By Mischa Geracoulis
Jaime Scholnick, a Los Angeles-based artist and adjunct professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona is under pressure from university administration as a result of unfounded accusations of “anti-Semitism” by a former student.
In November 2021, the associate director of Cal Poly’s Office of Equity and Compliance informed Scholnick that a student from her spring 2019 course had “reported concerns.” The email notification said that the former student claimed to have had a miserable four years at the university due to a traumatic experience in Scholnick’s Foundations of Three-Dimensional Design course.
Since 2017, Scholnick has taught the 3-unit undergraduate Foundations course which meets twice weekly (on campus prior to the pandemic). A prerequisite for several programs, Scholnick’s course is always filled to its maximum capacity of 24 students.
Unable to imagine what the concerns might be, Scholnick agreed to meet with the associate director via Zoom. The California Faculty Association (CFA) Lecturer Representative and Faculty Rights Chair, and Cal Poly Pomona’s CFA field representative also attended the Zoom meeting on Scholnick’s behalf.
The following are the student’s allegations, said to have occurred during class times in spring 2019.
- Student wanted to make a Star of David for an assignment that transforms a flat, planed surface into a 3-dimensional object. Allegedly, Scholnick approached the worktable where her accuser and three other students were working, and in response to the student’s description of her project idea, said, “That’s not very original—make a wall with the object because that’s what you Jews do.”
- Student claimed that Scholnick pulled her aside during class, with 23 other students in attendance, to whisper into her ear, “Netanyahu is a bigoted asshole.”
- Student said that during a different class meeting, Scholnick escorted her from class and into a computer lab in another, undisclosed location to show the student computer images of bombed and bloodied Palestinians.
- Student also alluded to comments that Scholnick allegedly made in class about the Holocaust.
Scholnick realized that her accuser had taken a single class with her during the spring 2019 semester, and had earned an A grade. As Scholnick recalls, her engagement with the student was no more and no less than that with any other in the class. Scholnick also recalled the student as being outspoken about her Israeli heritage, adherence to Zionism, and conservative Judaism, which the student often related to design projects during class discussions.
A cursory online search in December 2021 brought up the student’s Instagram account and Facebook page, which were replete with posts on injustices against white people, including Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of George Floyd’s murder, and Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of all charges after he fatally shot two protestors and wounded a third at an August 2020 BLM event in Wisconsin. Since January 2022, however, the student’s social media accounts are no longer public.
Refuting the reported accusations, Scholnick asked the associate director how they’d been vetted. She was told they haven’t been: Unless or until the student files a formal complaint, there will be no investigation. Scholnick’s most basic and logical questions—such as “What computer lab? and “I am Jewish myself—why would I make insulting remarks about the Star of David or the Holocaust?” and “Have these allegations been corroborated by the other 23 students from the course?”—remain unanswered.
According to Scholnick and her two union representatives, the associate director was accusatory and rude to Scholnick, especially when informing her that a file will be kept active for seven years. When Scholnick asked to see the file, the associate director refused, stating that Scholnick has no right to her file’s contents.
In December 2021, the assistant vice president of Cal Poly Pomona’s Title IX office called a second meeting with Scholnick via Zoom. The student’s claims were presented again, and again Scholnick learned that the allegations remained uninvestigated. A union rep also attended; when the rep attempted to inform the assistant VP about the associate director’s unprofessional interrogation of Scholnick and threatening tone in the first meeting, the assistant VP interrupted the rep to defend the associate director’s behavior. At the meeting’s end, the assistant VP apprised Scholnick that “the student still has not decided whether or not she will file a formal complaint. There is no statute of limitation for her to do this.”
Project Censored reached out to the Office of Equity and Compliance at Cal Poly, Pomona via emails to the assistant vice president and associate director, the staff members with whom Scholnick met, to ask clarifying questions and to better understand their position. The emails have gone unanswered.
The way the allegations have been handled leaves Scholnick emotionally reeling and suspect of the university’s versions of truth and justice. If the student would file a formal complaint, an investigation would be mandated, and welcomed by Scholnick. As long as the report lingers in limbo, so too do her employment and reputation, despite the fact that Scholnick’s record of teaching and scholarship are not at issue.
It’s often lamented that we exist in a “post-truth” era. Given the amount of disinformation and misinformation cycling through almost every facet of life, that assertion is hard to refute. Even the realms of education and the arts, traditionally considered safe spaces for free expression and testing grounds for new ideas, are impacted. Teachers, professors, and artists can be banished, books and theories can be banned, and students can be expelled or advanced, depending on which way the political and economic winds blow.
American-Canadian scholar and cultural critic, Henry Giroux, writes in a December 2021 Salon piece that, with regard to concepts like freedom, human rights, and social justice, many Americans have a limited understanding of the conservative right’s effect on education. Lies produced by right-wing apparatuses and toxic social media spheres give rise to attacks on public and higher education—sometimes from within. The schools, colleges, and universities assumed to foster critical thinking, individual agency, engaged citizenry, and democracy are falling prey to repressive tactics. Scholnick would agree. If university arbiters of equity interrogate their professors without credible allegations of policy violations, the effect is chilling, creating for faculty an air of uncertainty about job security, teaching and expression, and undue wariness of both students and university administration.
Yale professor of philosophy Jason Stanley wrote in a 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education piece that higher education has historically been a defense against authoritarianism— or its pawn. Giroux argues that higher education should be the bridge between faculty, students, administrators, and the broader public, upholding its relevance as a public good, rather than allowing itself to be co-opted by corporations, finance capital, military interests, and politics du jour.
Cal Poly, Pomona professes faculty academic freedom as “fundamental to our understanding of the university as a special place wherein we fulfill special roles as agents and guardians of academic freedom. Without academic freedom, a free society cannot endure.” These declarations notwithstanding, Scholnick has maintained a low profile at Cal Poly, Pomona. Her professor page is bare bones. Despite being an award-winning artist and muralist who creates art that addresses human rights and global injustices, Scholnick’s teaching focuses on 3-D art design, something for which she has passion and, judging by consistently positive student evaluations, something she does well.
Although this student’s allegations and the university’s response are personally, and potentially professionally, devastating for Scholnick, her situation is not unique. The charges against Scholnick fit with a pattern of attacks routinely implemented by non-academic, pro-Israel organizations such as Canary Mission, which undertake defamatory actions against scholars, professors (especially more vulnerable junior faculty and adjuncts), and students who express support for Palestine, no matter how discreetly. In 2015, prior to her employment with the university, Scholnick produced a series of works entitled, “Gaza: Mowing the Lawn,” which garnered attention and accolades. To her knowledge, it’s never been mentioned at Cal Poly, Pomona, but now she can’t help but wonder if that could be why the student targeted her. As per the Canary Mission playbook, the professor or student who’s portrayed as “anti-Semitic” is added to a database that functions much like a blacklist.
Similarly, Scholnick’s case follows the prevalent “cancel culture” pattern described by Aja Romano in an August 2020 Vox article. A means to effectively revoke the cultural cachet of one accused of saying or doing something offensive, “cancel” can result in boycotts of a person’s work or disciplinary action from an employer.
The American public appears to be divided—and perhaps confused—when it comes to “cancel culture” and other politically-motivated conflicts over what is true or appropriate. A September 2020 Pew survey asked a sample of 10,093 US adults to explain the purpose of “calling out offensive content on social media.” The results ranged from “social justice advocacy” and “offering a teaching moment” to “scapegoating,” with many variations of censorship and punishment in between.
What recourse does Scholnick —or anyone subject to comparable accusations—have in navigating this divided, “post-truth” landscape? While 24 states in the United States have anti-defamation laws, California is not one of them. According to the ACLU, that’s a good thing because “those laws violate the First Amendment and are disproportionately used against people who criticize public officials or government employees.” The ACLU also asserts, nonetheless, that freedom of speech doesn’t accord any right to spread malicious lies about others, and that there are civil laws and measures to redress harms caused by defamation.
California defamation law articulates two types of defamation—libel (defamatory statements made in writing) and slander (verbal defamation). To warrant a case, four facts must be confirmed. The first is that a false statement purported as fact has been made; secondly, that statement has been made known to a third party; thirdly, the person making the statement has done so with intent to harm, with recklessness or negligence; and finally, the result of the statement is damaging to the person’s reputation.
In late December 2021, the California Faculty Association made a formal request to Cal Poly, Pomona pursuant to Scholnick’s rights under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act, California Public Records Act, and Collective Bargaining Agreement for access to all complaints, written and/or verbal, lodged against Scholnick by the student, a complete timeline of events, all comments, reports, and investigations made through and by the university’s Office of Equity. The denial came in early January 2022 from the university’s Office of Strategic Enterprise Risk Management, contending that the requested records are exempt from production under the Public Records Act. According to the university, “The California Public Records Act exempts from production records that constitute student education records as defined by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), records that reflect the decision-making process of California State University, records protected by the attorney-client privilege, or records which if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Scholnick’s union reps have promised to contest the denial; meanwhile, Scholnick has filed her case with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Committed to the defense of American students’ and faculty’s rights to freedom of speech, of association, to due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience, FIRE has sent a letter to Cal Poly, Pomona discussing the university’s refusal to allow Scholnick access to the allegations on file. Noting flaws in the reasoning for invoking FERPA, for example, FIRE has asserted that Scholnick’s request is to her personnel file, not the student’s educational record. Furthermore, in accordance with the California Education Code, every employee of a state institution has the right to access all materials pertaining to them within ten calendar days of their request.
When a university “no longer engages in the search for truth, and matters of justice become irrelevant,” Henry Giroux has warned, then it risks becoming an institution “in service to ideological conformity,” a result that is corrosive of higher education, academic freedom, freedom of expression, and, ultimately, democracy itself. While Cal Poly, Pomona’s own policy on academic freedom pledges to “advocate for intellectual freedom and the responsible use of that freedom in the incentive and reward systems that govern faculty recruitment, hiring, retention, tenure, and promotion as well as student recruitment, admissions, and grading policies,” whether the university will live up to these ideals in Scholnick’s case remains to be seen.
Informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, journalist oath of ethics, and Levantine roots, journalist, educator, and Censored Press board member, Mischa Geracoulis writes on origins and identity, diaspora and displacement, human rights and the multifaceted human condition. She Tweets @MGeracoulis.