Did Melissa Landa lose her job in the University of Maryland’s College of Education because of her support for Israel, opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and her charges that there is anti-Semitism at her alma mater, Oberlin College?
This is what Landa, a 10-year veteran of the department, claims in a Title IX complaint she lodged with the university.
Now the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington is jumping into the controversy. Last week it launched a petition to demand an investigation to determine if anti-Israel bias played a role in Landa’s dismissal.
“The facts that have been presented in this case have been concerning enough for us to insist that there be a credible, high-level investigation that treats these allegations with the seriousness they deserve,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, the JCRC’s associate director.
“It’s sometimes hard for people to believe that in a place like Maryland, which is such a positive environment for Jewish students and faculty, that something like this could possibly have happened. If it has, we need to respond to it.”
A faculty member since 2007, Landa told WJW that she had no problems until the beginning of 2016. Starting then, she said, her departmental colleagues systematically ostracized her and stripped her of professional responsibilities. And then she received a notice of non-renewal of her contract on June 8.
It began when she founded a chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness at Oberlin, a national group that opposes anti-Zionism on campus. When she told the associate chair of her department, John O’Flahavan, about her activitism at Oberlin, she said he quickly and without reason withdrew his name from a paper they were co-authoring.
Neither O’Flahavan nor Jennifer King Rice, the dean of the College of Education, returned phone calls from WJW seeking comment for this article. In a statement, the university’s Director of Communications, Jessica Jennings, said that Maryland was barred by law from commenting on specific personnel matters.
“We can strongly affirm our commitment to supporting our vibrant Jewish community on campus, home to one of the largest Jewish student populations in the country,” she added. “Diversity and inclusion are core values of our institution, and these values will and must be upheld.”
Landa said that not long after, O’Flahavan removed her from a course she’d helped design and had taught for nearly a decade, replacing her with a colleague who had been on the faculty for three years.
“It ostracized me and excluded me from my colleagues,” she said of O’Flahavan’s decision. “It diluted my role in the department, and it really stripped me of my professional identity.”
The removal — which she claims jeopardized a $5,000 grant from the Academic Engagement Network and a partnership she was working to establish with the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv — prompted her to file a grievance with the School of Education in February. She believes that her dismissal was in retaliation for the grievance.
The saga is now the basis for the Title IX complaint lodged in June.
Ari Wilkenfeld, Landa’s attorney, said she simply wants to return to teaching at the school.
“Number one is to put everyone back where they’re supposed to be, get my client back to her job. She’s proven she’s really good at it, and it’s astonishing that everyone else got their contract renewal except for her,” Wilkenfeld said. “This is not a client who’s looking to sue for like $8 million. She wants her job back.”
O’Flahavan was her adviser for her doctoral thesis. When she received her degree in 2007, she was asked to join the faculty.
In May, just before her dismissal, the College of Education gave her the Exceptional Scholarship Award.
“Dr. Landa’s scholarship is impactful because it challenged deficit views of immigrant families and diverse children and links research to pedagogy,” Jennifer Turner, an associate professor, wrote in her recommendation letter.
Landa said she never had trouble keeping her political beliefs out of the classroom, aiming to make it a place of open and honest discussion without fear.
And 17 of her former students, identifying as people of color, recently signed a letter to the student newspaper, The Diamondback, challenging the university’s decision to dismiss her.
“Landa is our ally and was one of the best professors at this institution,” the letter reads. “She created a classroom where we felt comfortable discussing our beliefs, and even our biases, without the fear of being judged. … It is not right to dismiss, without cause, one of the few professors who is an expert in helping students examine their own biases.”
Franklin Siegel said the JCRC vetted Landa’s story after hearing from people who knew Landa, and decided to demand an investigation. On Tuesday, more than 5,700 emails had been sent to school administrators on Landa’s behalf.
“If the community does not respond vigorously to instances where faculty members feel they’ve been penalized for supporting Israel and opposing BDS, it could have a chilling effect on the ability of Jewish academics to speak their minds freely,” Franklin Siegel said.
For Landa, it’s a matter of reclaiming her identity as a teacher.
“I grew up in apartheid South Africa. My father was a civil rights lawyer, my mother was a social worker,” Landa told WJW. “I chose the path of education as a way to pursue social justice and to use my own privileges to try to address the injustices that we all see around us.”