College resolves federal investigation of antisemitism in WIFI registration

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The College entered into a resolution agreement with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on July 3 to resolve a complaint filed against the College alleging discrimination in the College Council (CC)’s refusal to grant registered student organization (RSO) status to the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI). The complaint had alleged that CC’s decision on WIFI constituted discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity against Jewish students, a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal statute preventing racial discrimination in programs receiving federal assistance. 

Per the resolution agreement, the College did not admit to violating Title VI, nor did OCR make any findings of fact about whether the College violated the law. Instead, the voluntary agreement binds the College to a series of measures to ensure compliance with Title VI’s mandates in the future. The agreement, signed by President Maud S. Mandel, states, “The College will ensure that: (i) the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) is afforded the same rights and privileges as registered student organizations approved by the College Council; and, (ii) the College treats WIFI in a nondiscriminatory manner. This provision includes but is not limited to the requirement that College Council evaluate WIFI requests for and provide financial assistance and other benefits in a non-discriminatory manner.” 

In response to this requirement, Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass expressed the College’s desire to ensure WIFI’s fair treatment. “We’ve had really productive conversations with CC leadership and the College’s general counsel about straightforward ways we can make sure we’re in compliance. Meanwhile, I believe CC leadership is working on clarifying approaches to the RSO authorization process along with other procedures,” Klass said. “We’re looking forward to working closely with them this year. In the meantime, the procedure outlined under the header ‘Starting a New RSO’ is the process of record,” a reference to the Student Life website. 

The College will be required to provide data and other documents showing compliance with the agreement by Nov. 1, 2019, and will continue to provide a report on Feb. 1, June 1 and Nov. 1, 2020. OCR will then be able to enforce any breach of the agreement’s provisions. 

WIFI’s application for RSO status was rejected by a vote of 13-8 by CC at their April 23 meeting. On May 14, a panel of College administrators and CC members approved WIFI’s application through an alternate procedure available in the student handbook. In response to the OCR resolution, CC Co-Presidents Ellie Sherman ’20 and Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí ’20 expressed their desire to ensure WIFI’s equal treatment. “We look forward to working with the Williams Initiative for Israel this year in our full capacity as heads of College Council so to assure that this student organization is treated both fairly and equally as any other club,” they said. “Our goal is for every single student to feel comfortable, safe and supported by College Council, regardless of background, identity or expression.” 

The original complaint against the College was filed on May 2 by David Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University, and alleged in part, “Refusal to recognize Williams Initiative for Israel as a recognized student organization on the same terms as the CC has recognized dozens of other student groups constituted discrimination against Jewish students at Williams on the basis of ethnicity or race.” OCR’s Boston regional office opened an investigation on May 31. With this resolution agreement, OCR’s investigation has officially ended. 

The investigation also raised the question of to what degree the College was legally responsible for the conduct of CC. The OCR investigation did not ultimately settle this point. In a letter sent to Mandel on July 25 by OCR Boston Acting Regional Director Michelle Kalka, Kalka writes, “However, OCR has not completed its investigation into what occurred at the meetings, the Council’s relationship to the College and the current status of WIFI.” 

WIFI’s leadership expressed its satisfaction with the resolution and its hopes for a productive year. “We support this resolution, and all other efforts by Williams College, to ensure that WIFI be given a voice on campus, and that students who support Israel be given the same right to organize as other groups on campus,” said Gavin Small ’22 on behalf of WIFI’s leadership.