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Amid concerns about antisemitism on campus, Department of Education opens investigation into Harvard

Harvard UniversityCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on Tuesday opened an investigation into Harvard University, according to a listing on the federal agency’s website.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint that alleged Harvard “discriminated against students on the basis of their national origin (shared Jewish ancestry and/or Israeli) when it failed to respond appropriately to reports of incidents of harassment” last month, according to portions of a letter from the Department of Education seen by the Globe.

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin at schools receiving federal funds, and the Office of Civil Rights investigates complaints about alleged violations.

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Spokespeople for the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday evening.

A Harvard spokesperson said Tuesday evening that the university supports “the work of the Office of Civil Rights to ensure students’ rights to access educational programs are safeguarded and will work with the office to address their questions.”

While the Department of Education did not publicly disclose the specifics of the investigation, Fox News Digital, which first reported the probe, said it came in response to a disputed incident that involved an Israeli student at an October pro-Palestinian protest on the campus of Harvard Business School.

Harvard President Claudine Gay on Nov. 9 said she has “heard from many community members” about that incident.

“That incident is being investigated by the FBI and the Harvard University Police Department,” Gay said. “Consistent with our standard practice, once law enforcement’s inquiry is complete, the University will address the incident through its student disciplinary procedures to determine if University policies or codes of conduct have been violated and, if so, take appropriate action.”

Opening an investigation “in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the complaint,” according to the letter seen by the Globe.

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OCR, which investigates allegations that include schools having failed to protect students from harassment based on race, color or national origin, has opened 15 such investigations since Oct. 7. That’s the same amount of cases opened from the start of the year until Oct. 7 — the day Hamas attacked Israel — according to its website.

Other colleges and universities facing recent investigations include Wellesley College, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Cornell University.

Gay, with the presidents of MIT and UPenn, is set to testify on Capitol Hill next week about efforts to address antisemitism on campus.

Tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have roiled campuses in recent weeks following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. That incursion included the murder of families in their homes, kidnapping of children, and a mass slaughter of civilians at a music festival. As Israel pummeled Gaza to go after Hamas — killing thousands of civilians, burying children under rubble, and displacing cities’ worth of people — tensions ratcheted even further.

Demonstrations at Harvard calling for the safe return of hostages held by Hamas and rallies calling for a cease-fire in Gaza have become regular occurrences. Some pro-Palestinian students have been doxxed and say that the university has not done enough to protect them from harassment and intimidation.

Some Jewish students and alumni, meanwhile, have pointed to rhetoric at pro-Palestinian rallies that they view as antisemitic, including the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which Gay has condemned. But there remains contentious disagreement over that phrase, and more broadly, over where to draw the line between deeply felt anti-Israel beliefs and blatant antisemitism.

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Last month, Gay convened a group of advisers, including faculty, staff, alumni, and Jewish religious leaders, to combat antisemitism at Harvard.

“As we grapple with this resurgence of bigotry, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: Antisemitism has no place at Harvard,” Gay said in a speech last month at Harvard Hillel, a Jewish campus group. “For years, this university has done too little to confront its continuing presence. No longer.”


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.