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University of Chicago Professors Say They Will Risk Arrest at Protest

A group of University of Chicago professors said on Monday that they would risk arrest alongside students if police officers attempted to disperse an increasingly fortified pro-Palestinian encampment on a campus quad. Their announcement came after a week of mixed signals from administrators about when and if they might seek to evict demonstrators.

“As faculty members, we will protect the safety of our students if the administration attempts to violently remove them, even if that means arrest and detention,” said Elham Mireshghi, an assistant instructional professor in Chicago’s Divinity School.

The announcement by the faculty members, who stood on the steps of a campus building, came after a tense weekend in which protesters had braced for a police crackdown that did not materialize. After initially taking a permissive approach to the cluster of tents that went up last week, the university’s president, Paul Alivisatos, wrote a letter on Friday morning saying the encampment “cannot continue.”

“I stated that we would only intervene if what might have been an exercise of free expression blocks the learning or expression of others or substantially disrupts the functioning or safety of the university,” Dr. Alivisatos wrote on Friday. “Without an agreement to end the encampment, we have reached that point.”

Many assumed after his letter was published that police action was imminent, and a brief scuffle between protesters and counterprotesters on Friday led to a heightened law enforcement presence. But officers made no attempt to force protesters from the quad, and administrators and protesters negotiated again over the weekend.

The Chicago encampment, one of dozens across the country, has drawn heightened attention because the university is home to the Chicago statement, a set of free speech standards adopted in 2015 that has become a touchstone and guide for colleges across the country. Professors said on Monday that the university would violate those principles if it attempted to remove the encampment with force.

The protest “exemplifies the values of inquiry and free expression espoused by the University of Chicago,” said Jessica Darrow, who teaches in the university’s social work school and was joined by dozens of colleagues at the Monday news conference. “Our students’ demands are reasonable, and they are clear. They are applying what they’ve learned in courses and from each other to create a peaceful, welcoming and educational space.”

Dr. Alivisatos, a chemist who became president of the university in 2021, accused protesters on Friday of vandalizing buildings, blocking walkways, destroying a nearby installation of Israeli flags and flying a Palestinian flag from a university flagpole. A university spokesman did not immediately respond to questions on Monday.

Protesters told their supporters late Sunday night that they believed the police would soon move in, but officers made no such move. A philosophy professor, Anton Ford, said dozens of faculty members had come to the encampment overnight Sunday expecting a police raid, and most had been prepared to get arrested.

“Our most immediate concern is for the well being of our students,” Dr. Ford said. “We don’t want them getting beat up just because they’re camping on the lawn.”

By Monday morning, the encampment of several dozen tents appeared significantly more fortified than it had a few days prior. Makeshift fencing surrounded the tents, large pieces of plywood had been erected around parts of the perimeter and a cluster of hard hats was visible inside. Small numbers of security guards and university police officers were posted nearby.

But away from the encampment, it looked like any other spring Monday at the university, a private institution that is one of the country’s most selective. Students studied on park benches, grabbed coffees at campus shops and posed for photographs in graduation attire.

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