Note: This article is the second in a series of three that covers student and faculty response to the administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and ways the NU community can create safe spaces for learning and healing on campus.
In President Schill’s second letter the following day, Oct. 13, he mentioned the loss of life and suffering among both “Israelis and Palestinians.”
Ten days later, the third letter, written with Provost Kathleen Hagerty, discussed embracing Palestinian students and fighting Islamophobia. In the fourth letter published on Nov. 4, Schill spoke about increasing campus security in light of upcoming vigils and rallies, and emphasized the University’s intolerance of Islamophobia and antisemitism. Schill’s most recent letter published on Nov. 13 announced his appointment of a President’s Advisory Committee on Preventing Antisemitism and Hate and the University’s plan for disciplinary measures regarding acts of discrimination.
While some faculty members acknowledged the various pressures they said Schill must have faced when writing the letters, they add the University still has the responsibility to produce messages that reflect the diversity of the student body.
Political science professor Wendy Pearlman expressed sympathy for President Schill. She said he’s in a difficult position where he has to grapple with the conflicting opinions of students, faculty and University stakeholders.
She added University leaders are not diplomats, politicians or academic experts on these topics and so it is not entirely appropriate for them to be called upon to make statements in the first place.
“There's a kind of a politics of statements and demands about statements that force people to be taking stands and making declarations on incredibly complicated, sensitive issues that they themselves say they don't necessarily have the expertise on,” she said.
Associate professor of religious studies Brannon Ingram said while the University is not obligated to provide official opinions on every global event, the gravity and significance of certain events demand a statement, including this one.
“Our students are in such a difficult place because when they're trying to raise concern about what they believe is a humanitarian catastrophe, they can't even do that without fearing being silenced.”Tahera Ahmad, associate university chaplain and director of interfaith engagement
The statement from the University needs to reflect the campus’ diversity and acknowledge the “complex emotions” community members might be facing in a way that can't be reduced to favoring one side or the other, Ingram said.
NU spokesperson Hilary Hurd Anyaso told NBN that Schill’s letters are informed by the hundreds of messages he receives from people including students, faculty, staff and alumni. He also holds meetings with community members that represent a variety of perspectives on the crisis. She said he uses this information to craft letters with his leadership team to determine when, how and what to communicate.
But some students and faculty say Schill needs to be more responsive to the needs of Muslim and affiliate students and be vocal about his support for them. Weinberg second-year and Students for Justice in Palestine (SPJ) member Nadia* said one of SJP’s biggest demands from the University is for President Schill to express his support for Muslim and affiliate students and acknowledge the biases in his letters.
SJP released a statement on social media condemning Schill's second letter. It emphasized that his role as president still makes him representative of the University even though he stated its contents reflected his own personal thoughts.
“One thing we do ask for is public support from Schill and the realization from him that you can’t just choose a side and then say you’re not choosing a side,” she said.
Tahera Ahmad, associate university chaplain and director of interfaith engagement, said a lack of support can feel like a form of silencing.
“Our students are in such a difficult place because when they're trying to raise concern about what they believe is a humanitarian catastrophe, they can't even do that without fearing being silenced,” Ahmad said.
Monday, Schill sent a letter indicating the University will engage in disciplinary proceedings or refer antisemitic and discriminatory acts to law enforcement if deemed necessary after investigation. He also announced his appointment of a President’s Advisory Committee on Preventing Antisemitism and Hate aiming to represent the diversity of perspectives on campus and guide the University’s response to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
However, Ahmad said she does not know of any MENA faculty or staff members who were consulted in the process of creating the committee. She added that the exclusion of anti-Arab hate and Islamophobic sentiments from the title has caused feelings of erasure and alienation among the students, faculty and family members who have reached out to her.
“Many of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim members of Northwestern have voiced that this seems like it's more to privilege one side and to silence the other,” Ahmad said. “There is deep concern that not only does the title of the advisory council omit Islamophobia and Anti-Arab hate, but completely dismisses the perspective of the Palestinian [depth].”
To reflect the diversity of the student body, Ahmad said the University needs to center the voices of the marginalized groups on campus and respect the leadership of the Office of Institutional Diversity to spearhead such an advisory committee with the inclusion of all stakeholders including MENA and Muslim community members.
Much of Ahmad's time is spent speaking with students, organizing prayer recitations and group processing sessions for those grieving the lives lost amid the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But Ahmad is bearing the weight of what she says is a lack of support for Muslim and affiliate students at Northwestern.
“There aren't enough faculty and staff on our campus who understand the power of Palestinian plight, so I have been trying to provide as much support as I can to the Palestinians and marginalized student groups on campus,” Ahmad said.
She said Northwestern should invest more in creating permanent spaces that recognize the existence of Muslim and affiliate groups, especially because students have repeatedly told her they would like a space and staff to support their needs. There are already conversations with ASG and the administration occurring, she added.
“A dedicated center or space with staff is crucial because this is not an end,” she said. “This week, next week, this year, this has been an ongoing crisis for a long time and it impacts so many people.”
NU spokesperson Hilary Anyaso told NBN in a written statement that the University is in conversation with Muslim and affiliate students about providing support, resources and spaces for them to gather.
“If they say this is a Northwestern family, you can’t alienate your family from the conversation and then expect them to be in conversation with you later. This is all about building strong relationships and understanding that every single member of the Northwestern family brings value.”Tahera Ahmad, associate university chaplain and director of interfaith engagement
Assistant Vice President of Wellness and Dean of Students Mona Dugo told NBN she has offered support to all students regardless of their background and expressed her commitment to create safe spaces for healing on campus.
“I am working to create safe and healing spaces for all students on campus. I have connected with Palestinian students who are experiencing a lot of grief and loss and need some institutional support right now. They do not have a dedicated space to gather,” Dugo said.
In addition to safe spaces, research assistant professor at Northwestern Alithia Zamantakis said community members with their safety at risk should receive more protection from NU to help them navigate danger against potential threats like doxxing, or provide training on how to safely engage in activism.
Ultimately, Ahmad said that fostering a community at Northwestern means that all sides have the resources to learn and be heard.
“If they say this is a Northwestern family, you can’t alienate your family from the conversation and then expect them to be in conversation with you later," she said. "This is all about building strong relationships and understanding that every single member of the Northwestern family brings value.”
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.