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A photo of protesters at UCLA.

While most recent campus protests have been peaceful, UCLA saw violent clashes between Palestinian supporters and counterdemonstrators.

Grace Yoon/Anadolu via Getty Image

Following a wave of pro-Palestinian protests at campuses across the nation, three college leaders will speak to Congress today about how they handled demonstrations at their institutions.

The hearing—titled “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos”—will feature the leaders of Northwestern University, Rutgers University and the University of California, Los Angeles. It marks the third time lawmakers have called on top administrators to answer questions about antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. The attack, which killed more than 1,000 Israeli civilians and foreign nationals, prompted Israel to launch a retaliatory war that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. As the fighting raged on, students on campuses from coast to coast set up encampments to show their support for the Palestinian people, demanding that colleges divest from Israel and companies that profit off the bloodshed.

Join us today for live coverage of the House antisemitism hearing, starting at 8:45 a.m.

Congressional Republicans have since cast colleges as hotbeds of antisemitism, accusing institutional leaders of not doing enough to protect Jewish students. The first antisemitism hearing, held in December, featured the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. All three leaders were widely criticized for equivocating on a question about whether hypothetical calls for genocide would violate their institution’s speech policies. While all three apologized for their answers, Liz Magill at Penn and Claudine Gay at Harvard were soon out of their jobs.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik arguably fared better before lawmakers at a second hearing in April, but then faced accusations that she threw faculty members “under the bus.” On the day of the hearing, Columbia students established the country’s first pro-Palestinian encampment, which was quickly emulated nationwide. Days later, Shafik faced Congressional pressure to resign.

She has so far defied such calls, but no college president has emerged undamaged from the hearings. Now Michael Schill of Northwestern, Jonathan Holloway of Rutgers and Gene Block of UCLA will face Congressional scrutiny over how they handled pro-Palestinian protests and alleged antisemitism at their institutions. While their predecessors in the hot seat were all women newly installed at private institutions, tomorrow’s witnesses are all men who have been in their jobs longer—and two lead public institutions. But based on rhetoric from North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, the Republican chairwoman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, it appears they are also headed into hostile territory.

“The Committee has a clear message for mealy-mouthed, spineless college leaders: Congress will not tolerate your dereliction of your duty to your Jewish students. No stone must go unturned while buildings are being defaced, campus greens are being captured, or graduations are being ruined,” Foxx said in a May 16 statement about the upcoming hearing. “College is not a park for playacting juveniles or a battleground for radical activists. Everyone affiliated with these universities will receive a healthy dose of reality: actions have consequences.”

Here’s a look at what’s happened on each campus in the lead-up to the hearing.

Chaos at UCLA

While a recent study found that pro-Palestinian campus protests have been largely peaceful, the authors highlighted one glaring exception: UCLA.

Student demonstrators first established an encampment on campus on April 25. Like many of their peers across the nation, they demanded disclosure of how UCLA’s endowment funds are invested and requested the withdrawal of investments in companies tied in any way to the war effort. Protesters also called on the University of California system to boycott Israeli universities.

In a letter to Block, Foxx accused protesters of illegally denying students access to campus buildings, attacking, harassing and intimidating Jewish students, and denying all UCLA students “a safe and uninterrupted learning environment” amid the demonstrations.

As the encampment at UCLA grew, it attracted the attention of pro-Israel counterprotesters. On the night of April 30, they attacked the encampment with fireworks and other projectiles; they also targeted UCLA student journalists with physical violence. Police were slow to intervene in the chaos, raising concerns among the campus community as well as members of Congress.

“Finally, late on April 30, 2024, after days of the UCLA administration allowing severe and pervasive civil rights violations and harassment against UCLA students, many targeted for their Jewish identity, UCLA’s campus erupted into violence when a group of instigators attempted to dismantle the encampment by force. Inexplicably, the ‘schools’ police force didn’t formally request the LAPD’s help until midnight,’ and it ended up taking almost three hours for law enforcement to arrive and restore order,” Foxx wrote in her letter to UCLA leaders.

Authorities swept the encampment at around 2 a.m. on May 2, arresting more than 200.

Block—who had condemned the violent attack on the encampment as “unacceptable” days earlier—defended the sweep as necessary to ensure campus safety. Though he noted many protesters “remained peaceful,” Block said that the encampment was “both unlawful and a breach of policy” that led to “unsafe conditions” on campus and “damaged our ability to carry out our mission.”

In the aftermath, Block announced an investigation into the “attack on our campus” staged by outside individuals and the creation of a new Office of Campus Safety to oversee the UCLA Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management, reporting directly to Block. UCLA’s police chief was also reassigned this week, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Block also narrowly avoided a no-confidence vote from faculty members over the situation.

De-Escalation at Northwestern

Student protesters established a pro-Palestinian encampment on April 24, echoing other divestment demands heard across the U.S. While Northwestern did not experience the kind of violence UCLA saw, both Foxx and Schill condemned alleged antisemitic incidents that played out during the five days the encampment remained active on campus.

Protesters voluntarily removed their tents on April 29 after they struck a deal with Northwestern administrators that would give them more insight—and input—into university investment decisions, as well as offer support for Palestinian students and visiting faculty, provide more space for Muslim student groups, and a number of other concessions.

Schill explained his decision in an op-ed in The Chicago Tribune, writing that while presidents “are between a rock and a hard place” in dealing with the protesters, he was focused on de-escalation. Schill, who is Jewish, also emphasized his faith to counter arguments that he “collaborated with antisemitic people” in reaching an agreement with protesters rather than arresting them.

“This resolution—fragile though it might be— was possible because we chose to see our students not as a mob but as young people who were in the process of learning,” Schill wrote. “It was possible because we tried respectful dialogue rather than force. And it was possible because we sought to follow a set of principles, many of which I would argue are core to the tenets of Judaism.”

He also noted that Northwestern refused requests to divest from Israel and to end “an academic program that focused on Israeli innovation” when weighing the demands from demonstrators.

In a letter to Northwestern officials, Foxx referred to the protest site as an “unlawful pro-terror encampment” that “disrupted campus life and became a hotspot for pervasive antisemitic harassment and hostility.” She also accused Northwestern leaders of surrendering to students “in a shameful agreement” rather than disciplining them for breaking campus rules.

Schill also faced backlash from various Jewish groups over the deal; a mobile billboard stationed outside his home declared him “Hamas’s favorite university president.” Like Foxx, Schill has been critical of the actions of some campus protesters, which he has denounced.

“I recognize that some slogans and expressions are open to interpretation. But when I see a Star of David with an X on it, when I see a picture of me with horns, or when I hear that one of our students has been called a dirty Jew, there is no ambiguity. This needs to be condemned by all of us, and that starts with me,” Schill said in an April 30 video announcing the agreement.

A Short-Lived Encampment at Rutgers

Pro-Palestinian students at Rutgers University established an encampment at the New Brunswick campus on April 29. They demanded disclosure, divestment and other actions from university leaders, including severing existing ties with Israeli universities.

The protests were fairly muted compared to some across the U.S. While officials rescheduled some final exams due to protest-related disruptions, the university managed to avoid violence. President Holloway emphasized a strategy of de-escalation in his first public statement on the encampment on May 2, stressing the importance of balancing free speech and student safety.

Later that same day, Holloway announced the protest had reached a peaceful end.

Pro-Palestinian students shut down the encampment voluntarily after university officials agreed to a deal that includes a meeting between students and university investment officials. Administrators also agreed to support displaced Palestinian students, consider a new Department of Middle East studies and explore greater collaboration with Birzeit University in the West Bank, among other concessions.

While students will meet with Holloway and the chairman of Rutgers’s joint committee on investments, the president has made clear that he does not support divestment. And he outright rejected a demand from protesters that Rutgers terminate its partnership with Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Still, the agreement caught the attention of Congress, which revised its plans for a scheduled hearing on campus antisemitism, swapping out officials from the University of Michigan and Yale University for the presidents of Rutgers and Northwestern.

“Over the last several days, the presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers have made shocking concessions to the unlawful antisemitic encampments on their campuses,” Foxx said in a May 6 statement announcing the change. “They have surrendered to antisemitic radicals in despicable displays of cowardice. As a result of these gravely concerning actions, the Committee believes it’s necessary to reevaluate the scope of the May 23 hearing and bring in the presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers—along with UCLA—to testify before the Committee.”

While Holloway has offered limited public statements on the deal with protesters, he offered a preview of his appearance before Congress when he spoke to state lawmakers at a May 9 budget hearing. The Rutgers president denounced antisemitism and Islamophobia, defended concessions as “fairly minor and reasonable” and noted his opposition to divestment and Israeli academic boycotts.

Holloway also fielded a question about whether hypothetical calls for genocide would violate institutional speech policies, the query that arguably felled Magill at Penn and exacerbated pressure for Gay to resign from Harvard following their equivocating answers to Congress.

“Is [calling for] genocide of the Jews free speech?” Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer asked.

“No it is not,” Holloway immediately responded.

Asked to elaborate, Holloway said he stood by free speech entirely “in all of its heightened and ugliest forms” but added that some speech was not protected. He argued that “calling for genocide or violence against people in any form is speech that should not be protected.”

Now he’ll likely have to answer the same question in front of Congress.

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