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November 17, 2023

Penn being investigated by U.S. Dept. of Education for complaints of antisemitism

The university says it is 'taking clear and comprehensive action' to address incidents on its campus. On Friday, it revealed the members of a task force created to combat the issue

Investigations Colleges
Penn Antisemtism Investigation Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The University of Pennsylvania is among seven schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for alleged antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents.

The University of Pennsylvania is among seven schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for possible civil rights violations in the aftermath of the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

The investigation into the schools, which also include Lafayette College in Northampton County, was spurred by complaints of antisemtism and Islamophobia, and comes in the wake of a nationwide surge in reports of discrimination on college campuses, federal officials said Thursday. 

The seven schools include six colleges and a school district in Kansas. The Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether they violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits harassment based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. The schools are at risk of losing federal funding, CBS News reported.

"Hate has no place in our schools, period," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said. "When students are targeted because they are — or are perceived to be — Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Sikh or any other ethnicity or shared ancestry, schools must act to ensure safe and inclusive educational environments where everyone is free to learn."

In a statement, Penn pledged to fully cooperate with the investigation. "The university is taking clear and comprehensive action to prevent, address, and respond to antisemitism, with an action plan anchored in the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism," the statement said.

On Friday, Penn revealed the members of its newly-created Task Force on Antisemitism. The 20-person panel is the focal point of the plan leaders drafted earlier this fall to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate, including Islamophobia, on campus. It will be chaired by Mark S. Wolff, the dean of Penn's dental school. 

In September, Penn came under scrutiny for hosting the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, which included speakers with a history of antisemitism. That criticism intensified after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, with notable alums and donors accusing the university of providing cover for antisemetic groups. A member of Penn's board of trustees resigned in protest. 

Penn President Liz Magill later acknowledged that the university "should have moved faster" in condemning antisemitism, but she has faced criticism and calls for her resignation. 

In late October, an antisemitic graffiti tag was found on a vacant building near Alpha Epsilon Pi, a 110-year-old Jewish fraternity, prompting a police investigation.  

Last week, a pair of pro-Palestinian groups projected messages that were critical of the university and included phrases such as "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" and "Zionism is racism" onto four campus buildings.

Magill denounced the displays as "vile, antisemitic messages," saying they are "an assault" on the university's values and cause pain and fear among the Jewish community. 

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked more than 100 antisemitic incidents across the country. Reported threats against Muslim and Arab communities also have increased, according to the FBI