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Chancellor Mnookin update on Library Mall tent encampment

May 1, 2024

The following message was sent by email on Wednesday to all UW–Madison students and employees. An earlier update from Wednesday morning can be found here.

Dear Campus Community,

As you may be aware, this morning around 7 a.m., the University of Wisconsin Police Department (UWPD), in concert with partner law enforcement agencies and with my authorization, cleared the unlawful tent encampment on Library Mall. Over the last few days, we have repeatedly asked the protesters to bring their demonstration into conformity with the law that prohibits camping on UW grounds. They declined to do so.

This morning, those present at the encampment were given several warnings during which time they were offered the opportunity to peacefully leave the encampment with their belongings and avoid being either cited or arrested. These warnings followed prior communications, including two messages from campus leaders, that clearly delineated the expectation of consequences if the encampment was not removed.

We appreciate that many protesters chose the option of avoiding legal consequences in exchange for removing tents and other camping supplies from campus grounds. A set of individuals, including some faculty and staff, obstructed law enforcement efforts to remove the tents and were cited.

To repeat: Every individual was given the opportunity to move away from the tent area and continue peaceful protest without further police engagement. While many chose to do so, approximately 30 protesters were cited and several others resisted police action to remove tents or otherwise interfered with the operation and were arrested. There is a good deal of conversation on social media about this operation, some of it inaccurate. Here is the UWPD overview of the operation. UWPD will continue to monitor for illegal activity.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough our support for free expression and peaceful protest. Now that the illegal activity has been resolved, students and others are free to resume peaceful protest that abides by campus protest guidelines today or at any time in the future. Our operation focused only on the tents and the encampment, which constituted the only prohibited activity under Chapter 18 of the UW System Administrative Code.

I also recognize that it is deeply felt pain and horror about the tragic and devastating loss of life and scale of destruction in Gaza that has fueled some of our community members’ desire to protest in ways that go beyond what is legal and permissible. UW–Madison has a long and proud history of fighting for deeply felt causes and exercising our right to free expression. Civil disobedience has been a time-honored tradition in our nation, including here. Yet it is a long-standing element of the civil disobedience tradition to respect the laws we share and to accept that there are consequences for violating them. It is this that distinguishes civil disobedience from mere lawlessness.

Further, I take very seriously the trust that is placed in me to help protect the safety of our campus community. While the gathering on Library Mall this week had been largely peaceful, we have witnessed disturbing accounts of people not affiliated with the campus coming into the area, attracted by the encampment, and engaging in confrontational and other inciteful behaviors. Such an increased risk to the safety of our community, which would be expected to grow over time, was a significant contributing factor to today’s action to address the illegal encampment. A small number of blatantly antisemitic actions on the grounds of the encampment have been credibly reported, but we have no evidence that any members of our UW–Madison community engaged in this odious activity.

We have received and are investigating bias reports involving individuals from outside of our campus community. The presence of non-community members, including, reportedly, several highly aggressive individuals, is one of the predictable harms of an encampment like the one illegally staged on our campus and is one of the reasons we chose to act today. Let me state clearly that true threats and harassment based on one’s identity, religion or national origin will not be tolerated on our campus. Anyone experiencing this is urged to file a bias report. And let me repeat loudly and unequivocally that we must all roundly condemn both Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Like many other college campuses across the country and the world, we expect to continue to face protest activity, and we recognize and respect that protest is part of our community’s precious right to free speech and expression. But such rights are not unlimited: The boundaries that our laws and code of conduct place on speech are meant to ensure that all have access to our common spaces and that dialogue takes place without intimidation or exclusion.

Now that the tents have been removed, and as long as protest abides by campus and state rules and policies, members of my leadership team stand ready to continue to listen to the concerns of the members of our community involved in this week’s protest. This was a condition we communicated to protesters repeatedly.

In addition, we have held a valuable set of engagements around issues of concern with members of Muslim, Palestinian and Jewish communities over the course of this academic year and we invite continued dialogue. I recognize that many in the Muslim and Palestinian communities on our campus continue to feel unheard and hope we can create further opportunities for engagement and understanding.

I also understand that many of our Jewish community members have experienced fear and anxiety during this year as well as during this week’s protest. I am grateful to campus partners and others who provided care for them over the past several challenging days during which they sought to celebrate the conclusion of Passover.

The role of campus leadership is not to take sides in national and international debates, or to make special allowances for particular points of view, but to ensure that all participants in campus life have access to university resources for learning and growth. We recognize that the campus debates of the last few months take place in the shadow of international violence that has touched a great many students, faculty and staff, either directly or indirectly. This violence has created strong emotions of fear and anger among many segments of our community.

We express our profound empathy for those who have had to navigate this academic year amid ongoing grief and heartbreak due to the devastating destruction, injustice, and loss of life in Israel and Gaza. If you’re a student who needs support related to this or any other situation, the university is prepared to help. If you’re a faculty or staff member, contact the Employee Assistance Office.

As we move into the waning days of this academic year, I look forward to a commencement celebration with the very special class of 2024 who largely missed out on their high school graduation festivities because of the pandemic. I thank our faculty and staff for providing a rich and impactful educational experience to our students over the past year. And as we collectively reflect on the activities and lessons of the past week, let us, even in the midst of great challenge, do all we can to recognize and respect each other’s humanity and seek to understand those with viewpoints different from our own.


Jennifer L. Mnookin