vanderbilt hustler

Profiling is a reality for Muslims in the US (Vanderbilt Hustler Re-post, 02/02/15)

While a student, I wrote several articles for Vanderbilt’s campus newspaper, but all of these were lost from the Vanderbilt Hustler website (along with all historic website content) sometime in the summer of 2016. I’m going to try to upload these articles here while I can still find scanned PDFs of the print issues that existed at the time. Since this particular article only appeared on the website, I found it through some crawling through the Wayback Machine with a url found on Facebook. Amazingly, this preserved the original links.

This article reacts to the inflammatory comments made by then Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain about American Muslims. 

Profiling is a reality for Muslims in the US

(Originally posted February 2, 2015; I had to disable Javascript to load the archived web page)

As we have all heard, Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain disparaged Islam in The Tennessean, saying, “Islam … poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration …” And later: “If America is to be safe, it must remove the foxes from the henhouses and institute serious monitoring of Islamic organizations.”

Amazingly, in an article bemoaning dangers to “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association,” Professor Swain calls in the same breath for government intrusion into the speech, assembly and association of American citizens precisely because they exercise their constitutional right to practice a faith different from hers.

The campus appropriately erupted against her callous words, but the actions Swain prescribed – chiefly, “serious monitoring of Islamic organizations” – are not just the daydreams of a strident Islamophobe. They are reality. For law enforcement and intelligence agencies, profiling is policy and, for Muslim Americans, harassment is routine.

This has been most infamously on display in New York. An investigation by The Associated Press reported: The NYPD has implemented “wide-ranging programs to monitor life in Muslim neighborhoods since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Police officers have eavesdropped inside Muslim businesses, trained video cameras on mosques and collected license plates of worshippers. Informants who trawl the mosques — known informally as ‘mosque crawlers’ — tell police what the imam says at sermons and provide police lists of attendees, even when there’s no evidence they committed a crime.”

The NYPD has placed undercover officers at local schools and monitored their Muslim student associations, and even monitored the websites of Muslim student associations in other states. One bizarre NYPD report leaked to the AP describes “an undercover officer … accompanying 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York on April 21, 2008. The officer noted the names of attendees who were officers of the Muslim Student Association” and tallied how often members prayed.

According to the AP, “in more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony.” Though the infamous “Demographics Unit” has been disbanded, discrimination against Muslims continues, wrote the Brennan Center, an outfit of New York University’s School of Law.

What has the Obama administration done about these kinds of surveillance? Nothing. Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan has praised profiling by the NYPD, saying it has been “responsible for keeping the city safe over the past decade.” The Obama administration’s 2014 DOJ guidelines nationwide authorize racial profiling by the TSA and border security and “allow the FBI to ‘map’ minority communities to place informants,” according to the Council on American-Islamic relations.

Most Muslims have experienced a “stressful event related to their Muslim identity” such as special airport searches, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. These instances of discrimination cause real psychological harm: The APA report linked them to higher rates of depression and anxiety among Muslims in the United States.

Discriminatory profiling also makes us less safe, since Muslim Americans reaching out to the police have helped stop several terrorist plots, and cooperation requires trust. As Sahar Aziz, a law professor and former policy advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, asked: “Can we reasonably expect Americans who are themselves targets of surveillance and suspicion to trust the very agencies spying on them?”

Not even public intellectuals who have condemned terrorism are safe. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed that the FBI and NSA have tracked the emails of several prominent Muslim American professors, civil rights attorneys and even a Republican political operative and former Homeland Security official named Faisal Gill.

In an interview with The Intercept, Gill was baffled by revelations that his AOL and Yahoo accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates: “I just don’t know why … I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community — I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.”

Gill’s only crime, like that of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who have been singled out, is to have practiced the wrong faith. To borrow Swain’s words, this reality is an insult to the freedoms that most of the world covets.

Equality in name only? How Vanderbilt promotes a discriminatory insurance policy (Vanderbilt Hustler Re-post)

While a student, I wrote several articles for Vanderbilt’s campus newspaper, but all of these were lost from the Vanderbilt Hustler website (along with all historic website content) sometime in the summer of 2016. I’m going to try to upload these articles here while I can still find scanned PDFs of the print issues that existed at the time. Unfortunately, the articles’ original links to sources are lost. 

This article did end up prompting a conversation about the tuition insurance policy. Vanderbilt Student Government passed a resolution encouraging a policy change. The Bursar (who was very genial when I met with him about this with the Student Body President) negotiated a new tuition insurance policy that reimburses mental and physical illness equitably, which took effect the following year (2015-2016).

Equality in name only? How Vanderbilt promotes a discriminatory insurance policy

(Published August 27, 2014)

Like many universities, Vanderbilt aspires to promote diversity and inclusion. The university requires its first-year students to discuss racism and the importance of pluralism, and its official policies include a promise to not discriminate in university programs. There is even an Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department whose “core values include equity, diversity, inclusiveness, accessibility and accommodation.” In light of the university’s seeming commitment to equality, I found it particularly vexing to receive a letter from Vanderbilt, accompanied by a signed note from the bursar, promoting a policy that is patently discriminatory.

Vanderbilt offers a “tuition-insurance” plan issued by A.W.G. Dewar, Inc., which provides reimbursement of education fees should a student withdraw from the university for medical reasons. The plan explicitly specifies that withdrawals caused by “mental health conditions” are given a 60 percent refund while a 100-percent refund is given for “injury and sickness.” The plan also indicates that withdrawals precipitated by addiction or substance abuse receive zero compensation.

On the face of it, the plan suggests either that mental illness is equivalent to three-fifths of a physical illness or that 40 percent of doctor-certified mental illnesses are feigned. Neither of these claims is borne out by any evidence. Rather than aiding a vulnerable student, the plan adds another layer of financial stress to a person likely facing a cascade of problems, possibly impeding his or her return to Vanderbilt.

This practice makes for an incoherent insurance policy, since it provides significantly less coverage for the illnesses most likely to warrant withdrawal. A 2009 study at 10 universities found that having clinical depression was the strongest predictor of withdrawing from college. So giving less coverage for mental illness is rather like having car insurance that provides 40 percent less coverage when your accident involves another car.

Moreover, distinguishing between mental and physical illness to provide unequal service perpetuates stigma against psychiatry and psychiatric illness — the idea that mental illness is “less real” than physical illness, or worse still, that someone is more blameworthy for having a mental illness than a physical one.

The practical implications of this policy are jarring to the point of ineffability. Why should a student suffering from depression because a person raped her receive a 40-percent-reduced reimbursement compared to a per-son struck by the “kissing disease”? Is post-traumatic stress caused by being robbed at gunpoint a less valid reason for withdrawing from college than a football injury?

The policy also violates the spirit, if not the letter, of federal law. In 2008, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which requires equal coverage for mental illness, including substance abuse, in health insurance plans. Hence, as The New York Times writes: “This would probably be illegal if tuition refund policies were deemed health insurance, instead of insurance that just happens to be based solely on your health.”

Since 2010, Vermont has required that colleges in the state provide equal coverage for withdrawal due to mental illness. Prompting the change was a complaint by a University of Vermont student named Sherry Williamson, a registered nurse who suffered from depression. “I couldn’t believe that UVM, which tries to promote diversity and be all-encompassing, would take on a policy that was clearly discriminatory,” Williamson said in an interview.

By choosing to contract with A.W.G. Dewar, Inc. under these terms, Vanderbilt University is complicit in unambiguous discrimination against people with mental illness. This is unacceptable for an institution that claims to be forward-looking and antithetical to the welfare of its students. Renegotiating a nondiscriminatory plan is essential if the university’s commitment to equality is more than skin-deep.