New encampment appears at UCLA as its president testifies

US House panel grills university heads over deals to end anti-Israel encampments

Presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers insist they didn’t yield to protesters’ demands, as Republican committee head accuses them of ‘capitulating to the antisemitic rule breakers’

From left to right: Northwestern University President Michael Schill, Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and Frederick Lawrence testify at a hearing called "Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos" at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 23, 2024. (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images/AFP)
From left to right: Northwestern University President Michael Schill, Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway and Frederick Lawrence testify at a hearing called "Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos" at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 23, 2024. (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images/AFP)

The presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers universities defended their decisions to end anti-Israel encampments by reaching agreements with the pro-Palestinian student protesters, claiming during a US House committee hearing on Thursday that they defused the danger without ceding ground to the demonstrators.

“We had to get the encampment down,” Northwestern’s Michael Schill said. “The police solution was not going to be available to us to keep people safe, and also may not be the wisest solution as we’ve seen at other campuses across the country.”

Schill and Jonathan Holloway of Rutgers were called before the House Education and the Workforce Committee as part of a series of hearings examining how colleges have responded to allegations of antisemitism.

Also testifying was Gene Block, chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, which has come under scrutiny for its handling of campus unrest, including a delayed police response to violence between pro-Palestinian protesters and counterprotesters that followed several days of rising tensions during which Jewish students were harassed.

The committee’s inquiry expanded to large, public universities, UCLA and Rutgers, after earlier hearings largely focused on private, Ivy League colleges. Meantime, at Harvard’s commencement Thursday, hundreds of students in graduation robes chanted “Free, Free Palestine” as they walked out of the ceremony. The school announced on Wednesday that 13 students who participated in a protest encampment would not be able to receive diplomas alongside their classmates.

On Capitol Hill, committee Republicans accused the university leaders at the hearing of tolerating antisemitism, with particular scorn for Northwestern and Rutgers, where schools struck deals to end or limit protests.

Neither Northwestern nor Rutgers agreed to sever business ties with Israel — one of the protesters’ chief demands. Rutgers agreed to discuss the topic; Northwestern revived a committee on “investment responsibility.”

Other terms focused on expanding institutional support for Muslim and Arab students and scholars on campus, and Rutgers promised not to retaliate against those who participated in protests.

Signs are displayed outside a tent encampment at Northwestern University on April 26, 2024, in Evanston, Illinois. (AP/Teresa Crawford)

The Northwestern deal has proven the most contentious of any of the more than a dozen similar agreements colleges have since struck. It led to the dissolution of the school’s advisory committee on antisemitism after the Jewish members resigned in protest, as well as calls from leaders of major Jewish organizations for Schill’s resignation.

“Each of you should be ashamed of your decisions that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students,” said Republican Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the committee chair. “Mr. Schill and Dr. Holloway, you should be doubly ashamed for capitulating to the antisemitic rule breakers.”

The presidents considered police action but said it was not necessary.

“We made a choice — that choice was to engage our students through dialogue as a first option instead of police action,” Holloway said. “We had seen what transpired at other universities and sought a different way.”

In this video shared by the Daily Targum on November 8, 2023, Students for Justice in Palestine hold a rally at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (YouTube screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Schill said students were willing to negotiate and reach a compromise that did not include divestment, their main demand. He said agreeing to a space for Muslim students where they could eat and pray, like other faith communities had on campus, was something he supported.

“We had students who were willing to negotiate and gave up their demands,” Schill said. “We said no, nothing that singles out Israel. Let’s think about what will make the university stronger.”

Protesters hailed the agreements as victories. But on Capitol Hill, the presidents insisted they did not lose any ground.

“I would never recommend to the Board of Trustees divestment of anything or any academic boycott of Israel,” Schill said.

Even so, Foxx countered that Schill “created the perception” he would support divestment, “which encouraged other universities to cave on this.”

Northwestern University President Michael Schill testifies during a hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses on Capitol Hill, May 23, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Each president denounced the rise of antisemitism since Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught against Israel, which started the war in Gaza. Schill and Block, who are Jewish, expressed their disgust at some of the rhetoric and imagery used by protesters.

Block said public universities are in an especially tough bind as they work to shield students from discrimination while also upholding free speech. Unlike private universities, public universities are bound by the First Amendment. Even hateful speech must be protected, Block said, but UCLA draws the line when it crosses into threats and harassment.

He expressed remorse over the handling of a UCLA encampment that was attacked in early May. Counterprotesters threw traffic cones and released pepper spray in fighting that went on for hours before police stepped in.

“Tragically, it took several hours for law enforcement to quell the violence,” Block said “With the benefit of hindsight, we should have been prepared to immediately remove the encampment if and when the safety of our community was put at risk.”

Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota took Block to task for failing to respond more quickly to the pro-Israel activists’ violence at UCLA, though she did not directly reference the ideology of the attackers, instead describing them as a “mob of agitators gathered near the encampment with a clear intention to cause violence.”

Omar, who was recently accused by the Anti-Defamation League of a “blood libel” for remarks about Jewish students while visiting her daughter at Colubmia’s anti-Israel encampment, “you should be ashamed for letting a peaceful protest gathering get hijacked by an angry mob.”

Omar also described a pro-Israel counterprotest tactic that took place at UCLA: using a screen and loudspeaker to project filmed clips from Hamas’ October 7 attack directly at the encampments. She did not note that the material was from October 7, instead describing it as “vile and disturbing footage.” She also took a quiet step toward referencing Jewish disagreement over the encampments by entering into the congressional record an open letter from Jewish UCLA faculty and staff without describing its contents. Omar may have been referring to a letter from some Jewish faculty criticizing Block for his handling of the encampment that asserted, “Critiques of Israel are not presumptively antisemitic.”

On Wednesday, the police chief at UCLA was reassigned “pending an examination of our security processes,” according to a statement from the school.

Police break through a barrier set up by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A new anti-Israel encampment appeared on the UCLA campus as Block testified. “Our safety personnel are on-site and actively monitoring the situation,” Mary Osako, vice chancellor for UCLA Strategic Communications, said in a statement.

The encampment was abandoned when law enforcement arrived midday and declared it an unlawful assembly. Lines of officers pushed back a crowd of supporters that had gathered outside the encampment, but there were no clashes like those that occurred when a large camp was cleared three weeks earlier. A small group of demonstrators later staged a sit-in inside a nearby building before officers cleared them out.

Pro-Palestinian students protest against Israel at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, in Los Angeles, on May 23, 2024. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

As in previous hearings, Republicans pressed the leaders on discipline. They asked how many students had been expelled and how many faculty had been fired over antisemitic incidents since October 7.

None of the presidents said students had been expelled, though they said there are dozens of ongoing investigations. Four students were suspended at Rutgers, Holloway said.

Schill claimed the numbers were not a reflection of inaction.

“The fact that we didn’t have not yet suspended or expelled students does not mean that students have not received discipline,” he said. “There’s a wide range of discipline, and discipline has been meted out to many of those students.”

Schill also sparred with GOP Representative Elise Stefanik of New York over a purported conversation he had with the school’s Hillel director.

“Isn’t it true that you asked the Hillel director whether it was possible to hire an anti-Zionist head of Hillel/rabbi?” asked Stefanik, the firebrand New York Republican who has taken center stage at previous hearings on the topic.

“I absolutely did not. I would never hire anyone based upon their views of being Zionist or anti-Zionist. That’s not what I do,” Schill responded.

“That’s not according to the whistleblowers who have come forward to this committee,” Stefanik retorted.

Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican-New York, question Columbia President Nemat Shafik during the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on ‘Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Antisemitism’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 17, 2024. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Stefanik referenced the Anti-Defamation League’s “F” rating of Northwestern’s approach to antisemitism. (Jews at several schools have criticized the ADL’s report-card project.) California Representative Kevin Kiley said he agreed with the ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt’s call for Schill’s resignation.

“I would associate myself with the comments of the ADL,” Kiley said, calling Schill “the easiest case that we have dealt with. You agreed to the demands of those who are trying to change university policy in an antisemitic way.”

Schill, a free-speech legal scholar who assumed the campus presidency in 2022, pushed back on the questions — delivering a more pugnacious performance than the other university presidents called before Congress.

“I really am offended by you telling me what my views are,” he retorted to Utah Representative Burgess Owens at one point, during a back-and-forth about Northwestern’s connections to Qatar and its state-owned media outlet Al Jazeera, which has been accused of pro-Hamas incitement. Later, asked if he would commit to keeping any suspected violators of the school’s code of conduct off campus in the fall, Schill responded, “That is not how due process works.”

Facing pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Schill also defended his decision not to involve the antisemitism committee in the agreement, though he committed to reconstituting the body.

Tensions over the Israel-Hamas war have been high on campuses since the fall and spiked in recent weeks with a wave of anti-Israel tent encampments that led to over 3,000 arrests nationwide.

After the first congressional hearings in December, an outcry of criticism from donors, students and politicians led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who gave cautious, halting answers to questions about whether calls for the genocide of Jews would violate their schools’ conduct policies.

In April, the committee turned its attention to Columbia President Minouche Shafik, who took a more conciliatory approach to Republican-led questioning. Shafik’s concessions around faculty academic freedom upset students and professors at Columbia. Her testimony, and subsequent decision to call in police, escalated protests on campus that inspired students at other colleges to launch similar demonstrations.

Originally, the presidents of Yale University and the University of Michigan were called to testify on Thursday. But the committee shifted its attention to Northwestern and Rutgers after those colleges struck deals with pro-Palestinian protesters to limit or disband encampments.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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