Students walk across campus at the University of Tampa.
Students walk across campus at the University of Tampa, which has announced one of the largest gifts in its history, benefiting the honors program. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times (2020)]

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into the University of Tampa over allegations of antisemitism.

Though the incident predates the Israel-Hamas war, UT is one of several universities and school systems, including Hillsborough County Public Schools, added to a list ofdiscrimination investigations opened since the conflict started.

The Department of Education’s website stated the investigations are “part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s continued efforts 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 on college campuses and in K-12 schools since the October 7 Israel-Hamas conflict.”

More information about the Hillsborough schools investigation was not immediately available.

The investigation of the UT incident, which took place on Sept. 23, was launched after a student’s parent filed a complaint, saying the university had dismissed concerns about his son defending himself from antisemitic bullies. The details are outlined in a letter shared with the Tampa Bay Times by Stuart Meissner, whose son, Dylan Meissner, was a UT freshman.

The letter was directed to UT President Ronald Vaughn. It said Dylan Meissner was walking to a friend’s dorm carrying a pink inflatable unicorn when a student he didn’t know grabbed the unicorn from him. That student, along with others he was with, used antisemitic slurs against Dylan Meissner, the letter said.

Stuart Meissner said his son then took the unicorn back and fighting ensued. His son was put in a chokehold and a campus security report said Dylan recounted being pushed and punched around the head.

Stuart Meissner said his son filed a police report, which states that Dylan was bleeding from the lip and had cuts on his arm from the altercation.

Stuart Meissner said the student who grabbed the unicorn later messaged his son on Instagram to apologize and met with him to apologize, saying he had been drunk. A campus security report said the student stated he and Dylan had been “playing around” and “just doing stupid freshman college stuff,” according to Stuart Meissner’s letter.

At a hearing by the campus administrative conduct board, Dylan said his attackers used antisemitic slurs, calling him a “f—-ing Jew.” The video evidence the conduct board reviewed did not contain audio, and the board members found the allegations of antisemitism were “uncorroborated,” Stuart Meissner said. He said they claimed that, because the two didn’t know each other, the attacker couldn’t have known Dylan Meissner was Jewish.

“That’s absurd,” Stuart Meissner said in an interview.

His letter said the board also found inconsistencies between Dylan’s testimony and the video, and that he had two days to appeal that finding. When Dylan requested the video footage, he was told he would have to review it in person, his father said. By then, he was home in New York and the deadline to appeal lapsed.

Dylan and the other student were suspended for three semesters, Stuart Meissner said. He said his son also was asked to write a letter of apology to his attackers.

In a letter to Vaughn, Stuart Meissner expressed anger over the request.

The father of a University of Tampa student outlined allegations of antisemitism in a letter to UT President Ronald Vaughn, pictured here during a campus tour on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.
The father of a University of Tampa student outlined allegations of antisemitism in a letter to UT President Ronald Vaughn, pictured here during a campus tour on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

“As the son of someone who fled Nazi Germany (Dylan’s grandfather),” he wrote, “I will never permit Dylan to draft such an apology.”

He also wrote thatthe board’s “flagrant refusal to consider this case for what it is — the case of a young man defending himself and his cherished heritage against bigots and bullies — means the Board and University are guilty of antisemitism too in your name as president of the University.”

Stuart Meissner said his son, a sports marketing major at UT, is still in New York and has been depressed since the incident. He said he was against his son going to school in Tampa and that his son took out student loans against his wishes. Now the loans need to be repaid and Dylan has been applying to other schools, he said.

Meissner, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, said he felt troubled by the lack of due process on college campuses. “It really can have long-lasting effects on people’s lives, careers and mental states, especially young people,” he said.

A UT spokesperson said the university had been made aware of a request for information by the Department of Education on Monday. He said the university was “fully cooperating with the request,” but could not comment further due to student privacy laws.

A spokesperson for the department’s Office of Civil Rights said the agency does not comment on open investigations.

The department has opened 12 investigations into “discrimination involving shared ancestry” since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, which led to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Besides the University of Tampa and the Hillsborough school district, the institutions under scrutiny include Columbia University, Cornell University, Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.