The U.S. Education Department said on Tuesday that it had opened an investigation into Harvard over whether it failed to protect Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students and their supporters from harassment, threats and intimidation.
Harvard has been in turmoil for months over its response to the attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza, which played a part in the eventual departure of the school’s president, Claudine Gay. The Education Department has already opened a separate investigation into Harvard over complaints of antisemitism.
The Muslim Legal Fund of America, which filed a civil-rights complaint that led to the new investigation, said more than a dozen students had faced harassment. Students were “threatened or called terrorists,” sometimes by fellow students, for wearing keffiyehs, a Palestinian scarf, said Christina A. Jump, a lawyer for the group. Others were doxxed and intimidated, yet Harvard administrators dismissed the concerns, she said.
School administrators instead met with donors and alumni who “encouraged the harassment,” said Chelsea Glover, another lawyer on the case. The complaint, which lawyers for the group did not provide, does not name any donors or alumni, Ms. Jump said.
“Harvard’s primary responsibility should be to its current students, not wealthy donors and alumni with personal agendas that harm students who support Palestinian rights,” Ms. Glover said.
In a statement on Tuesday night, Harvard said that it supported the work of the Office for Civil Rights of the Education Department “to ensure students’ rights to access educational programs are safeguarded and will work with the office to address their questions.”
A spokesman pointed to several actions taken by the university to protect doxxed students, including reaching out to those who received online threats, being in touch with the local Police Department and creating a task force on combating Islamophobia.
In an open letter to the campus in November, Meredith Weenick, a Harvard official, wrote: “I want to assure you that we do not condone and will not ignore acts of harassment or intimidation, or threats of violence.”
On the night of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, more than 30 student groups posted an open letter, that held Israel “entirely responsible.”
Students affiliated with those groups were doxxed, family members were threatened, and influential executives demanded names of students to bar from hiring. A truck with a digital billboard flashed student names and photos declaring them “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
The campus, and its students, would continue to receive outsize attention, much of it after the appearance of Ms. Gay at a congressional hearing on antisemitism. Criticism of her responses in that December hearing, charges that she was not doing enough to crack down on antisemitism, and later accusations of plagiarism, would lead to her toppling.
The opening of an investigation under Title VI, for discrimination involving “shared ancestry,” by the Office of Civil Rights does not imply wrongdoing.
The government publicly discloses the existence of its investigations, but does not usually reveal the specific claims it is looking into. Universities could lose federal funding for civil rights violations.
A flurry of such complaints have been filed in recent months, often over allegations of failing to protect Jewish students, including at Harvard. More than five dozen investigations have been opened since October, mostly at colleges but also at schools and school districts.
Anyone can file a civil-rights complaint, including people or groups not connected with the campus. Several recent investigations involving charges of antisemitism have been opened, for example, after complaints filed by Zachary Marschall, the editor in chief of Campus Reform, a conservative website.
This week, in addition to Harvard, the Office for Civil Rights opened Title VI investigations into four other universities: the University of South Florida, Indiana University, the New School and the University of Michigan.
The Office for Civil Rights said in November that it was investigating such complaints to “take aggressive action to address the alarming nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and other forms of discrimination and harassment” since the Hamas attack.
Ms. Jump, of the Muslim Legal Fund of America, said that the civil-rights complaint alleging antisemitism at Harvard was not in competition with the latest complaint.
“The fact that there are two complaints against Harvard for failing to protect those of religious minorities shows that Harvard failed across the board to take action to protect these students,” she said.