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Northwestern president grilled by Republicans about deal with pro-Palestinian protesters

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, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington.
.AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib
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, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Washington.

House Republicans attacked Northwestern University President Michael Schill during a Congressional hearing on Thursday about the agreement he made with pro-Palestinian student organizers to end an encampment on his campus, blasting the deal as a capitulation to what they allege are antisemitic activists.

Schill, who is Jewish, defended the agreement as part of his commitment to protecting students’ safety and fostering dialogue across different perspectives.

“We made the decision to talk to our students to model the behavior that we want to be engaged in: dialogue rather than force,” Schill said during the Washington hearing. “And we had a de-escalation. The tents came down right after the agreement was struck. The entire protest is now in conformity with the university rules.”

“My number one obligation is public safety and is [student] safety. Because if you don’t feel safe, you cannot learn.”

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Schill was one of three university leaders called before a Congressional committee on Thursday, the latest in a round of hearings organized by the GOP dedicated to “stopping antisemitic college chaos.” Much of the questioning concerned the university leaders’ responses to pro-Palestinian encampments, with some of the toughest questions aimed at Schill.

An exchange with Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik grew especially heated.

“Let me tell you why you earned an F,” Stefanik said, referring to the Anti-Defamation League’s rating for Northwestern’s handling of antisemitism. “I want to discuss what has been referred to as the Deering Meadows agreement: your unilateral capitulation to the pro-Hamas, anti-Israel antisemitic encampment.”

Raising allegations of an assault on a Jewish student, Stefanik repeatedly asked Schill if anyone had been expelled.

“We believe at Northwestern in due process,” Schill said. “We believe in investigations.”

Student organizers of Northwestern’s encampment, including Jewish members, say criticism of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. They say such accusations are meant to distract from protestors’ goals: to raise awareness of the deaths in Gaza, more than 35,000 Palestinians reported killed, according to the United Nations, and push for the university to divest from companies supporting Israeli military action there.


Lukas, an encampment member of Jewish and Palestinian descent who didn’t provide his last name for fear he’d be targeted for harassment, previously told WBEZ the only antisemitism he witnessed was from counterprotesters.

 “They screamed antisemitic slurs. They said things like, ‘You’re not a real Jew … Jewish people are ashamed of you.’”

But during Thursday’s hearing, Schill said Jewish students who weren’t part of the encampment felt threatened by its presence. He said that’s what motivated him to engage with student protesters and end the encampment as soon as possible.

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“We were fortunate to have students who were willing to negotiate, and were willing to give up their demands [for divestment],” Schill said in response to questioning. “We said, ‘Absolutely not.’ We said, ‘Nothing that singles out Israel.’ And then we said, ‘Let’s think about what will make the university stronger, what will be important for your community.’”

The agreement Schill made in exchange for student organizers dismantling their encampment included a dedicated space for Middle Eastern and North African and Muslim students.

“They had no place to pray,” Schill said. “They had no place to eat and celebrate Ramadan. That is something that we accord to our Jewish students, to our Catholic students, to our Lutheran students.”

Schill began his testimony before Congress by reiterating his commitment to fighting antisemitism on campus. He said university leaders will work through the summer to update their code of conduct to address what he says has been an accelerated rise in intimidation and harassment of Jewish students since October 7.

Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic representative from Washington, thanked Schill for his efforts, and asked if other students were being given the same consideration.

“You did not mention other forms of hate that have also arisen against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students on your campus,” Jayapal said. “Do you have the same level of commitment to fight that kind of hate against those students? And can you tell me what efforts you are taking to address safety concerns for those communities?”

Schill said administrators had received complaints of Islamophobia and that the complaints would be investigated.

“I had a dinner for 45 Jewish kids and I asked them about what they needed. I had a dinner for Islamic students and asked them what they needed,” Schill said. “We are a university. These are all of our students.”

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Several Democrats criticized their Republican colleagues for calling another hearing instead of taking action to address the rise of antisemitic incidents and other kinds of discrimination on college campuses.

“No work is being done to find a meaningful solution to address animus on college campuses,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat. “Complaining about a problem is not a solution. Certainly, it certainly riles people up, generates a lot of media coverage, but it doesn’t solve anything.”

Scott’s criticism of his Republican colleagues also carried with it a reminder of just how high the stakes were for Schill and other administrators during the hearing.

“To the best of my knowledge, the only changes that have resulted from these hearings is that a handful of individuals have lost their jobs,” Scott said.

The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University both resigned after testifying before Congress regarding campus protests.

Academic leaders worry the hearings are an attempt to undermine public trust in higher education.

“The message is that these politicians are entitled to have authority over what happens on a college campus,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. “And that’s just unacceptable in a free society. It’s really … political repression.”

Mulvey condemned antisemitism but said it is being weaponized by bad actors to delegitimize higher education as a pillar of democracy.

“The only thing to do as a college president in this situation is to stand on principle and give a robust, full-throated defense of academic freedom for faculty, and free speech and freedom of the press and freedom of association for their students,” she said.

Lisa Kurian Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip.