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Northwestern President Schill grilled by lawmakers at campus antisemtism hearing. 'Hate is hate'

Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Congressional lawmakers grilled Northwestern University President Michael Schill for several hours on Thursday about the rise of antisemitism on campus — including allegations that a Jewish student at the elite Big Ten school was recently assaulted and another student wearing a yarmulke was spat upon.

Schill, who described himself as a Jewish descendent of Holocaust victims and survivors, acknowledged the recent “disturbing spike in antisemitism” at Northwestern and other schools nationwide as he testified before congressional leaders during a hearing in Washington titled “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos.”

He said the Evanston-based university will work over the summer to update its conduct code before the next academic year begins.

“Where there is conduct that threatens the Northwestern community, we must impose discipline, and we have done so,” Schill said, during opening remarks. “Yet, I will be the first to admit ― our existing rules and policies are falling short, and we must improve our processes to meet the current challenge.”

Schill added that the university will also increase security and enhance enforcement of the student code of conduct.

“We are confident we can continue to promote two principles at the core of our mission ― free expression and academic freedom ― while disciplining harassment and intimidation,” he said.

Colleges and universities across the country have faced mounting accusations of fostering environments that are hostile or discriminatory to Jews, particularly since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel, which killed roughly 1,200 and plunged the region into an ongoing war.

The hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce came as tensions on colleges nationwide have hit a fever pitch due to a movement of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and protest encampments, including one that took hold at Northwestern last month.

Schill, who has served as president of Northwestern since fall 2022, testified alongside the leaders of Rutgers University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Several prominent leaders of Ivy League schools resigned under fire following testimony at a similar congressional hearing on campus antisemitism late last year.

Avi Gordon, executive director of the group Alums for Campus Fairness, called for Schill’s removal after the hearing concluded.

The organization launched a “six-figure digital and TV ad campaign” targeting “Northwestern University’s refusal to protect Jewish students.”

“At this juncture, it shouldn’t take the Northwestern Board of Trustees much soul-searching to do the right thing and fire Schill,” Gordon said. “It’s obvious he’s lost all credibility and must go.”

Officials with the Anti-Defamation League Midwest last month had called for Schill’s resignation or removal by the Northwestern board of trustees, claiming that the university president’s “actions amount to giving in to hatred and bigotry, empowering and emboldening those who have used intimidation, harassment, and violence to achieve their goals.”

The group Students for Justice in Palestine at Northwestern, referred to Thursday’s hearing as a “yet another congressional mock-trial” and a “McCarthyist project,” alluding to the political repression and persecution of folks accused Communist ties in the mid-20th century.

“The congressional committee’s defamation and repression of pro-Palestine student protesters will purposefully ignore the violent and discriminatory Zionist counter-protesters,” according to a statement by the group. “Our own student repression represents mere fractions of the violence faced by those in Palestine. … Our movement for Palestinian liberation only grows in the wake of repression.”

Assault, harassment allegations

Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, noted that the Anti-Defamation League recently gave Northwestern an F on its campus antisemitism report card.

She asked Schill about allegations that a Jewish student was assaulted at the Northwestern pro-Palestinian encampment.

“There are allegations that a Jewish student was assaulted and we are investigating those allegations,” Schill responded.

Stefanik also asked about an incident where a Jewish student was allegedly harassed and stalked on the way to Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus, as well as accusations that a student wearing a Yermalke was spat upon.

“This is why you earned an F,” Stefanik added.

“All of these are allegations that are being investigated,” Schill said, adding that the university believes in “due process.”

Stefanik then asked Schill if it was true that a Jewish student was told to “go back to Germany and get gassed?”

“I’ve heard that alleged,” he said. “Again, it is being investigated. We will investigate any claim of discrimination.”

When questioned about discipline and consequences linked to campus antisemitic incidents, Schill said no Northwestern students have been suspended or expelled, though there have been “lots of investigations” into allegations of misconduct.

Schill declined to discuss individual allegations, adding that investigations are ongoing.

‘Embarrassing to your school’

While questioning Schill, one Republican lawmaker from Indiana said Northwestern has become “a joke.”

“Your performance here has been very embarrassing to your school,” said Rep. Jim Banks.

Yet Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington and Northwestern alum, argued that the hearing was being used for “political bullying purposes” as opposed to finding meaningful ways to combat antisemitism and other forms of discrimination.

“I agree completely with (Schill’s) elegant comments on the need to fight the scourge of antisemitism on our campuses and everywhere and I appreciate your own lived experience and your work to do that,” she said.

She also asked about Schill’s work to address safety concerns for Muslim and Arab-American students, particularly amid the rise of Islamophobia and other forms of hatred and discrimination nationwide.

Schill said that “any form of hate, any form of harassment,” will be investigated by the university.

“Hate is hate, and we must investigate all of it,” he added later in the hearing.

Encampment agreement


Schill also stood by Northwestern’s decision to reach an agreement with pro-Palestinian demonstrators that resulted in the peaceful dismantling of an encampment on Deering Meadow, a popular open space on campus.

Pro-Palestinian encampments at other universities have resulted in the arrest of student protesters, dismantling by police, cancellation of graduation and other major events — and even violence in a few instances.

But the tents came down peacefully at Northwestern, where officials were able to negotiate a rare agreement with protesters that allowed demonstrations to continue while barring temporary structures and tents, except for one with aid supplies. The deal also prevented outsiders from joining these demonstrations.

The university vowed 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, among other concessions.

During testimony, Schill described the Northwestern encampment as a threat to Jewish students on campus.

“As I watched what was unfolding there, and at encampments across the country, I believed that the danger it posed grew every day it stayed up,” he said. “Every day brought new reports of intimidation and harassment.”

Several faculty members have applauded the agreement, calling it “historic.”

“Some university presidents who testified recently before the House committee were forced to step down,” said a letter signed by faculty members, which was published in the Daily Northwestern earlier this week. “We call on (Northwestern’s) trustees to resist outside pressures and condemn the House committee’s misrepresentations of our campus.”

But Wendy Khabie, co-chair of the organization Coalition Against Antisemitism at Northwestern and mother of a Northwestern student, said it’s “astonishing that (Schill) does not see this as capitulation.”

“We continue to be horrified by Northwestern’s insistence that they are doing everything they can to stop antisemitism on campus and today’s hearing reinforces our fears,” she said shortly after the hearing concluded.

No divestment

The chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, called the agreement “a disgraceful deal,” which spurred multiple members of a university antisemitism advisory committee to resign.

“These antisemitic protests have led to hijacking buildings, erecting unlawful encampments, disrupting classrooms, and canceling commencements,” Foxx said. “They have been the principal agents of anti-Jewish harassment and violence and have made an absolute mockery of so-called university leaders.”

She went on to rebuke the three university leaders for “your decisions that allowed antisemitic encampments to endanger Jewish students,” adding that Schill should “be doubly ashamed for capitulating to the antisemitic rule-breakers.”

Schill rejected the premise that the university caved to demonstrators.

“We did not give into any of the protestors’ demands, and the commitments we made are consistent with Northwestern’s values and will ultimately benefit the university,” he said.

Schill added that he refused the protesters’ demand that the university divest itself from financial ties to Israel.

“I will not recommend to our board that Northwestern uses the endowment for political purposes,” he said. “By engaging our students with dialogue instead of force, we modeled the behavior we want them to learn from and apply daily.”

Antisemtism task force debacle

A few weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Schill established an advisory committee tasked with helping to prevent antisemitism and hate on campus.

But seven members of that committee recently resigned in protest of Northwestern’s agreement with pro-Palestinian demonstrators to take down the encampment; committee members said they were not consulted about the deal or offered a role in negotiations.

“While intended to create an infrastructure for future conversations about Jewish and Zionist students’ experiences, the committees are so limited in the actions they are actually able to take that they are rendered useless,” one Jewish student who stepped down from the committee said in a recent Tribune opinion piece. “I no longer see Northwestern’s committee as paving an effective path forward — and instead have come to understand how completely performative these task forces are.”

Several lawmakers questioned why the members of the advisory committee were not consulted about the decision to reach an agreement with protesters or the terms of the deal; Schill indicated that it wouldn’t have been feasible to do so in a timely manner, and he wanted to reach a resolution as quickly as possible so the encampment would come down.

During Schill’s testimony, he pledged that Northwestern will “reconstitute a task force to guide our actions” and will use models from tasks forces at other schools that have tackled antisemitism.

“And we will do what we do best ― teach our students about the dangers of antisemitism,” he said.

Future of higher education

Many colleges and universities have grappled with protecting free speech on their campuses while protecting students from harassment and discrimination amid the war in Gaza, which has killed an estimated 35,000 Palestinians, according to United Nations officials.

An ADL report late last year revealed that nearly three-quarters of Jewish college students experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the academic year.

Arab Americans and Muslims have also faced rising Islamophobia and anti-Arab rhetoric, harassment and violence since the war began. A report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations released last month tracked more than 8,000 complaints in 2023, which included of alleged hate crimes as well as education discrimination; this was a 56% increase from the previous year and the highest number recorded in the organization’s 30-year history.

The House recently passed legislation that would broaden definition of antisemitism used by the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws, spurred by the student protest movement in opposition to the Israel-Hamas war. Yet opponents have argued the proposed definition would chill free speech on college campuses.

After a similar hearing on campus antisemitism in December, the president of the University of Pennsylvania stepped down amid backlash over her testimony, and the chairman of the school’s board of trustees resigned too. The president of Harvard University, who testified as well, also stepped down, though she had faced plagiarism accusations simultaneously.

Just before Thursday’s hearing concluded, the chairwoman indicated that the congressional probe of antisemtism allegations at Northwestern and the other two schools wasn’t over.

“Today’s hearing is the beginning, not the end, of the committee’s investigation of your institutions,” Foxx said to all three university officials who testified. “You’ll be held accountable for your records.”


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