House GOP to grill college leaders for negotiating with protesters

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A pair of university presidents testifying Thursday on Capitol Hill managed to quell their campus protests without calling in the police — only to make themselves a target for House Republicans who are lambasting their tactics as defeats.

Once praised in some circles for finding less chaotic ways of diffusing tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, Northwestern University and Rutgers University presidents are now facing GOP backlash for making deals with students to disband their pro-Palestinian encampments.

The hearing about campus antisemitism is the latest in a litany of conservative reprimands for the way colleges balance free speech and public safety. It also serves as another political flare as Speaker Mike Johnson, House Education Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and other Republicans look to squeeze more attention out of campus strife and cement the idea that their party stands for restoring order ahead of the November election.

Thursday’s hearing serves to warn other institutions against hashing out deals with protesters and prod them to impose their policies around campus protests. House Republicans argue that the presidents sidelined the concerns of Jewish students and caved to small groups of students.

“Enforce your rules that say no camping on campus, no threatening students, no harassing students, no occupying buildings,” Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.), a GOP member of the House education committee, said in an interview. “What you shouldn’t do is negotiate with people who are breaking the law.”

Foxx has called those leaders “spineless” and referred to their agreements as “shocking concessions to the unlawful antisemitic encampments on their campuses.”

To disband the encampment on his campus, Northwestern President Michael Schill agreed to cover the tuition and other costs for five Palestinian undergraduates to attend the school and allowed students to continue protests through the end of the quarter, among other deals. At Rutgers University, President Jonathan Holloway agreed not to retaliate against pro-Palestinian protesters, and announced the school would discuss divestment requests with protesters, explore creating an Arab cultural center and support displaced Palestinian students so they can finish their studies at the school.

“Northwestern’s foremost responsibility is ensuring the safety of our students,” a Northwestern spokesperson said in a statement. “We are confident in the actions we have taken to address antisemitism on our campus and President Schill looks forward to discussing them with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.”

University of California, Los Angeles Chancellor Gene Block, who did not negotiate with protesters but disbanded his encampment with more than 200 arrests, will also testify. The university has faced scrutiny over its response to violence that broke out between protesters at the encampment and counterprotesters. Attacks on the encampment continued for hours before law enforcement stepped in. UCLA Police Chief John Thomas was removed from his post ahead of the hearing.

Republicans have been partial to strict enforcement of campus rules during the tumult, including calling on law enforcement to arrest protesters and deter them from setting up camp. But that tactic has been slammed by Democrats, academics and free speech groups, who have instead lauded colleges that have resolved to negotiate with protesters.

“For the House to be scrutinizing these negotiations is a wildly inappropriate interference,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, who has been supportive of the negotiations. “I see them as disingenuous and not in any way an attempt to address issues the way we would on a campus with open discussion and debate.”

Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and former president of Purdue University, said campuses must have clear policies that outline that free speech is protected but conduct that injures or threatens others is not. He also called negotiating with student protesters “senseless.”

“I disagree with the whole idea of negotiating,” he said, adding that prompt enforcement of university rules could serve as a deterrent for future disruptions on campus. Daniels also was critical of schools for accommodating a small group of students on campus, and warned schools may be likely to face similar issues again if they decide to negotiate with protesters.

Several colleges and universities beyond those who will be at Thursday’s hearing have struck deals with protesters. University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ agreed to call for a cease-fire in Gaza. Brown University said it would consider a vote on divesting from Israel. Harvard University agreed to a discussion with students about its endowment. And the University of Minnesota said it will not pursue disciplinary action against students or employees for their encampment protest.

Kiley criticized college presidents for giving a “privileged seat at the negotiating table” to protesters and sidelining the voices of Jewish students who weren’t invited to express their concerns with top college leaders. Northwestern’s Schill and Rutgers’ Holloway have faced rebukes from Jewish advocacy groups that have also called for them to resign because of their negotiations.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a member of the House education committee, said demonstrations are not a problem at most schools, but institutions must be firm with students about their campus policies. He wants to press the college leaders to be transparent about the deals they made with student protesters and their motivations behind negotiating with them.

“Why are you negotiating? What do you gain as opposed to simply taking a stand?” Walberg said, adding that the deals showed college leaders “gave away their authority.”

Committee members Burgess Owens (R-Utah) and Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) also said many college leaders failed to keep their students accountable for their actions when they negotiated with protesters — especially when agreements included amnesty for protesters.

“Once they start breaking the law, once they start camping on public property where they don't belong, once they stop listening, call the police and get them out of there and then move on,” Owens said. “If you continue to negotiate with people who have no idea of what parameters look like, they're going to take as much as they can.”

Sonoma State President Mike Lee this week resigned after the California State University system chancellor placed him on leave for approving an agreement that included financial transparency and calling for a cease-fire.

“In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community,” Lee wrote in a message to his campus. “I realize the harm that this has caused, and I take full ownership of it. I deeply regret the unintended consequences of my actions.”

Daniels, however, emphasized that many college leaders have largely managed to dodge calls for resignation, federal investigations, hearings and intense scrutiny.

“More have done well than not. It's the ‘nots’ that make the big news,” Daniels said about how most college leaders have handled protesters.

“If you look across the whole landscape, those were the exceptions,” he said about institutions such as Columbia University, which became the center of campus unrest after its president testified before the House in April. “There were an awful lot of schools with many, many thousands of students that you didn't hear about or that weren't newsworthy enough for you to write about the last couple of weeks.”