Editorial: Northwestern deserves credit for ending an encampment without resorting to force

University administrators contending with a wave of student protests over the war in Gaza typically have been faced with unpalatable choices. Across the country, we’ve seen colleges and universities veering between the forced removal of student encampments, at the risk of harming students, or projecting powerlessness and dysfunction. In some of the latter cases, such as at Columbia University in New York, the chaos has become disgraceful, resulting in a campus lockdown and the unacceptable outcome of conducting classes remotely for a large chunk of the academic year.

So, in principle, we applaud Northwestern University for forging a written agreement with student protesters who had set up camp in Deering Meadow that will remove the tents, establish rules for demonstrating in the green space and give the activists’ representatives the chance to petition next school year for changes in how the university invests its money. As far as we can tell, the Evanston university is the first in the nation to have come to formal terms with its protesting students in this way.

There are important Jewish interests that don’t support this outcome, and that’s putting it mildly. They include the Midwestern consul general of Israel and the Anti-Defamation League, both of which slammed the agreement as appeasement of those who support terrorism. The consul general went so far as to label the arrangement equivalent to a declared “safe space for antisemitism” on campus.

Like many of the Jewish alumni of Northwestern, we share these worries. Our support for Israel’s right to defend itself and secure its future in the region following Hamas’ evil and barbarous attack of Oct. 7 has been unwavering and continues, even as we long for an end to the loss of life in Gaza.

The most disturbing aspect of these protests has been their effect on Jewish students, and it’s fair to say that the messaging of some (hardly all) protesters has been antisemitic. The failure of many universities and colleges across the country to make their Jewish students feel safe from harassment has been appalling.

We don’t agree, though, that this pact in and of itself is nothing more than appeasement. What this modest agreement says to us is that reasonable people, both within Northwestern’s administration and among the demonstrators, achieved parts — but only parts — of what they desired. Such is the characteristic of most successful negotiations. Northwestern’s leadership got protesters to stand down without resorting to force. The activists obtained some concessions that, in essence, require Northwestern’s administration to give their concerns a fair hearing but don’t obligate the university to capitulate to their position.

This deal also buys both sides some time. Circumstances on the ground in Gaza could well be far different come next autumn when most of the terms of this pact take effect. As we write, Israel’s government reportedly is softening in its hostage-release demands to Hamas in return for a cease-fire: U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, along with some key U.S. allies, characterized this truce offer as “extraordinarily generous.”

We’ve seen no similar reasonableness displayed by Hamas so far in this awful conflict — one that Hamas started, it bears repeating, given how many anti-Israeli demonstrators fail to acknowledge it — so we’re not holding our breath that a breakthrough is imminent.

Eventually this phase of the conflict will conclude. Likewise, this time of intense student activism, too, shall pass. The universities and colleges that emerge from this moment having more or less kept intact their reputations and the trust of their students, parents and alumni will have accomplished something important indeed.

That said, it’s incumbent on Northwestern to ensure no further harassment of Jewish students is tolerated. There’s nothing in this agreement explicitly benefiting Jewish students. This pact will lose all its meaning — other than an expedient means to solve a difficult problem — if future acts or words of antisemitism go unpunished. Vigilance is critical; the job in Evanston is not close to over.

But the items in the deal that call on Northwestern to seek funding for two Palestinian faculty members and full rides for five Palestinian students demonstrating need strike us as constructive concessions. Diversity on campus is a positive, and the university isn’t ceding any important principle in agreeing to offering opportunities to young Palestinians. In fact, education is the best weapon a university has when it comes to countering the influence of terrorist groups like Hamas. That said, Northwestern also has to hold its faculty accountable.

A good example is the outrageous conduct of Steven Thrasher, professor at the Medill School of Journalism. Thrasher has acted more as an ardent activist than a professor in the five years he’s worked at Northwestern. He appeared to treat the Deering Meadow encampment as a crowning moment, giving a speech over the weekend to students there in which he stated, among other things, “To the Medill students and journalists within earshot, I say to you: Our work is not about objectivity. … Our work is about you putting your brilliant minds to work, and opening your compassionate hearts, and linking your arms together understanding all of our fates are connected.”

Those are rousing words — for an activist. They are inappropriate for a professor at one of the nation’s foremost journalism schools. If the Medill School cares for its reputation — and it well knows how many alumni work as journalists here in Chicago — it will instruct Thrasher to find a job more suited to his interests. We have too many reporters in this city and elsewhere behaving essentially as activists rather than pursuing the facts wherever they lead, which represents this profession at its finest. Professors encouraging — indeed embodying — that former approach do a disservice to journalism.

Other campuses in the area now are facing Northwestern’s problem. The University of Chicago has the beginnings of an encampment on its hallowed quad. DePaul University students are establishing something similar as we write. These schools, and potentially others, will have to address these challenges. Everyone will have to talk and students will have to learn that no successful negotiation results in a victory for one side.

Northwestern’s deal has offered its peers a plausible road map other than brute force or institutional capitulation.

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