US college leaders grilled in Congress over Gaza protests

Northwestern University president Michael Schill speaks in front of a microphone at a congressional hearing
Northwestern University president Michael Schill testifies during a House education and workforce committee hearing [Reuters]

Three university leaders have testified before Congress about their institutions' responses to campus protests over the Israel-Gaza war.

The leaders of Northwestern, UCLA and Rutgers appeared before the House committee on education and the workforce.

They defended some of the negotiations between students and schools during the protests and offered updates on how those involved were being disciplined.

Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a series of appearances by university heads, and coincided with a new small camp being set up on UCLA’s campus.

Thousands of students, at more than 130 colleges and universities across the US, demonstrated in opposition to the war in Gaza. More than 3,000 demonstrators were arrested between April and May.

The committee on Thursday questioned the university heads on what concessions were made to get students to reduce or disband protest camps.

Committee members also sought answers on how antisemitism was being addressed in their institutions.

All three were asked about how many students were disciplined for their behaviour: at Northwestern none were suspended or expelled for antisemitism; four people were suspended and 19 sanctioned at Rutgers; while UCLA is evaluating more than 100 reported cases of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Michael Schill, the president of Northwestern, took the majority of questions.

Multiple Republican committee members were critical of Mr Schill for reaching an agreement with protesters in exchange for them taking down the camp.

Rutgers reached a similar agreement.

Some Democrats on the committee applauded Mr Schill for his peaceful handling of the matter: no arrests were made and the police were not called during the clearing of the camp.

One of the most contentious moments of the three-hour-long hearing came from Elise Stefanik, a Republican.

Ms Stefanik cited multiple examples of alleged instances of antisemitism on Northwestern's campus and asked Mr Schill how long the investigation into these instances would go on.

"We believe, at Northwestern, in due process”, Mr Schill responded.

Elise Stefanik raises a paper with a letter F on it in the air

The spotlight was on UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, whose university saw large protests and a camp that was attacked by counter-protesters.

Police and school officials were slow to respond to violence and were heavily criticised for their response last month.

On Wednesday, the police chief at UCLA was temporarily removed and reassigned “pending an examination of our security processes”, the university said.

In his opening remarks, Mr Block said the protesters had "tested the limits” of the UCLA administration's de-escalation strategy. He said his university strove to prevent using law enforcement to make arrests on campus “unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the physical safety of the community”.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, accused Mr Block of not protecting pro-Palestinian students by allowing counter-protesters to attack for hours.

Meanwhile, photos and videos showed a new small camp being built outside Kerckhoff Hall at UCLA on Thursday.

Protesters used tables, metal fences, and wooden boards to block off walkways, while security guards watched over them, according to CBS, the BBC's US partner.

UCLA Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications told BBC News that the administration was "aware of the demonstration activity on the Kerckhoff patio".

"Our safety personnel are on site and actively monitoring the situation."

A later statement issued by Mr Block and the UCLA vice chancellor of campus safety said the administration "has withdrawn consent to remain on campus for the demonstrators," and is "asking them to disperse immediately".

"There is reasonable cause to find that demonstrators' activities — including erecting barricades, establishing fortifications, and blocking access to parts of the campus and buildings — are disrupting campus operations," the statement continued.

"Demonstrators have been informed that if they do not disperse, they will face arrest and possible disciplinary action."

Some classes switched to remote learning due to the new protest on Thursday, and Los Angeles police issued a citywide tactical alert, according to KTLA-TV.

The alerts are used to re-distribute on-duty police officers and prepare for a possible escalation that would trigger an emergency.

At Harvard University on Thursday, over 1,000 graduating students stood up and left their commencement ceremony in protest after the administration barred 13 students from graduating due to their protest activities.

Members of the audience also booed the university president as he spoke, and Palestinian flags were seen flying near the back of the crowd.

Previous hearings by the House of Representatives committee have resulted in two Ivy League university heads stepping down, though Thursday's hearing had tense moments it was much less contentious than the previous committee hearings.

The appearance of Columbia University's president Dr Nemat Shafik at an April congressional hearing emboldened students on campus and led to them pitching tents on a lawn, sparking a wave of protests across the US.

Protesters on campus erecting barricades seen from a helicopter
The new camp at UCLA [CBS]