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Northwestern President Michael Schill to testify before Congress in antisemitism hearing

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Northwestern University President Michael Schill is scheduled to testify Thursday morning at a congressional hearing titled “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Choas,” as the elite Big Ten school and others across the country face mounting accusations of fostering climates that are hostile or discriminatory to Jews.

Schill — who describes himself as a “proud Jew” raised with an enduring love for Israel — is slated to appear before lawmakers alongside the leaders of Rutgers University and the University of California at Los Angeles.

A similar congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses in December spurred the resignations of several leaders of Ivy League schools, amid fierce backlash to their testimonies.

The Anti-Defamation League Midwest recently called for Schill’s resignation or removal by the university board of trustees, arguing in a statement that Jewish students at Northwestern “have been harassed and intimated by blatant antisemitism on campus,” which has worsened since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel killed roughly 1,200 and plunged the Middle East into an ongoing war.

Northwestern officials said in a statement Tuesday that the school’s “foremost responsibility is ensuring the safety of our students.”

“We are confident in the actions we have taken to address antisemitism on our campus,” the statement said, adding that “President Schill looks forward to discussing them with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.”

The Republican chairwoman of that committee, however, has already expressed a hard-line stance when it comes to university officials, campus protesters and allegations of antisemitism.

“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,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina in a statement. “No stone must go unturned while buildings are being defaced, campus greens are being captured, or graduations are being ruined. 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.”

The hearing comes as colleges around the nation are rocked by a movement of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and protest encampments, including one established at Northwestern last month.

Protesters erected tents on Deering Meadow, a popular green space on the Evanston campus, to protest the Israel-Hamas war and demand the university divest itself of financial assets linked to Israel.

Similar protests at other universities have devolved into the arrest of student demonstrators or the dismantling of encampments by police; some have erupted in violence. Other colleges and universities have also canceled graduation ceremonies or other large campus events citing the encampments, including an end-of-the-year festival that was scrapped at DePaul University last week.

President Michael Schill speaks to Northwestern University freshman, transfer students, and families on March Through the Arch day on Sept. 12, 2023, in Evanston. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
President Michael Schill speaks to Northwestern University freshman, transfer students and families on March Through the Arch day on Sept. 12, 2023, in Evanston. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern University officials, however, were able to negotiate an agreement with protesters — believed to be the first of its kind in the nation — that allowed demonstrations to continue while barring temporary structures and tents, except for one with aid supplies. The deal prevented protesters with no ties to the university from demonstrating; among other agreements, university officials in turn pledged to provide students more information about the school’s investments, as well as establish a house for Muslim and Middle Eastern students to eat, socialize and pray.

Schill said he hoped the resolution could be “an example for other universities.”

“The tents are down, removing a source of antisemitic intimidation to many of our Jewish students,” Schill said in a Tribune opinion piece. “We have largely removed outside, more radical influences from the peaceful demonstrations taking place on Deering Meadow. And we stand ready to commence disciplinary proceedings against anyone who breaks our rules or engages in antisemitic or anti-Muslim behavior.”

Several faculty members praised Schill and lauded the agreement with pro-Palestinian protesters as “historic.”

“Some university presidents who testified recently before the House committee were forced to step down. We call on (Northwestern’s) trustees to resist outside pressures and condemn the House committee’s misrepresentations of our campus,” the faculty members said in a letter published earlier this week in The Daily Northwestern, the university’s student newspaper. “We stand in support of the deliberative process that led to this historic agreement, and we hope the trustees will do the same.”

Yet others have decried Schill and accused the university of allowing a climate of antisemitism and discrimination to take hold. Several Jewish Northwestern students recently filed a lawsuit alleging the school permitted pro-Palestinian demonstrations there to become “increasingly hostile to Jews.”

A few weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Schill established an advisory committee on preventing antisemitism and hate. But seven members of the committee recently resigned to protest the university’s agreement with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

“Jewish students don’t need data, scholarship or research to know that antisemitism is a problem at every American university. Our experiences define that reality,” Lily Cohen, a Jewish Northwestern student who resigned from the committee, said in a Tribune opinion piece. “When ‘antisemitism committees’ refuse Jewish members the permission and platform to define their own identities and the hate they face, when committee members cannot even agree on what antisemitism is and when Jewish members are spoken over and shut down in discussions of their own experiences, what is the point of having the discussions at all?”

The U.S. Department of Education earlier this year launched an investigation into accusations of antisemitism at Northwestern, along with similar complaints made against many other colleges and universities nationwide.

A Northwestern alumni group in December launched a “six-figure digital and TV ad campaign” to expose what it called “Northwestern University’s refusal to protect Jewish students,” according to a statement by the group.

Roughly 1,200 Jewish undergraduates — about 14% of the student body — and 1,000 Jewish graduate students attend Northwestern, according to Hillel International, a Jewish campus organization.

The Middle East has become a recent flashpoint in higher education: Locally and across the country, many colleges and universities have grappled with accusations of antisemitism amid the war, which has killed more than 35,000 in Gaza, according to United Nations officials.

The Anti-Defamation League tracked about 300 antisemitic incidents nationwide in the roughly two-week period following the Hamas attack, a 388% rise over the same time frame in 2022. An ADL report in November showed that nearly three-quarters of Jewish college students said they had witnessed or experienced some form of antisemitism since the start of the academic year.

An Israeli American student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago filed a lawsuit early this year alleging that she experienced a pattern of antisemitic discrimination and harassment there, included a professor modifying an assignment “for the purpose of harassing” and deliberately targeting her, according to the complaint.

SAIC in a statement said the school “strongly condemns antisemitism and any discrimination based on religion, nationality, or any other aspect of a person’s identity.”

Arab Americans and Muslims have also endured a spike in Islamophobia and anti-Arab rhetoric, harassment and violence since the war began. A report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations released in April tracked more than 8,000 complaints in 2023 — including cases of alleged hate crimes, harassment and education discrimination — a 56% increase from the previous year and the highest number recorded in the organization’s 30-year history.

“The primary force behind this wave of heightened Islamophobia was the escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine in October 2023,” the report said. “Employers, universities, and schools were among the central actors suppressing free speech by those who sought to vocally oppose Israel’s genocidal onslaught on Gaza and call attention to Palestinian human rights.”

Many higher education institutions have struggled to balance protecting free speech on campus while preventing harassment and discrimination.

Police last week cleared a pro-Palestinian encampment from the DePaul University quad, the last one of its kind on a Chicago-area college campus. Demonstrator demands included that DePaul “divest from companies that advance Palestinian suffering and profit off of the occupation,” have “no Zionists determining where our tuition is going,” and remove “individuals with ties to Israel from (the) board of trustees,” according to a social media post.

DePaul officials said they received more than 1,000 complaints of discrimination and harassment over the course of the encampment, including a death threat, as well as an estimated $180,000 in vandalism of buildings and structures.

The Anti-Defamation League Midwest said the encampment created an “unsafe environment for Jewish students,” and supported its demise.

A pro-Palestinian encampment was taken down by police at the University of Chicago earlier this month. Students and and alumni there also occupied the university’s Institute of Politics Friday to condemn the war and urge the university to divest itself of financial assets connected to Israel, but the protesters were quickly removed by university police.

The House recently passed legislation that would create a broader definition of antisemitism for the Department of Education to use in enforcing anti-discrimination laws, prompted by a student protest movement in opposition to the Israel-Hamas war. The measure would widen the legal definition of antisemitism include the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

Opponents fear this language would censor political speech on college campuses.

“Addressing rising antisemitism is critically important, but sacrificing American’s free speech rights is not the way to solve that problem,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement condemning the measure. “This bill would throw the full weight of the federal government behind an effort to stifle criticism of Israel and risks politicizing the enforcement of federal civil rights statutes precisely when their robust protections are most needed.”

Responses to the war and its fallout on college campuses have cost some university officials their jobs.

Under pressure from donors and alumni, the president of the University of Pennsylvania stepped down amid criticism over her testimony at a December congressional hearing on antisemitism, where she would not say that calls for the genocide of Jews would violate school conduct rules. The chairman of the school’s board of trustees also resigned.

The president of Harvard University stepped down as well following her testimony at the same hearing, though she had also faced plagiarism accusations.

“Free speech stands at the core of the liberal arts education, (an education) which almost every member of Congress benefited from when they were students,” said Pamela Nadell, an American University professor of Jewish history, during the December hearing. “But free speech does not permit harassment, discrimination, bias, threats or violence in any form. And when they occur, our institutions — and not just the campus but our nation — they have in place mechanisms to respond.”

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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Angie Leventis Lourgos , 2024-05-22 23:24:05

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