Politics and Government

Minnesota Senate committee criticizes U of M for handling of pro-Palestinian protests

A person stands on a bridge holding a palestinian flag
A person holds a Palestinian flag during a student and faculty walkout at the University of Minnesota to protest the clearing of a pro-Palestinian solidarity encampment and arrest of nine students by university police for trespassing earlier in the day on April 23.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Minnesota legislators grilled the University of Minnesota for its “leniency” on pro-Palestinian student protests on campus in April as well as recent reports of antisemitism.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee held a hearing to investigate incidents of antisemitism on campus in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Discussion covered anti-war encampments, academic freedom of faculty and instances of hate against Jewish students.

a man speaks to a panel
University of Minnesota interim president Jeff Ettinger speaks during a Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee hearing on Tuesday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

This hearing follows several that have happened around the country examining how universities have handled their communities’ response to the Israel-Hamas war. Last month, Illinois Republicans grilled the president of Northwestern University over its handling of protests. 

“We may not have always gotten it right,” said U interim president Jeff Ettinger. “But I can assure you we tackled each challenge in a manner befitting of the seriousness of those issues.”

Anger over lack of consequences for arrested protesters

Ettinger, who is in his final week as interim president, told the committee that despite efforts combating antisemitism, the U of M campuses “are far from immune to concerns of antisemitism.”

“Since the October 7, 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the subsequent response by Israel and Gaza, we have seen a significant increase in political activity on college campuses nationwide. And unfortunately, we have seen a corresponding increase in bias claims as well,” said Ettinger.

a panel sits at a table
Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, leads a hearing on Tuesday about the University of Minnesota's response to antisemitism and pro-Palestinian protests on campus.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

The committee questioned Ettinger at length on faculty posting statements about the conflict on university websites, the rejection of a professor’s submission to the University’s Journal of Cultural Critique because of affiliation with an Israeli university, and whether the U of M’s decision to advocate for leniency toward the nine protesters who were arrested in the anti-war encampments will encourage future encampments.

U of M was among the first universities in the country to strike a deal with pro-Palestinian protesters to end on-campus protests. As part of the deal, U leadership said it would “advocate to the Minneapolis City Attorney for lenient remedies” for those arrested. Trespassing charges against the nine protesters were dropped in early May.

“I’m particularly concerned that the manner of sanctions or lack of sanctions for those who violated the law would have the effect of encouraging future disruptions,” said committee chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “It seems to me will only be a signal to future people intending to protest that they can do it with impunity and without facing any real sanctions.”

police officers line up in front of student protesters
Police line up in front of student protesters after issuing a dispersal order during a third consecutive day of pro-Palestinian protests at the University of Minnesota on April 25.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Sen. Michael Kreun, R-Blaine, also criticized the lack of punitive measures for the protesters. He said there’s still a perception that the University’s recommendation of leniency was “simply based on the preferred political persuasion” of those arrested.

“I think the administration has a responsibility to be above that, more professional than that, and not let a group of students come in and say, ‘If you don’t agree to our terms, we're gonna give you more of what we just did, or maybe do something else,’” said Kreun. “I think that is a poor look by the administration.”

Student protester says committee was ‘smearing students’

During the hours of testimony, Jewish students who were part of the protesting on campus pushed back against legislators calling for more repercussions for the encampments. One of those students was Imogen Page, a recent U of M graduate.

“We are fully within our rights to take to the streets and to our campuses and to demand that our leadership at the university and state level stop spending our tuition dollars in support of genocide,” said Page.

“I hope you will stop wasting taxpayer time and resources on smearing students who are simply advocating for the freedom of their families as antisemites. It puts Jews in danger, it cheapens the real issue of antisemitism in this country and it does nothing to protect Jewish students.”

Before the meeting, Latz told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer that the Legislature represents the public and funds the U, “so we want to make sure our tax dollars are used well.”

Students lock arms around an encampment.
Students lock arms around their pro-Palestinian encampment outside Northrop Memorial Auditorium on April 29.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Jewish leader: ‘Jewish students on campus are not safe’

Others said that graffiti that appeared on campus during the protest encampments carried messages of antisemitism. Steve Hunegs, director of Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said one of the messages read “Glory to the Resistance,” accompanied with a red triangle — referring to Hamas.

“Jewish students on campus are not safe while support for organizations that call for the slaughter of the Jews is left unchallenged. Indeed, the harm written on Coffman Memorial Union and the walls, posted to social media by the organizations in support is just plain profound. And to not understand it is somewhat dense,” said Hunegs.

Incoming U of M president Rebecca Cunningham did not attend, and no students from the U chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine or Students for a Democratic Society, which were key organizers of the protests on campus, spoke at the hearing.