Former CMU student sues university over ‘anti-Jewish discrimination and retaliation’
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Building hate?School of architecture professor accused of antisemitism

Former CMU student sues university over ‘anti-Jewish discrimination and retaliation’

The five-count complaint claims systematic antisemitic behavior and abuse beginning in 2018 by CMU faculty and administration.

Yael Canaan (right), pictured with Zachary Leventhal in 2021, is suing CMU, alleging anti-Jewish discrimination. (Photo by  Kevin Lorenzi)
Yael Canaan (right), pictured with Zachary Leventhal in 2021, is suing CMU, alleging anti-Jewish discrimination. (Photo by Kevin Lorenzi)

This is a developing story and will be updated.

In a 39-page federal complaint filed against Carnegie Mellon University on Wednesday, Yael Canaan, a Jewish student of Israeli descent, alleges she was subjected to “pervasive anti-Jewish discrimination” during her time at the university.

The five-count complaint, filed by the Lawfare Project on Canaan’s behalf, claims systematic antisemitic behavior and abuse beginning in 2018 by CMU faculty and administration.

Filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania, the complaint takes aim at the university’s Statement of Assurance, which says the school doesn’t discriminate on the basis of “race, color, national origin, sex, handicap or disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, creed, ancestry, belief, veteran status or genetic information.” According to the complaint, Canaan considers these promises to be false.

The alleged abuse began when Mary-Lou Arscott, studio professor at CMU’s School of Architecture and associate head for design fundamentals, purportedly denied Canaan a homework assignment extension so she could attend an Oct. 29, 2018, memorial service for victims of the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

In 2022, the complaint alleges, Arscott commented on a project Canaan created about the conversion of a public space into a private space through an eruv, and said a wall in the project looked like the wall Israelis used “to barricade Palestinians out of Israel.” Canaan also alleges that Arscott said she should instead focus on “what Jews do to make themselves such a hated group.”

Canaan claims she reported Arscott’s behavior to her studio professor who told her not to worry because Arscott wouldn’t be grading her.

According to the complaint, Arscott sent Canaan a link to a “violently antisemitic blog,” the The Funambulist, and copied CMU’s chief diversity officer and the vice provost of diversity, equity and inclusion on the email.

When Canaan complained, other professors turned on the student, telling her to stop “acting like a victim” and that they would not “be an advocate for the Jews,” the complaint alleges.

Lawfare Project attorney Ziporah Reich said Arscott is an “extremely influential” person at CMU. Riech noted that another professor, whom Canaan turned to for help, said she was reticent to speak up against Arscott because Arscott helped her get hired at CMU and she “needed to be careful about what she did.”

The lawsuit lists detailed reports Canaan allegedly made to various school administrators who either ignored her pleas, failed to take any action to protect her, punish her abusers, or in the case of the schools Title IX coordinator, “aggressively discouraged Canaan from filing a formal complaint which would have trigged an investigation of Arscott, the DEI’s failure to address the misconduct and the systematic culture of antisemitism.”

Reich said that Canaan was a conscientious student and a leader among her Jewish peers on campus, and that she documented everything that was going on “because students were looking to her to fight antisemitism.”

The complaint draws connections between CMU and Qatar, claiming that country shelters and protects antisemitism, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel terrorist organizations. The lawsuit alleges that Arscott spent professional time in Qatar and that CMU has a campus in Doha, Qatar, and has reported funding of nearly $600 million dollars from the country.

CMU faculty, the suit alleges, subjected Canaan to a “systematic campaign of hostility, including limiting class time, ceasing direct one-on-one instruction provided to every other student, and omitting her project — and only her project — from a disseminated book of the studio work created by all the other students in the class.”

As a compromise to her grievances, Canaan says she was instructed to avoid Arscott and to present her work before Arscott joined the class and then leave, limiting her time in the “most important class in her academic program and publicly humiliated her before her peers.”

As a result of the university’s actions, Canaan says she developed chronic, debilitating migraines triggered by stress, clinical depression, experienced grave emotional distress, became lonely, had her grades suffer and was cheated out of her education at CMU and “saw her career materially damaged.”

She was forced to see doctors and therapists as a result of the experience.

The lawsuit alleges three violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: direct discrimination, hostile educational environment and retaliation. It also alleges breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The CMU graduate became so disillusioned by the antisemitic actions she faced at the university, and her fear that she would face similar experiences in the field, she decided not to seek a career in architecture after graduating.

Canaan is seeking an award of monetary damages, including for her loss of educational opportunities, tuition payments, out-of-pocket costs for therapy, counseling and/or medical, psychological and psychiatric care required as a result of CMU’s conduct and costs to be paid for further therapy, counseling and/or medical, psychological and psychiatric care required as a result of CMU’s conduct and lost career earnings, as well as emotional damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief preventing CMU from violating Title VI, attorney fees and other relief deemed just by the court.

A spokesperson for the university said that CMU is committed to creating and nurturing a welcoming, inclusive and supportive environment where all students can reach their potential and thrive.

“We take any allegations of mistreatment or harassment seriously. We have just received notice of this lawsuit and we will evaluate and respond to it,” the spokesperson said.

Late Thursday, CMU President Farnam Jahanian sent an email message to the university community, calling the allegations made by Canaan “alarming.” He noted that she alleged a series of antisemitic acts and that she also claimed that the university did not pursue her complaints adequately.

“I also want to be clear on where we stand as a university,” he wrote, “Antisemitism and other forms of discrimination are antithetical to the values that ground our diverse community and drive our academic mission, and hate has no place on our campus.”

He said the Carnegie Mellon University he knows is “strikingly at odds with the one described in the lawsuit.”

The university, Jahanian said, will continue to engage community members to better understand perspectives and experiences and how the school may better support its students, faculty and staff.PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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