emailed statement, noting that the university had agreed to a “voluntary resolution” of the federal investigation. 

“Our aim now is to ensure that all on our campus hear our commitment to addressing antisemitism, feel empowered to report it whenever it occurs, and are supported in those times in which we must confront it in our community,” he said. “The faculty senate’s voice on this topic affirms its shared commitment to empowering and supporting students and we are eager to partner with them to meet these imperatives.”

Some on campus appeared to express optimism about the conclusion of the investigation. Matt Vogel, the executive director of UVM Hillel, said that the resolution

“offers tangible and accountable steps forward to help ensure that no student at UVM will experience bias and harassment because of their identity.”

Maya Sobel, a UVM student and member of several campus Jewish organizations, including Hillel, said that she understood the “valid concerns” of faculty and staff and other students.

“Obviously, there is a problem, which is why the case was brought up in the first place,” Sobel said. But, she added, “I think, from here, the administration is very willing to listen to student voices and Jewish voices across campus. And they're willing to put in the work to make a change.”

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Peter D'Auria

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