June 13, 2024
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June 13, 2024
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Rutgers President Testifies Before Congress

Rutgers President Dr. Jonathan Holloway, in testimony before a congressional committee, defended his decision to negotiate with pro-Palestinian protesters who had set up an encampment on the New Brunswick campus.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Committee on Education and Workforce told Holloway, Northwestern President Michael Schill and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who were also called to appear, that they should be ashamed for “capitulating” to the demands of demonstrators. Also appearing during the more than three-hour hearing was Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa.

“Over the course of years, decades even, universities gradually nurtured a campus culture of radicalism in which antisemitism grew and has been tolerated by its administrators,” Foxx said on May 23 during the fifth hearing the committee has held since colleges “burst into antisemitic chaos” after the October 7, 2023 terrorist attack in Israel by Hamas.

Holloway had agreed to eight demands made by demonstrators to end the encampment on the New Brunswick campus, including what Foxx called “an egregious amnesty deal” for involved students and faculty. He rejected two demands, to divest from Israel and end an agreement with Tel Aviv University.

The committee hearing, which was called by Republicans, at times became politicized, with some Democrats calling out their colleagues for hauling college presidents to sit through grilling while taking no meaningful action to halt “the scourge of antisemitism,” such as conferring with experts or organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) or American Jewish Committee.

Rep. Joe Courtney, (D-Conn.) noted that complaints to the federal Department of Education have tripled since 2009, many involving antisemitism, but it has fewer staff in its civil rights division, which investigates bias issues, than in 2009, and criticized Republican cuts in appropriations from the division as “the equivalent of defunding the antisemitism police.”

The hearing was also labeled “a witch hunt” in a joint statement put out by the faculty unions of the three universities.

Holloway said violence on other campuses prompted the decision to negotiate when it became clear the encampment on Voorhees Mall on the New Brunswick campus would become disruptive, forcing Rutgers to postpone some finals.

“We made a choice,” he said. “That choice was to engage with our students through dialogue as a first option instead of police action. We had seen what transpired at other universities and sought a different way. Without compromising on my fundamental stance against divestment and boycotts, we agreed to talk and to listen.”

In response to questioning by Foxx, Holloway said four students had been suspended, 19 others “experienced other levels of disciplinary consequences” and others are under investigation. He said he didn’t know of any staff terminations, but some are undergoing disciplinary proceedings.

“I tell you with pride Rutgers boasts one of the largest Jewish student populations in America and I can tell you with conviction we condemn antisemitism in the strongest terms possible,” said Holloway. “We do so today, we did so long before October 7 and we will continue to do so.”

He noted that the university was “world renowned” for its Jewish scholarly community and has a thriving Jewish life. Its partnership with Tel Aviv University will include faculty collaborations and bring Israeli researchers into the Innovation and Technology Hub under construction in New Brunswick.

Holloway said he meets regularly with Jewish students and plans over the summer to implement new training in partnership with the ADL. “The battle against antisemitism, against bigotry in all its forms must be waged with education,” he said.

Rep. Donald Norcross, the lone New Jersey representative on the committee, largely focused his attention on Holloway, noting that he had called the president at 6:30 a.m. as soon as he heard they were negotiating to remove the encampment as a result of an early morning Instagram post by Students for Justice in Palestine of plans to disrupt finals.

“I’ve spent my life representing workers protesting,” said the south Jersey Democrat. “I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment, but that being said as have many others, there are rules. There are rules in all types of protests on college campuses, no matter what the reason is. I’ve participated in protests over my lifetime, and when I crossed the line, I paid the consequences.”

Norcross had previously sent a long letter to Holloway about his decision to “acquiesce to several concerning demands made by anti-Israel protesters on campus,” with fellow New Jersey Democrat Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

Holloway said by the time of Norcross’s call he and his leadership team were already on a Zoom call. “This is a wild violation; it crossed the line to use your language, and we decided to take the encampment down,” he said.

However, the Rutgers police chief said doing so safely would take several hours. In the interim the chair and vice chair of the university’s board of governors were given a “heads up.”

Holloway learned the protesters had sent a list of demands two days earlier, and negotiations had begun the day before on the condition demonstrators were not disruptive or making noise that would hinder finals. “They agreed to that and the next morning we discovered they had broken that agreement,” he said.

The original removal deadline was extended by three hours to 4 p.m. as a matter of public safety. With the agreement of state Attorney General Matthew Platkin a mutual aid request was made, and 125 state, local and campus police were on standby as students were informed they were now trespassing and given the opportunity to disperse on their own.

Holloway had a contentious exchange with Rep. Bob Good (R-Virginia) about the Center for Security, Race and Rights, part of Rutgers School of Law on the Newark campus, which along with its director Sahar Aziz, has long been criticized by the Jewish community for hosting antisemitic and anti-Zionist speakers and programming. Good noted the previous week the center had posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Israel’s government was “genocidal.”

After Good read some other posts, Holloway responded: “There’s very little I find easy about the center. I personally disagree deeply with a lot of the ideas that come from that center.” However, he added: “I have no plans to close that center“ to which Good replied, “I’m not surprised.”

In March, Foxx had asked Holloway to collect and provide the committee with extensive documentation about conversations on law school email lists about the Israel-Hamas war and Aziz’s work.

Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pennsylvania) asked Holloway about a list of requests from J-FAS (Jewish Faculty Administrators and Staff) asking for an accounting of antisemitic incidents on campus, suspension of students and organizations that repeatedly violate the code of conduct, banning academic departments from taking controversial political stances, and creating a standing committee on antisemitism and Jewish experience, saying that Holloway had ignored them and instead “gave in to the demands of the mob.”

“The requests that they sent to us are being acted on post-haste,” Holloway responded.

Holloway also was questioned by Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Florida), who wanted to know if students at Rutgers would be held accountable for their actions.

In response, Holloway said he disagreed with some of the language and actions he has heard directed at Jewish students, and action is being taken. “One thing I want to make clear is the kind of language and behavior we’re talking about. We’ve responded immediately with student affairs, police, sometimes campus police, sometimes state police,” and even the FBI would be called to assist with some of the behavior and language.

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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