Muhlenberg under investigation; professor placed on leave

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Haas College Center houses the Admissions Offices in addition to the offices of the President and the Provost. Photo by Photo Editor Kira Bretsky '27

President Kathleen Harring, Ph.D., informed the campus community via email on Jan. 18 that the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was conducting an investigation into a complaint filed against Muhlenberg. 

In the message, Harring noted that “Muhlenberg College is committed to a safe, equitable, bias-free environment for all students, faculty and staff. The College does not tolerate antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia or any other form of harassment, bigotry or abuse nor any incitement to violence or calls for genocide. If and when there are accusations of conduct violations, these are thoroughly investigated with appropriate actions taken based on the findings.” 

The details of the complaint and who filed it remains unknown. “Anyone who is at least 18 years of age can file a complaint, either on behalf of themselves, another person or a group. You don’t have to be affiliated with the institution to file. You just need to be 18 or older and fill out a form online. A complaint filing on behalf of someone else must get written consent from that individual,” said Todd Lineburger, vice president for communications. 

The relative anonymity of the complaint, its vagueness and the ability for individuals unaffiliated with the institution to formally make these kinds of accusations make it difficult for the campus community to understand the implications of the complaint.

The College is one of many institutions that has been subject to this kind of investigation following the start of the Israel/Hamas war. This comes with an uptick in tensions on college campuses related to the crisis in the Middle East. At Columbia, students protesting for the Palestinian cause say they were attacked with chemicals during a demonstration. Both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard college presidents have resigned following a congressional hearing on antisemitism. Also at Harvard, a group of Jewish students have filed a lawsuit against the College, alleging that their civil rights were violated. Now, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are “embarking on an aggressive and expansive investigation into institutions of higher education in America, targeting the academic elites they have long viewed as avatars of cultural decay — all in the name of combating antisemitism,” according to The New York Times

This isn’t the DOE’s first investigation into a higher education institution in the Lehigh Valley. In fact, Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. garnered similar attention when according to The Lafayette, “The Biden administration opened a probe into Lafayette College on Nov. 16 over alleged antisemitic discrimination.” In speaking with The Lafayette’s managing editor, Trebor Maitin, The Weekly was able to gain some insight into the similarities and differences between the two cases. 

Maitin noted that while Lafayette is also unaware of the specific contents of the complaint and the complaint’s author, the letter that the College received informing them of the investigation alluded to an incident of harassment in which a pro-Palestine protestor exhibited a sign which read “from the river to the sea.” 

“The federal government is investigating this by federal standards, not by campus standards, where free speech, because we’re private institutions, can be limited. But [the federal government] is looking at this in a way that [asks] ‘Are you taking away people’s right to have a good college experience, a safe college experience. At least at Lafayette, if this investigation is related to a poster being held up, I don’t know how legitimate that is,” said Maitin. The investigation into Lafayette’s policies is still being conducted, over two months after its announcement. 

While the exact cause of the Muhlenberg investigation is unknown, there has been a development in Associate Professor of Anthropology Maura Finkelstein, Ph.D.’s, status at the College. Last semester, Finkelstein came under fire for her social media posts related to the conflict in Gaza. A petition calling for her removal currently has over 7,700 signatures. On Jan. 24, Provost Laura Furge, Ph.D., emailed students in Finkelstein’s classes informing them that “Your professor is on leave. I am working to identify a professor or visiting instructor to continue teaching your class.” The replacement professor has now been identified as John Favini, Ph.D.

One anonymous student enrolled in Finkelstein’s Cultural Anthropology course described their experience saying, “I was already really weary and suspicious when the provost was emailing us almost on a daily basis that the class was canceled for the week. Once they officially declared she was on leave I was, more or less, in a sense of panic. As a senior, having a class fall to shambles almost three weeks in makes everything so much more difficult to troubleshoot.”

The student continued noting, “Because of everything with Dr. Finkelstein last semester, I wish they were more forthright and honest about the situation. We are all adults, and should be treated as such instead of everything being done behind the curtain—especially when it involved the students and in turn created a problem on our behalf.”

Another anonymous student taking Finkelstein’s Magic and Modernity course stated, “When I was informed that she was on leave, I was immediately upset with the College, as there were zero updates as to what was happening before then and nothing but uncertainty surrounding her absence and the continuation of the class, it really just seemed like a way to cover themselves pending the College’s investigation…All in all, from the limited information that I do know, it seems like a heinous violation of Dr. Finkelstein’s academic freedom, something which Muhlenberg claims to pride itself on having.”

At the January faculty meeting, Furge asked faculty not to discuss campus policies with their students in class. She suggested that if faculty have concerns with college policies they should have conversations with their department chairs or with Furge herself. Furge then asked professors to avoid using class time to discuss policies as it reinforces the narrative pushed by critics of higher education that professors are using class time to promote political and personal agendas. 

This statement incited some questioning from faculty who felt uncertain about the standing of academic freedom within the College. Finkelstein’s name was not directly mentioned during this meeting, however, allusions to her leave were present throughout this conversation on the state of academic freedom at Muhlenberg. 

So, how is this investigation being conducted? And what are its implications? According to Director of Equity and Title IX Jennifer Storm, “When allegations occur, we promptly and thoroughly address each one. Community is so important at Muhlenberg, and our top priority is responding to the needs of our students, faculty and staff.”

What is at stake with this investigation is a potential loss of funding from the federal government. “OCR’s goal is compliance, so in the event that OCR finds any allegations credible, we would expect to receive guidance on how to address the issue…It is unlikely that any funding would be at risk in this case,” said Lineburger.

On Jan. 29, an email from Furge and Dean of Students Allison Williams solicited student participation in an ad-hoc committee dedicated to “advancing dialogue and education opportunities on campus related to the war in Gaza.” This group was one of two ad-hocs introduced by Harring in a community message on Jan. 16. However, there has been no update on the status of the “Muhlenberg Ad-hoc Committee on Defining Bias Based Upon Shared Ancestry” which was meant to “define antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, offering clear guidance for our campus community.” 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi, as an alum of the school myself, I’m curious as to whether there were any students who supported her removal? The two quoted both seem bothered by how it affects their academic life but there’s no mention of anyone feeling better about her not teaching? If anyone like that exists, or doesn’t, is probably important here.

  2. As an 81 Jewish graduate of Muhlenberg, and hearing all this for the first time, I’m extremely disappointed and unnerved by this turn of events. I haven’t read Dr Finkelsteins posts, however since Jews are less than 2 percent of the world population, and Muslims are over 25 percent, by shear numbers and statistics e are an endangered species, that require special protections. Moreover the fact trust everyone seems to have forgotten that Israel was founded to protect displaced Jews from the holocaust, a land that no Palestinian wanted back in 1947, makes me sick that anyone would support hamas. Jews have been fighting from oppression for over 2000 years, when we were the first slaves, building the pyramids in Egypt! Again I don’t know what her comments were, but as someone who has an Egyptian Muslim friend and colleague, she completely supports my position! This is a no brained, antisemitism is rampant and must be stopped

  3. I would have loved to see a quote or two from students who felt threatened/attacked by Dr. Fs rhetoric. This piece seems pretty one-sided despite her glorification of martyrdom, expression of support for violence, and presentation of cultural narrative as historical fact.

    • I can assure you that many Jewish students reported that they felt uncomfortable being around her. One of her posts shamed and Jewish student who supports Israels right to exist and asked for them to be treated as racists. This alone is a violation of policy. So yea…hmmmm

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