Photo Credit: YouTube screenshot
University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella, Nov. 3, 2021.

On Wednesday, after news broke that the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating antisemitism at the University of Vermont (University of Vermont Investigated for Antisemitism), President Suresh Garimella sent his university community an astonishingly inadequate and offensive response to the Title VI anti-Semitism complaint that the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus had filed.

According to the Brandeis Center, President Garimella’s statement “shows neither reflection, nor understanding, nor remorse. Instead, Garimella demonstrates only the dismissive attitude that has left Jewish students vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, blaming the victims who blew the whistle on UVM anti-Semitism rather than pledging to respond to the problems that federal investigators will now examine.”

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Suresh Garimella is an Indian-American mechanical engineer and academic administrator. He has been at the helm at UVM Since July 1, 2019. Nothing about his formal education or career suggests Garimella should have what it takes to handle any sensitive issues, never mind blatant hate attacks on Jews. Before coming to Vermont U, he was the Executive Vice President for Research and Partnerships and the Goodson Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Purdue University College of Engineering.

It’s clear what qualifications brought Garimella to UVM: as Purdue’s executive vice president, he led a $660 million per year research enterprise and oversaw Discovery Park, a unique set of facilities and institutes, where disciplines converge to solve global challenges related to health and life sciences. The man is a rainmaker, which may color his approach to complaints about Jew-hatred in his university: to him, it may only be an annoying diversion.

Brandeis says describes UVM’s response as “bungled” in reacting to antisemitic conduct by a UVM teaching assistant who had publicly taunted Jewish students by asking, on social media, whether she should lower the grades of Zionist students. The UVM administration investigated only whether the grades had actually been lowered, rather than considering whether the instructor’s taunting had created a campus-wide hostile environment, chilled the expression of Jewish speech, and encouraged UVM students to shun their Jewish classmates.

Among other openly antisemitic tweets, the TA asked, “Is it unethical for me, a TA, to not give Zionists credit for participation??? I feel like it’s good and funny, -5 points for going on birthright in 2018, -10 for posting a pic with a tank in the Golan heights, -2 points just cuz I hate ur vibe in general.”

She also tweeted, “I’m trying to be lowkey on social media for Ramadan and it’s going okay so far but [name redacted] keeps sending me Instagram posts from UVM Zionist Instagram accounts and I get the indelible surge to cyberbully and religion goes out the window. I never learn.”

And, “Serotonin rush of bullying Zionists on the public domain.”

President Garimella chose to remain silent, even though the university has issued statements in support of other groups that have been targeted – including not only other ethnic groups but even members of the men’s basketball team.

“President Garimella’s silence has created an atmosphere at UVM where Jewish students not only feel alienated but are afraid to disclose their identity as Jews,” says the Brandeis Center, adding, “When a TA says she feels it’s ‘good and funny’ to lower a student’s grade for going on trips to Israel, that discourages Jewish students from traveling to the Jewish homeland. When an instructor treats ‘both sides discourse’ (acknowledging the complexity of the situation in the Middle East) as ‘unthinkable,’ it ensures that only one side of an issue will be discussed. When she threatens to penalize students with their families in Israel, she intimidates Jewish and Israeli students from disclosing their heritage. When that instructor encourages students on campus to follow her example and the university fails to step in, students understand the message they are given. They follow suit and begin excluding Jewish students from their clubs. Nevertheless, based on UVM’s non-investigation, Garimella whitewashed the TA’s anti-Jewish activity because it ‘did not adversely impact students in the classroom’ – and, therefore, no further action by the university was warranted.”

According to the Brandeis Center, “President Garimella claims that UVM students who threw rocks at the Hillel building merely wanted to get the attention of a friend who was recovering from an illness. Garimella doesn’t explain why the perpetrators, who were asked to stop pelting the building, replied, ‘Are you Jewish?’ And he fails to address why the students vandalized the doors to the Hillel building.”

President Garimella’s response to the student organizations that exclude Zionists is deficient in multiple respects, the Brandeis Center argues. “First, President Garimella fails to appreciate that excluding students from an organization based on identity is discriminatory conduct, not speech. Second, he mistakenly claims that the groups are not recognized by the university.” But in reality, the UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union (RSU) Book Club is still included among sponsored “UVM Book Clubs” that are accessible via the uvm.edu website. And this UVM RSU Book Club still proudly boasts in its Constitution & Bylaws (easily accessible online) that members must pledge “NO” to Zionism.

And it turns out that despite its advocacy of hate, the UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union Book Club remains eligible to receive student government funding and utilize university facilities.

UVM Empowering Survivors describes itself as a “collective of University of Vermont students.” The student organization established the Instagram account “ShareYourStoryUVM” which it has used to mobilize student support for its activism. In May 2021 (the time of the incident described in our complaint), the Instagram account had more than 4,000 followers, a figure that represented more than 1/3 of UVM’s total student enrollment. (Today the number of followers has increased to close to 7,000.) University administrators, recognizing that the organization represents a key campus constituency, have engaged with its student leaders, treated the group as representative of members of the student body, and on information and belief have provided access to facilities in a manner comparable to that provided to recognized student organizations. “It is, therefore, disingenuous for President Garimella to claim that he has no responsibility to address the discriminatory conduct of a group that his administration has engaged with and treated like any other recognized student organization,” Says the Brandeis Center.

Finally, President Garimella has to date stubbornly refused to use the University’s voice to publicly condemn UVM Empowering Survivor’s discriminatory behavior. It was abundantly clear to the UVM administration that this organization, which successfully mobilized thousands of student demonstrators, had an outsized impact on campus.

For students, UVM Empowering Survivors represented the university’s most significant student support organization for survivors of sexual assault. Being publicly ostracized from this group, and the broad community that it represented, was traumatic for members of the Jewish community. However, rather than recognizing the pain––particularly the pain experienced by the Jewish sexual assault survivor community––and issuing a statement explaining that it is discriminatory for a student organization to exclude individuals from membership based on identity, President Garimella has continued, to this day, to remain silent. He has never publicly acknowledged the Jewish survivors’ pain or condemned the discriminatory conduct.

Here’s a fun fact: President Garimella and other UVM administrators have attended programs intended to educate about antisemitism.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.