UCLA Chancellor Gene Block to tell Congress ‘we should have been prepared to immediately remove the encampment’

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block plans to tell a Republican-led House committee Thursday that “with the benefit of hindsight” the university should have acted to “immediately remove” a campus pro-Palestinian encampment “if and when the safety of our community was put at risk,” according to his opening statement obtained by The Times.

Block — who has led UCLA amid months of tense protests over the Israel-Hamas war that culminated in a violent mob attack last month on the encampment — faces questioning from members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about increasing campus antisemitism.

It will be the first time the head of a California university has addressed the panel, which has confronted university and K-12 leaders at hearings since the Israel-Hamas war erupted in the fall. A December hearing included explosive testimony in which other schools’ leaders stumbled when asked how their campuses would handle calls for the genocide of Jews. Their responses contributed to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

In Block’s statement, he explained his response to the encampment set up April 25, which he said “tested the limits” of the University of California’s approach to de-escalation strategies with campus protests that avoid using law enforcement to remove protesters “unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the physical safety of the community.”

He said that he decided to clear the encampment April 28 after violence broke out at opposing rallies. He said that two days later protesters were given written notice that the camp was an unlawful assembly and would be dismantled if activists did not disperse.

“But before the necessary police resources could be assembled to remove the encampment, which had become a focal point of contact, assailants attacked the encampment that evening,” the statement said. “With the benefit of hindsight, we should have been prepared to immediately remove the encampment if and when the safety of our community was put at risk.”

Block, who is Jewish, said in his statement that “as a public university, UCLA is subject to a dual legal mandate: we have a legal obligation under the First Amendment to protect free speech on campus, as well as a legal obligation under federal law to protect students from discrimination and harassment. This balance is not always easy to achieve.”

He said since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the retaliatory war in Gaza, the balance “has been especially difficult. … I am fully aware that many of our Jewish students have had to confront rhetoric and images on campus that any reasonable person would find repugnant. Trust me, I understand their pain. I’ve lived it myself.”

Among his examples, he planned to cite an incident at UCLA where an art show depicted him “with exaggerated facial features that was reminiscent of caricatures of Jews during the Nazi era.”

“As we all know, being an American means sometimes being asked to tolerate offensive and even hateful speech protected by our Constitution. But there are limits. At UCLA, we draw the line when speech crosses into intimidation, threats, and harassment of others,” Block’s statement said.

At Thursday’s hearing, Block will be joined by the presidents of Northwestern and Rutgers universities, where administrations have come to agreements with students to take down pro-Palestinian encampments, but have not agreed to the protesters’ demands to divest from Israel.

After a 17-year career at UCLA, Block, a biologist, had announced plans to step down as chancellor at the end of July to focus on research. His time leading one of the nation’s top public universities is ending in controversy and intense criticism of his handling of protests and free speech on campus amid a rise in antisemitism.

A spokesperson for the House committee said Wednesday that UCLA and the other universities “have done nothing but appease the antisemitic agitators on their campuses,” adding that the schools will answer for failing to protect Jewish students.

Democrats, who make up 20 of the 44 members of the committee, plan to attack Republicans as not being serious in their pursuit to combat antisemitism, according to a House Democratic aide. Members of the House minority have called the hearings an attempt by the chamber’s Republicans to use campus unrest for political gain, and point out that no similar hearings have been convened on anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hatred, which have also increased.

Three Californians sit on the committee — Republican Rep. Michelle Steel and Democratic Reps. Mark Takano and Mark DeSaulnier.

Tensions continued to reverberate this week at UCLA and elsewhere within the 10-campus University of California system:

  • On Wednesday, UCLA replaced its police chief, John Thomas, after he faced blame for a severely delayed police response on April 30, when a mob violently attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment in the center of campus.
  • On Tuesday, UCLA submitted documents to the House committee in response to a request from its chair, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), for all communications and security videos related to alleged antisemitic incidents at UCLA since Oct. 7 and documents related to the encampment.
  • On Monday, unionized graduate student workers at UC Santa Cruz went on strike in response to the crackdown on protesters at UCLA and other UC campuses, in a potential prelude to strikes at UCLA. A digital flier says UCLA faculty and students will rally Thursday afternoon by the Tongva Steps in support of “holding Gene Block accountable and getting strike ready.”

Last week, Block survived a “no confidence” vote by the UCLA Academic Senate, which represents 3,800 tenured and tenure-track faculty. In an exactly split tally, half of voting members supported censuring Block, but the measure did not pass because it required a simple majority.

Previously, internal and external investigations were announced over UCLA’s response to the encampment, which lasted from April 25 until police dismantled it May 2, arresting more than 200 people.

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Kevin harson

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