Why university antisemitism committees fail

Antisemitism has been growing for years, especially in high schools and colleges in America, according to the ADL.  After the attacks by Hamas in October 2023, and even before Israel responded, campus protests broke out across the United States and Europe. Universities attempted various responses to the protests, but protests continued and grew especially prevalent, violent, and often blatantly antisemitic in late April and May.

Numerous campuses saw violations of university rules, with buildings occupied, tents erected, and violence requiring police interventions.  Capitulation to the protestors occurred at some schools, with administrators claiming success that they had avoided violence.  One  university where the president came under strong criticism from several Jewish groups for caving to protestor demands was Northwestern.  I have been a professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern’s medical school for more than 30 years and, recently, was a member of the failed President’s Advisory Committee on Antisemitism and Hate.

After the Northwestern president acceded to protestor demands, I and 6 other members of the 16 person Advisory Committee on Antisemitism and Hate resigned, primarily because our committee was never engaged in the process to end the protests and preserve safety and well-being of Jews. At Northwestern and elsewhere, the protests included language, signs, slogans, and slurs that were regarded by Jews as antisemitic.  Jewish students shared with me their anger at the protestors and the university “leadership” for ignoring their concerns and fears during the encampment.  Our committee was totally excluded from having a voice in the “negotiations” that the president engaged in. He did not share with our committee who were the “negotiators” and what the goals were. After 7 members of the antisemitism committee resigned due to the president’s decision to avoid engagement with us, the remaining members also resigned later the same day, leaving Northwestern without any new efforts to address antisemitism and other forms of hate. The committee and the Jewish students were betrayed.  Why? And why are we seeing violations of existing policies and rules at so many schools that were intended to protect all students from discrimination?

Campus protests are not new.  I attended college in the 1960s and my graduation ceremony was canceled in 1970 after the Kent State killings. Shouldn’t we have learned how to handle protests and campus violence from those earlier experiences? I have no doubt that the answer lies in a failure of leadership at most colleges.

Take Columbia, for example, where its antisemitism task force moved quickly to develop a set of rules and policies that were published online in March 2024, but when protests and encampments developed in late April, rules and policies were not followed. Columbia’s Task Force had stated before the encampment protests: “Although we generally agree with the language of the University’s (existing) rules, we have serious concerns about their enforcement. The University generally has not tried to stop violations as they have occurred, and instead has focused on imposing discipline after the fact. The priority during protests has been to avoid violence and escalation. In our view, avoiding violence is necessary, but not sufficient. The University also needs to keep protests from interfering with the rights of others to speak, teach, research, and learn. So the University should do more to stop unauthorized protests as they occur, using approaches that are effective but not confrontational. For example, if protesters gather in an academic building, they should be told that they are violating the rules and given the opportunity to leave within a specified period of time (e.g., ten minutes). Those who remain should be required to show IDs and given a warning, followed by discipline for subsequent violations.”  This advice was not followed, even at Columbia, and was generally not followed around the country.  That advice reflects the famous University of Notre Dame’s President Father Hesburgh’s “Fifteen Minutes Rules” from the 1960’s (published in the NY Times in 1969).

Northwestern also had policies and rules on campus protests which were broken during the extensive encampment that began overnight on April 24, during Passover. The encampment was in a very prominent location and impeded access to campus buildings. The noise levels exceeded university rules for protests and were disturbing to many students. Rather than enforcing rules, which would have made clear that Northwestern would value safety of all students over protestor demands, the president considered de-escalation and avoiding confrontation to be paramount, even when the protestors were clearly violating our own campus rules.

Everyone knows that rules are important, but enforcement of rules is essential.  When rules are broken and consequences are not instituted,  the lesson is clear that rules do not matter. Rule-breaking is reinforced.  At Northwestern and elsewhere, rules are made and then repeatedly broken.  College leaders make many rules that they fail to enforce.  These same college leaders engage committees to discuss and write more rules, only to fail again when it comes to enforcement.  And, just as perverse, rules are enforced selectively, with some groups getting away with violations while other violators are held accountable.  Another double standard that Jews experience repeatedly.

Over the concluding days of Passover, with my phone turned off and my mind on freedom from slavery and oppression, I did not know what Northwestern’s president had done – his capitulation and appeasement of the mob. Ironically, during the holiday meals, guests asked me about my role on the antisemitism committee which I was still defending as a potentially positive measure.  I did not learn of the president’s betrayal of the committee and the Jews at Northwestern until the evening of April 30 when the holiday ended.

University committee reports and recommendations will fail if not enforced.  Northwestern’s president, as well as most college “leaders” did not learn the lessons of the 1960s. It is time for leaders to earn their titles and their salaries and be leaders. Those who are unable to do so should resign or be fired.

About the Author
Philip Greenland, MD is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. He has been active in combating antisemitism at Northwestern for several years and was a member of the school's Antisemitism Advisory Committee in 2024.
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