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Chancellor Mnookin’s Faculty Senate remarks on Library Mall encampment

May 6, 2024

Today, Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin presented before a meeting of the Faculty Senate, where media and protestors were also present. Her remarks are below.

Good afternoon, and welcome to the final Faculty Senate meeting of the academic year.

I understand there may be people in this room who are here in protest. I want to reiterate your right to be here.

We find ourselves at an incredibly difficult moment as citizens of a global community, as a nation, and as a campus. As of today, we’re aware that nearly 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages.

These events have caused tremendous pain, fear, and hurt, and have fueled protest and civil disobedience on campuses across the country, including our own.

A week ago today, protestors established an illegal tent encampment on Library Mall. I want to take my time today to talk about what this has meant for our campus and also what lies before us while the encampment continues.

First, I want to acknowledge how painful it has been for so many of us, including me, to have had the kinds of interactions with our students and some of our faculty this past week that none of us would ever choose.

I also want to acknowledge that what we are discussing today, here on our campus, is substantively complex and, importantly, a currently unresolved situation. We are in active discussions with protest organizers to attempt to find a resolution. Given this reality, and that it is unresolved, I will not take questions today but commit to you that I would be glad to do so at a future date.

I also think it is important that I use our time together to listen to your concerns. Therefore, at the conclusion of my remarks and those of our University Committee Chair, we will welcome faculty to voice their views.

First, I want to speak about the safety concerns tied to the encampment.

I understand that it very likely is not at all the intent of our student protestors to create a community safety risk, but I do believe this has been a clear outcome of their actions.

We are increasingly concerned about reports of incendiary rhetoric, antisemitic comments, Islamophobia, the potential for violent conflict with outside groups, and the risk of seeing this situation spiral out of control. This is an inherent risk in an open encampment on our campus in the middle of our city.

And we have seen these situations occurring elsewhere, including, most dramatically, my former campus at UCLA and of course Columbia, and desperately want to avoid a similar situation happening here.

This weekend, we also received reports that a coalition of outside groups created pro-terror group and antisemitic chalkings downtown during the Dane County Farmers Market. This was connected to an event that involved two of our own registered student organizations. We have moved to suspend these two groups (pending an investigation.)

I met today with a group of Jewish student leaders, faculty, religious leaders, and community partners and heard them describe their experience on our campus — including this week on Library Mall when at or near the encampment — including examples of where they have been targeted, surveilled and even threatened.  I recognize that our Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students have also had such experiences.

In fact, just this afternoon, we’re hearing about Islamophobic messages that were reported near the encampment that have also been reported to Madison Police.

To be clear, the threat is not simply about friction and potential flashpoints within our community. An illegal encampment creates still more significant external risks. What happened at UCLA, an institution of which I was part for 17 years, shows us that in very clear terms and makes clear this risk is neither fanciful nor hypothetical.

That is precisely part of why encampments are not a permitted form of protest here at UW–Madison.

I believe you all already recognize that encampments are prohibited on campus lands under state law, UW Board of Regents Administrative Code Ch. 18.

Many schools do not have nearly our degree of clarity on this point. In addition, many schools, especially private institutions, can close off critical central parts of their outdoor campus to non-affiliates. That is not so here.

Chapter 18’s restrictions on encampments were communicated to our community multiple times. I want to note that Chapter 18 does make reference to the possibility of exception, and a number of people have asked why I can’t just allow the encampment to stand.

This is really important for everyone here to understand: I cannot authorize a singular exception under Chapter 18 for one organization to protest in this manner unless I am prepared to make the same decision for all other groups who might want something similar.

The reason is straightforward: We are a public institution, which means that we must — according to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — remain content neutral when it comes to making decisions about what is allowed to take place on our campus.

If I grant an exception to permit this encampment, I would need to grant an exception for any group that wished to set up such an encampment, regardless of the cause.

How would we respond if a neo-Nazi group – such as the one we had here in Madison in November – made similar use of campus lands? This need not be entirely hypothetical. Let me share with you a voicemail we received last week.

Those of you who think that I should simply let this encampment stay, I ask you: Imagine that the protesters were there for a cause you did not share, or one to which you were deeply and profoundly opposed? Would you think and want the same?  If not, you are proposing that we violate the First Amendment.

This collection of risks is why, last Wednesday, in consultation with my leadership team, Faculty Senate leadership, and UWPD, I authorized law enforcement to take down any tents that protestors would not voluntarily remove on their own.

Organizers were asked multiple times to remove the tents voluntarily in the days and minutes leading up to the decision. UWPD issued multiple reminders that protestors would not face penalty if they peacefully left the encampment with their belongings.

Many protestors chose to leave voluntarily. However, a set of individuals, including some faculty and staff, obstructed law enforcement efforts to remove the tents.

And since that time, even more tents have gone up. We have not attempted to immediately clear them again due to the significant safety risks to all involved in doing so. We came to a decision that we wanted to begin discussion to attempt, if possible, to resolve this situation as quickly as possible, and that, as I have stated, has been underway.

Law enforcement action against members of our own community, even when the law is clearly being broken, is the last thing a chancellor or president of a university ever wants to do. And I know from direct communication with interim Chief Plisch that these are not the interactions UWPD would wish to have with our students or employees.

I realize that many of you wish I had not made that decision and I respect that there can be reasonable disagreement on that score. Some people think that there are no safety risks created by the encampment; in my view there very much are. And some people think that the rules don’t matter or shouldn’t apply, and I cannot agree with that either.

Organizers of the encampment have provided us with a list of demands they want to see met before they will dismantle their tents. These demands are centered primarily on divesting and cutting academic ties with Israel.

Putting aside the substantive merits of divestment, the simple reality is that we do not control how the great bulk of our endowment is managed and invested. These decisions are quite literally not at all under my control.

WFAA, for instance, manages a significant part of our portfolio. They are a separate, independent 501c3 non-profit organization, which means we do not and cannot govern their investment decisions. This separation is required by Regent policy.

Acceding to boycotts against Israel—such as ending the George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellows, named for the revered founder of modern Jewish Studies – would both be a violation of state law and run counter to our deeply held respect for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

I, and I know many of you, believe that it’s dangerous to limit our academic engagements based on viewpoints. This is, truly, the basis for the notion of Sifting and Winnowing that is honored on the plaque attached to this very building — a principle that has been held dearly by this group on many occasions in the past.

All of this said, there may be ways that we can encourage further conversations about these deeply felt issues as PART of sifting and winnowing. We have been working to understand if there might be ways that we can help the protesting students have further opportunities to share their views with those who do have more direct authority than I.

In closing:

I in no way want to shut down the opportunity for meaningful protest, nor have I done so. Nor do I want to shut down the opportunity for imagining better worlds or creating stronger communities. At the same time, time, place and manner restrictions do not violate the First Amendment. Rather, they are needed to ensure its proper functioning and access to our whole campus for all.

I know many of you who have come to join this meeting today disagree with some of the choices that I have made. I respect that. And I also know that ALL of us care about our students and our community.

Even during this difficult time, there have been beautiful moments of connection. Some of those I have seen directly, and others I have heard about. I have heard directly about the powerful experience of community from some participants in the encampment, who have also shared that they are finding deep meaning in this form of protest. And I have also heard about the powerful creation of community in this moment from some of those who feel most threatened by it.

There is no doubt that global events are heartbreaking right now. Notwithstanding that, how can we work jointly to create a world and a community where our students — with all of their diverging and cacophonous and strongly held perspectives, with their passion and intelligence and commitments — can work to learn from each other, even as they disagree? How can we work together to build a world in which they could ALL feel that UW–Madison belongs to them?

We have work to do, but I hope that is a question and a challenge we can take up together.


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