In January 2023, the George Washington University learned of a letter filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging antisemitic discrimination and retaliation in a university course. The university engaged the law firm Crowell & Moring LLP to conduct a third-party investigation to thoroughly examine the allegations in this complaint.
President Wrighton shared a message about the investigation with the university community. The summary of findings from the investigation is given below:
- StandWithUs, which describes itself as “an international nonprofit organization providing education about Israel and combatting antisemitism” (“SWU”), filed a letter of complaint against George Washington University (“GW” or the “University”) with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) alleging “antisemitic discrimination and retaliation experienced by first-year Jewish and Israeli students” in a graduate class within the Professional Psychology Program (‘the Program’).” GW engaged the law firm Crowell & Moring (“Crowell”) to conduct an independent review. Crowell’s review was comprehensive. It included interviews with almost all of the students in the class, as well as Program faculty and School administrators. It also included a review of a significant number of contemporaneous documents and communications.
- The Diversity Sequence I course taught by the faculty member, Dr. Lara Sheehi, is a mandatory non-credit course, designed to meet one of the American Psychological Association’s (“APA’s”) accreditation standards for “profession-wide competencies” required of all doctoral students in APA-accredited programs. The specific competency addressed by this course was “individual and cultural diversity” to help students understand their own cultural histories and biases, and how those might affect their understanding of and interactions with future patients.
- At the conclusion of its review, Crowell found no evidence substantiating the allegations of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct alleged in the complaint. Many of the statements the complaint alleges were made by Dr. Sheehi were, according to those who heard them, either inaccurate or taken out of context and misrepresented.
- Most of the concerns expressed in the complaint arose from the comments of a guest speaker at a “brown bag” event to which students were invited, but not required, to attend. While the SWU letter to OCR alleges that the speaker’s comments were antisemitic, the review found that the allegations in the complaint about the lecture are largely inconsistent with the recording of the event or significantly decontextualized.
- Underlying much of the discourse that arose in the class is the issue of what is appropriately defined as antisemitism – that is, whether structural critiques of the State of Israel, including actions by the Israeli government, constitute antisemitism. This issue is being debated in college campuses across the country, and in many other arenas. SWU and a few of the students in the class, advocated for an expansive view of the definition of antisemitism, which, if accepted in the university environment, could infringe on free speech principles and academic freedom.
- As noted in the SWU letter, some students expressed strongly held beliefs that the views of the brown bag speaker, and statements in the classroom, were antisemitic and that those disagreeing with their viewpoint failed to validate the students’ identities and shared experiences. Crowell’s assessment concluded that Dr. Sheehi repeatedly acknowledged the students’ feelings, gave the students space to express their concerns, and denounced antisemitism as a real and present danger. No student-interviewees recalled Dr. Sheehi denying that antisemitism exists or denying the students’ lived experiences.
- Once the students’ complaints were raised with the Program Director and the College leadership during the semester, the University took several steps to address the concerns, including: 1) inviting students to meet with and discuss their experiences with the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies; 2) reiterating the College’s and Program’s commitment to tolerance and respect in several Program and cohort-wide communications rejecting antisemitism and racism; and 3) engaging third-party facilitators to host a “restorative circle.”
- The complaint challenged the remediation that was required of students in the class. Contrary to the allegations in the complaint, remediation is not disciplinary. Rather, it is a supportive and collaborative process between students and faculty members intended to address a deficiency in a skill or subject matter area necessary for continued progress in the Program and, ultimately, licensure. Crowell found that remediation was supported overwhelmingly by the Program faculty as a necessary step for students’ professional development and was not a retaliatory measure for complaints of antisemitism in Dr. Sheehi’s Diversity Sequence course.
- The complaint references profane tweets from a Twitter account linked to Dr. Sheehi believed to be posted several years ago, which include references to “Zionists” and “Israelis.” The university understands how these tweets, viewed at face value, are offensive and hurtful to some. Although the tweets from what appears to be Dr. Sheehi’s personal account do not violate GW’s social media policy, the university strongly denounces the use of profane language directed at any group of people, including in private tweets. Crowell found, however, that the tweets were made in a private Twitter account that was only briefly visible to the public. Moreover, the review found that no students interviewed were aware of any of Dr. Sheehi’s tweets during the Fall 2022 course, and found no evidence that she made any statements to students similar to the statements in the tweets. While the University disapproves of the tone of the tweets, GW policies recognize the right of faculty to articulate their points of view consistent with the university’s strong commitment to academic freedom.
- The University fully acknowledges people have strongly held views on the extremely complex issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict and whether discourse crosses the line between the sharing of political views and antisemitism. With respect to the interactions that occurred in Dr. Sheehi’s classroom, to be clear, the investigation found no evidence that the discourse crossed the line into antisemitic speech. While we respect the right of individuals to disagree, we strongly denounce the hateful messages and threats directed to Dr. Sheehi and her family that have occurred since SWU publicized its letter to OCR. We are resolute to do everything we can to promote civil discussion and debate on complex and controversial issues, as is appropriate at an institution of higher education.