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Higher ed regents approve policy change over antisemitism after hours of heated comments

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The Nevada Board of Regents on Friday approved a policy change related to antisemitism on Nevada’s college campuses. Regents backing the policy change said it was necessary to protect numerous Jewish students who said they had been harassed and threatened in recent months.

For hours on Thursday and Friday, public commenters railed against the proposal, while numerous others spoke in favor of it.

Byron Brooks, Nevada Board of Regents.
Byron Brooks, Nevada Board of Regents.

Regent Byron Brooks, who is Jewish, said: “The board has already adopted the [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition. We did that years ago. The problem is that it hasn’t been implemented in a manner that institutions can use it as a tool, which was the desired effect of adopting it to begin with. It’s the shortfall of … the [Nevada System Higher Education] system office and others inside the office where the anti-bias training has never taken place.

“Even the board has not received reporting on any antisemitic behaviors on campuses, although we know that they exist. That hasn’t taken place either,” he added.

The policy added language “to address discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, or citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity and permitting consultation of the IHRA definition of ‘antisemitism.'”

Brooks said the policy change aligned NSHE with the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The Nevada System of Higher Education’s legal counsel, Linda King, said the policy change is consistent with current policies. Later, however, she said the change was not mandatory but could be helpful in a investigations to show potential discrimination.

“The non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism from the IHRA is also the current state of federal regulatory guidance,” she said. “So there isn’t anything here contrary to current law or guidance. There’s nothing here that’s new or outside of the guidance.”

Some regents expressed frustration with the change and the hours of public comment from students, faculty and community members.

Laura Perkins, Nevada Board of Regents.
Laura Perkins, Nevada Board of Regents.

“After listening to all of the comments from both sides, I don’t think anybody doesn’t want to protect our students,” Regent Laura Perkins said. “I think we all want to protect our students. However, there are other definitions, and what stood out to me is that this policy change was written in a bubble. The constituent groups weren’t at the table.”

Regent Carol del Carlo said she did not have the background in the issue and said the hours of public comment comprised two “really, really difficult” days.

“I am not prepared to vote on this. I want to learn,” she said. “I’m here to learn, and I’m here to protect every student. And I heard many of those students this morning say, we’re just looking at the Jewish students, but what about all the other classifications of students?”

She motioned to postpone the change, but that did not pass. Critics said the antisemitism definition from IHRA is controversial because it says criticism of Israel is antisemitic. The ACLU opposed the definition’s change at the U.S. Department of Education. 

“I can’t change my color, So when it comes to this particular issue, I really think that some groups need to take a ticket and get in line.”

“This definition of antisemitism conflates protected political speech with unprotected discrimination, and enshrining it into regulation will chill the exercise of First Amendment rights and risk undermining the agency’s legitimate and important efforts to combat discrimination,” ACLU leaders wrote to the federal department. 

“If the Department of Education were to adopt this definition, and investigate universities for Title VI complaints based on it, college and university administrators would likely silence a range of protected speech, including criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, analogies likening Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany, or sharing differing beliefs about the right to a Jewish state.”

An article in “Res Publica: A Journal of Moral, Legal and Political Philosophy” also criticized the statement as overly broad and subject to abuse.

“The IHRA’s four-line definition of antisemitism correctly states that hate toward Jews may be antisemitic but is worded vaguely and inadequately, in a way that opens the door to unfounded accusations of antisemitism and allows other instances to go unchallenged,” wrote authors Jan Deckers and Jonathan Coulter.

Those criticisms were echoed during public comment at the regents meeting, with some faculty members saying the IHRA’s definition doesn’t pass academic muster. A University of Nevada, Reno professor was one of dozens who opposed the policy change.

“I am a Jewish professor at UNR whose grandparents fled Germany to escape the Holocaust,” Renata Keller wrote in opposition to the measure. “I oppose limiting free speech and depicting criticism of Israel as antisemitism. I fear that limiting free speech will backfire and increase antisemitism on our campuses.”

Those speaking in support, however, said the change was necessary due to the rise in antisemitism, not just locally but internationally.

“Since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, we have seen a historically unprecedented increase in antisemitic incidents around the world, nationally and in Nevada,” said Johanna Gruen, who identified as a Jewish faculty member, also at UNR. “A clear driver of this problem is a lack of awareness about what antisemitism is; many do not perceive a problem due to a lack of a clear definition of antisemitism.”

Brooks echoed the sentiment.

“The outcry from students that you’ve heard over the last couple of days, and frankly, in other meetings that we’ve had, are a significantly small percentage of Jewish students who have the courage to voice their concerns,” he said. “As I have stated in these board meetings several times, there are Jewish students on our campuses who do not want to say that they are Jewish. That is a horrible place to be as a student and as an individual. I’m not quite sure how much harder I can beat this drum.”

Another regent said, however, that he, too, was perplexed by the discussion and policy change.

Donald McMichael, Nevada Board of Regents.
Donald McMichael, Nevada Board of Regents.

“Get in line,” Regent Donald McMichael said. “I’m jealous of the fact that although we can talk about history, we’re not really talking about the history of the United States, other than the fact that Indigenous people have been treated extremely poorly in this country. They’ve been slaughtered. They’ve been set upon with smallpox to try to eradicate them. 

“I can’t change my color,” he added. “So when it comes to this particular issue, I really think that some groups need to take a ticket and get in line. As regents, we need to consider everyone, not just one group.” 

The board narrowly approved the policy change.

Sandoval gets contract extension

UNR President Brian Sandoval received praise for his time as president since 2020, mainly from people and organizations outside of UNR. Actor Jeremy Renner submitted a statement praising the former governor. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve also praised the president for his tenure. Regents approved a four-year extension to his contract. 

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.

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