The Volokh Conspiracy

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Northwestern Dean of Students' Presence at Anti-Israel Protest


[UPDATE 4/24/24: See David's response here.]

I've seen some items online asserting that the Northwestern Dean of Students "joins anti-Israel rally organized by far-left student groups," was "openly standing in solidarity with students engaged in anti-Semitism and intimidation," or was otherwise at fault in supporting the rally. Our own David Bernstein, for instance, posted at InstaPundit,

HEADS SHOULD, BUT LIKELY WON'T ROLL: Northwestern University Dean of Students Attends Protest Targeting Campus Jewish Community Center. Let's just pause to take this in for a moment. Northwestern University is already under federal investigation for violating Jewish students' civil rights. And so the Dean of Students, Mona Dugo… decides to attend a rally protesting, and let's be honest, trying to intimidate, the campus Hillel (Jewish student group). She later claimed that she wanted to make sure the protestors right to protest was protected, as if roving mobs of Jewish students have been the problem on campus. Who is she kidding? If she isn't relieved of her administrative responsibilities, and soon, Northwestern will richly deserve the hostile environment lawsuit it loses.

I have to say I'm skeptical about this criticism. It makes good sense for administrators to be present at events that might go bad in various ways, or that might lead to complaints. That way they can try to nip problems in the bud, or at least have a sense of who was responsible for any trouble that might arise. Such presence isn't necessarily "join[ing]" the rally, or otherwise endorsing it; to the extent that it's "attend[ing]," it's attending in the sense that a police officer may attend an event to make sure things go smoothly, not in the sense that a participant may attend it to express support (or even out of genuine personal interest).

Now a Daily Northwestern story does say,

Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President for Wellness Mona Dugo was also present at the rally. Dugo said she was present to ensure students have the "right to protest" and "protect the right to free speech."

But it seems clear from the limited quotes that Dugo said something more, and the reporter just chose what to excerpt. And when I e-mailed Dugo for her side of the story, she said,

  • As Dean of Students, I regularly attend student demonstrations on campus, to ensure the safety of our community. I been to dozens of demonstrations on a variety of topics over the years, as have other members of our Student Affairs team.
  • My role at these demonstrations is not as a participant or supporter, but as an observer to ensure safety and well-being of the entire community, including those who might be targeted by the protest.
  • When asked by the student newspaper why I was there I told them this as well, but that part of my quote was not included in the article.
  • Monday's demonstration was held by a number of student groups representing a variety of issues. [The Daily Northwestern story noted that "NU chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, Educators for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Fossil Free Northwestern and Students Organizing for Labor Rights co-hosted the daylong protest. During it, they advocated for the University's divestment from fossil fuel contributors, the removal of John Evans' colonial legacy on campus, increased labor rights for campus workers and a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip." -EV]
  • I, and the University, strongly supports Hillel, which is vital to the Northwestern community.
  • The University is investigating whether the statements about Hillel that were in the flyer distributed Monday violate our Code of Conduct or Northwestern's discrimination and harassment policies.

According to her, then, she said not only that "she was present to ensure students have the 'right to protest' and 'protect the right to free speech'" but also that she was there "as an observer to ensure safety and well-being of the entire community, including those who might be targeted by the protest." That sounds like a credible claim on her part; I have no reason to doubt that this is what she said. And it sounds eminently reasonable for her to have been present as an "observer," and to have explained that to the reporter (as she asserts she did).

More broadly, I think we should be cautious about faulting university administrators (or others) based on student reporters' short excerpts from what was very likely a longer statement. And we should be hesitant to just assume the worst motivations in situations where there is a benign explanation (which is that it's an administrator's job to go to events in order to monitor them). Yes, some administrators may do bad things, or do things for bad reasons, just as some of every class of people does bad things or does things for bad reasons. But I don't think we should just assume such bad behavior, based on a snippet quoted in a newspaper article.

[* * *]

I wrote the above on Sunday, but held off on publishing in order to e-mail the Northwestern reporters (which I did on Sunday) and see if they had more to say about what Dugo had told them. I hadn't directly heard back from them by Tuesday morning, but when I was preparing to post this, I found this Daily Northwestern follow-up article posted Monday, which seems to support Dugo's account:

Northwestern released a statement Sunday afternoon clarifying the role of University administrators at student demonstrations …. [The report of the statement seems to track what Dugo sent me. -EV] …

At the rally, Dugo told The Daily she was present as a part of the University's Event Support Team with the goal of "keeping an eye on things to make sure there's nothing that escalates into either the protesters being threatened or harmed or them doing anything that disrupts or damages our community."

"I'm not really here to stand with or in opposition to the students," Dugo said at the rally. "My role as the dean of students is to make sure that students have a right to protest."

She told The Daily on Monday that her primary focus at the rally, in addition to protecting students' right to protest, was monitoring an outside individual not affiliated with the University who briefly attended the rally to prevent possible escalation….

Dugo and other staff from the Division of Student Affairs have been present at several student demonstrations and protests since October related to the Israel-Hamas war — including a student walkout on Oct. 25, an Evanston ceasefire rally at University President Michael Schill's home on Nov. 4 and an event hosted by NU SJP on Jan. 24.

It thus seems that she indeed told the reporters that she was there as a neutral, in order both to protesting students' rights and to make sure that they do not "do[] anything that disrupts or damages our community." Again, that sounds like her doing her job as an administrator.