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UCLA, Northwestern, Rutgers leaders face scrutiny from lawmakers

Mr. Michael Schill, President, of Northwestern University, testifies at a hearing called “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos” before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images/TNS)  (Michael A. McCoy)
By Susan Svrluga Washington Post

A Republican-led panel of lawmakers that is investigating campus antisemitism questioned leaders of UCLA, Rutgers and Northwestern universities on Thursday, demanding to know how many students and staff members had been disciplined in the wake of pro-Palestinian encampments this spring and expressing incredulity and anger at the responses.

It was the third time the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has summoned university leaders to testify in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and protests that have ensued on campuses across the country during the Israel-Gaza war. It was fiery. And it was, the committee’s chairwoman said, only the beginning of the committee’s investigation.

“You will be held accountable,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) told the leaders.

Meanwhile, on campus at UCLA on Thursday, protesters erected another encampment – a form of demonstration that swept campuses around the world after one arose at Columbia University during the previous hearing.

Michael Schill, president of Northwestern University since 2022; Jonathan Holloway, who became the president of Rutgers University in 2020; and Gene Block, the chancellor of UCLA since 2007, testified Thursday, defending their decisions and expressing concern about antisemitism. Each of them spoke in deeply personal terms about their own understanding of discrimination. Holloway spoke of generations of his family fighting anti-Black racism, and Schill and Block spoke of family members who were victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

“I am fully aware that many of our Jewish students have had to confront rhetoric and images on campus that any reasonable person would find repugnant,” Block said. “Trust me, I understand their pain. I’ve lived it myself.”

Schill said the fact that Israel is a cherished homeland is not theoretical to him because it is where family members who survived the Holocaust found refuge after the war.

Then the committee took over. Foxx told the three university leaders that they should be ashamed of decisions “that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students,” and told Schill and Holloway they should be “doubly ashamed for capitulating” to protesters.

With rapid-fire questions – sometimes shouted – committee members demanded answers.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) described Northwestern’s resolution of the protest as a “unilateral capitulation to the pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, antisemitic encampment” and asked whether it was true a Jewish student had been assaulted.

“So, I want to question the premise of your question -” Schill began.

“No, no, no, no,” Stefanik interrupted. “I’m asking the questions. You’re answering.” She asked whether a Jewish student had been verbally harassed and stalked to Hillel, and whether a Jewish student wearing a yarmulke was spat on.

“All of these are allegations that are being investigated,” Schill responded.

The answer of the day, another representative grumbled later, was, “It’s under investigation.”

Some lawmakers brought props – a photo of faculty members trying to shield protesters from police, a giant fake check symbolizing money from Qatar to Northwestern University, a “report card” from the Anti-Defamation League giving Northwestern an “F,” and videos.

Some of the Democrats on the committee complained that the hearings weren’t helping prevent antisemitism or posed questions to the witness invited by their party, Frederick Lawrence, the secretary and chief executive of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

While Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) was speaking, a man burst into the hearing room and yelled, “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism!” before running back out.

Todd Wolfson, a professor of media studies at Rutgers, came with others to object to the hearing. “I’m a Jewish faculty member,” he said. “I was at the encampment. I never felt unsafe. I didn’t see any antisemitism.”

The past two hearings held by the committee each involved combative exchanges and set off a cascade of tensions on campuses. In December, the presidents of MIT, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania faced the panel. It did not go well. When lawmakers repeatedly asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews violated campus policies, the presidents responded cautiously, touching off outrage from many when they didn’t simply say yes. Within days, the committee opened an investigation into multiple universities. Within weeks, the presidents of Harvard and Penn had resigned.

Then last month, leaders from Columbia University faced a barrage of questions from the committee and promised to better enforce existing restrictions on protests. Meanwhile, back in New York, protesters had erected dozens of tents at the center of campus in direct violation of school rules. The following day, police swept in, arresting more than 100 people. And protesters – swelled in numbers by students and others horrified to see a police crackdown at a school that has long had student activism as part of its ethos – pitched more tents nearby.

Students at campuses across the country quickly followed suit, erecting their own encampments, many demanding that university endowments divest from Israel and weapons manufacturers. University leaders struggled to find the right balance between students’ speech rights with campus safety, and people on and off campuses debated whether protesters’ chants and slogans – such as “From the river to the sea” – were political calls for the rights of Palestinians or antisemitic calls for the eradication of Israel.

Many schools responded by calling in police to clear protesters. Thousands of people were arrested in the past few weeks for their participation in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and some of the crackdowns turned violent.

A few schools, such as Brown University, Rutgers and Northwestern, reached agreements with student demonstrators, offering some concessions in exchange for the voluntary removal of tents. Those agreements were both praised, for avoiding possible violence and disruptions to graduation ceremonies, and decried.