Northwestern ended its protest encampment without cops or violence. Why is Congress upset?

Students stand in front of school personnel at Northwestern University’s Deering Meadow in Evanston, where students and professors set up an encampment in support of Palestinians. The encampment came down through an agreement between student protesters and administrators. Now that agreement is under fire.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When pro-Palestinian protesters and Northwestern administrators sat down to negotiate last month over the encampment that had taken over Deering Meadow, neither side was much in the mood for compromise.

“The first day we went, we were like, ‘Oh, hell no … we’re not moving — at all — unless you give us something really tangible,’ ” said Mounica Sreesai, a PhD student and member of the encampment’s negotiating team.

Northwestern’s president, Michael Schill, who is headed to Congress next week to be grilled about the school’s response to the encampment there, described a similar position among administrators in an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune.

The protesters “asked for several changes to university policy including divestment from Israel and the end of an academic program that focused on Israeli innovation,” Schill wrote. “We said a flat no to both.”

At that point, the encampment had been up on the school’s campus for less than a day, and Sreesai said the activists were not in a rush to disband it. The protest had drawn support from hundreds of students, faculty and community members who sat in a ring around the tents on Deering Meadow, as if forming a protective barrier.

Across racial and religious differences, they mourned the more than 34,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, while sharing meals and learning the dabke, a traditional Arabic dance. There were Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayers, and celebration of Passover.

“It took a lot of community power and strength,” Sreesai said.

But after five days of back and forth, of ceding ground and bouts of heavy rain and the threat of arrest and disciplinary action, student organizers and school officials managed to do what their counterparts at most other campuses have not: They struck a deal.

Protesters would dismantle the encampment, except for one aid tent. In return, university leaders promised to answer questions from students and faculty members about Northwestern’s investments, establish an affinity space for Middle Eastern and North African students and pay to educate five Palestinian undergraduates.

The agreement has been beset by criticism from both sides. But the people who helped broker the deal believe it should serve as a model to activists and administrators at campuses across the country for how to resolve conflicts without calling in the cops. Northwestern was one of the first schools to see its encampment come down peacefully, and in the weeks since, more universities have followed suit.

“A lot of credit goes to the negotiating teams who were working through the night, over the weekend,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a professor at Northwestern and member of Educators for Justice in Palestine.

“It was just kind of an inspiration to see how committed [students] were to this cause and how dedicated they were to supporting each other,” she said, “to try to reach an agreement … that would really be something that people would look back on in the next generation and say, ‘This is one moment when things really started to change.’ ”

The deal is a departure from what’s been seen at countless institutions, including the University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where encampments have been taken down by police. At the latter, more than 68 protesters were arrested after school leaders called in Chicago police to clear their encampment.

“We were … looking at what was happening at other universities,” Schill told WBUR’s Here and Now. “Even when they went in with force, it typically wasn’t successful. And so we thought the best way to sustainably de-escalate the situation was to actually talk with our students.”

That decision, and the agreement, have come under fire from multiple directions.

Next week, on May 23, Schill will face a congressional committee during which lawmakers are expected to rake him over the coals for making a deal with students, instead of bringing the hammer down on them.

The Anti-Defamation League, StandWithUs and Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law are calling for Schill to resign, saying Schill made a deal with protesters who “fanned the flames of antisemitism and wreaked havoc on the entire university community.” The American Jewish Committee accused Northwestern leaders of “succumbing to the demands of a mob.”

Members of Northwestern’s chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace helped organize the encampment and say these accusations are a distraction from Israel’s killing of Palestinians in Gaza.

In a video message, Schill talked about his Jewish ancestors fleeing the Nazis and settling in Israel, and he said there had been a rise in anti-semitism at Northwestern. He said he respects the Jewish groups calling for his resignation.

Michael Schill, Northwestern University’s president, will testify before Congress next week about the deal he struck with student protesters.

Provided

“But I do take issue with calling our students a mob,” he said. “They are students. They’re young. They are sometimes naive. Sometimes, they’re learning. And so the best way for us to … achieve our educational mission is for us to engage in dialogue with them.”

Meanwhile, student organizers who helped put the deal together have been accused of selling out. Some pro-Palestinian activists say the negotiation team should have settled for nothing less than divestment: Northwestern’s withdrawal of all investments in companies supporting Israeli military action in Gaza.

Sreesai from the encampment negotiating team said they had to compromise.

“Very quickly, on the second day, we kind of figured out that this is not sustainable,” she said. “This constant anxiety is harming our people in the community that we want to center.”

For vulnerable students, she said, getting arrested or facing disciplinary action could mean losing financial aid, student housing or student visas.

And disclosure represents a meaningful step towards divestment, Sreesai said. It means students will be able to ask questions about where Northwestern is investing its money and get an answer within 30 days. That level of financial transparency at Northwestern, and most other private universities, is unprecedented.

“To have gotten that without any violence and while keeping everybody safe, without Black students and people of color having to interact with the cops even … I’m still processing it,” she said.

Lisa Kurian Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus

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