College presidents defend their student protest deals

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House Republicans on Thursday tried to chastise two university presidents over their deals to disband antiwar encampments, but the college leaders refused to allow lawmakers to dress them down without a fight.

House Education and the Workforce Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) slammed Northwestern University President Michael Schill and Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway for making deals with their students that included providing amnesty for protesters, discussing school investments and supporting scholarships for Palestinian students. Foxx called the deals “disgraceful” and “egregious.”

“Each of you should be ashamed of your decisions that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students,” Foxx said in her opening statement. “Mr. Schill and Dr. Holloway, you should be doubly ashamed for capitulating to the antisemitic rulebreakers.”

But both presidents pushed back on several lines of questioning from Republicans that ranged from calling for disciplinary action on protesters to scrutinizing their deals. Schill got into several scuffles with lawmakers and bluntly told them he would not engage in hypothetical scenarios or discuss specific faculty and students, while Holloway rebuked their likening of protesters to a mob.

“I was not negotiating with the mob, but talking to students,” Holloway said to Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) who said Rutgers had given into the “demands of the mob.

Students across the country have been pressuring their institutions to divest from companies connected to Israel and to join their calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. To quell the unrest, college leaders have called on law enforcement to clear the encampments or allowed students to continue their protest or made deals with their students.

Schill agreed to cover the tuition and other costs for five Palestinian undergraduates to attend his school, among other deals. At Rutgers University, Holloway’s agreement included exploring the possibility of creating an Arab cultural center on campus and supporting displaced Palestinian students so they can finish their studies at his school.

Both Schill and Holloway have faced calls to step down from Jewish advocacy groups who say the presidents caved to protesters who have harassed or intimidated Jewish students on campus.

But Schill took the most heat from lawmakers during the hearing.

Reps. Elise Stefanik(R-N.Y.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Burgess Owens (R-Utah) and others sparred with Schill over his agreement with protesters, decision not to suspend or expel protesters, failing grade on antisemitism from the Anti-Defamation League and his institution’s foreign ties.

Stefanik referred to the deal Schill made with protesters as the “Deering Meadow agreement,” while slamming provisions in it, to which Schill at one point replied: “Actually, I never called it that, but the ‘Deering Meadow agreement’ was just a framework of an agreement that was reached with students at 4 o'clock in the morning. If you would like to see the entire program, go on our website.”

He also pushed back on Stefanik’s framing of her questions and responded to her probing about antisemitic incidents by saying: “All of these are allegations that are being investigated.”

Schill also pushed back on Banks' questioning about Northwestern’s decision to fire former football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is suing the school for wrongful termination.

“You’re asking for facts and your premise is inaccurate,” Schill said.

“Don't accuse me of that. That’s outrageous,” Banks said.

“Well it’s wrong what you just said,” Schill responded.

Schill also refused to answer some “yes or no” and hypothetical questions, such as those about whether students could put up an encampment on campus again if he doesn’t uphold the school’s end of the agreement. Owens asked Schill if he would put up with Ku Klux Klan members on his campus harassing Black students.

“I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals like that,” Schill told Owens.

Owens continued to needle Schill’s responses, and rattled off quick fire questions about Northwestern’s funding from Qatar, whether Schill had knowledge of Qatar’s support of Hamas and the country’s connections with Iran.

“This is not my area of expertise,” Schill said, though he did respond to questions about the university’s Doha campus.

“If this was true, do you think it'd be a good idea for the University of Northwestern to partner with a government that harbors terrorists, Hamas and Iranian operatives who fund terrorism, yes or no?” Owens said.

“I’m not going to engage in yes or no answers,” Schill responded.

“OK, obviously you don’t have a problem with that,” Owens quickly shot back.

“I’m offended by you telling me what my views are,” Schill said while Owens tried to fire off another question.

Schill repeatedly defended his decision to negotiate with students while outlining why he decided against allowing the encampments to stay and calling in law enforcement. He also acknowledged the encampment was making his Jewish students feel unsafe.

Holloway similarly defended his deal by saying instead of calling police, his school chose to engage with their students as the first option.

“We have seen what transpired in other universities and sought a different way without compromising on my fundamental stance against the divestment and the boycotts. We agreed to talk and to listen,” he said.

University of California, Los Angeles, Chancellor Gene Block, who testified alongside Holloway and Schill, also received a reprimand from Foxx for not stepping in sooner to clear out an encampment that faced attacks from counter protesters. Frederick Lawrence, CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and former president of Brandeis University, was invited to testify as the Democratic witness but didn't receive many questions.

Lawmakers also brought out several props to emphasize their points.

Stefanik brought an ADL report card with a large “F.” Banks brought a large board with a photo of faculty protesters at Northwestern University linking arms in front of a police officer. Owens propped up a giant fake check of $600 million written out to Northwestern from “QATAR RELATED SOURCES.”

Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) displayed a video that showed some student protesters didn’t know the meaning of certain pro-Palestinian chants they used. And Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) also played a video of a Jewish student being blocked from going to class by protesters at UCLA.

Across the aisle, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) brought printed photos of the encampment at UCLA while she reprimanded Block.

Several Democrats also used their time to defend protest agreements.

Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) described the process of dismantling encampments through agreements as peaceful.

Takano pointed to the University of California, Riverside, in his district, which also negotiated with protesters, while drawing contrast with the violence that broke out and hundreds of arrests at UCLA. He pressed Block on how much time leadership had spent discussing solutions with protesters.

“My university is leading by example, but my Republican colleagues are characterizing any agreement made between university administrators and student protesters as ‘conceding to the mob,’” Takano said.

Jayapal also lauded Schill for de-escalating protests and peaceful negotiations, and criticized Republicans for holding hearings for “political bullying purposes.”

“I really appreciate your focus on negotiation and a peaceful resolution and protecting all students,” she said. “Thank you, Mr. Schill.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the committee, criticized Republicans for holding a fifth hearing on campus antisemitism and said “no work is being done to find a meaningful solution to address animus on college campuses.”

“Complaining about a problem is not a solution,” he said. “It certainly riles people up, generates a lot of media coverage, but it does not solve anything.”