University of Minnesota Interim President Jeff Ettinger told a state Senate committee Tuesday that responding to pro-Palestinian protests and accusations of antisemitism on campus "required a balancing of factors," including concerns about safety and free speech rights.

"We may not have always gotten it right," Ettinger told lawmakers. "But I can assure you, we tackled each challenge in a manner befitting of the seriousness of those issues."

College leaders across the country have faced scrutiny — from lawmakers, students and faculty members — for their responses to campus protests, discrimination claims and calls to reconsider schools' investments in response to the war between Israel and Hamas.

Congressional leaders have in recent months called leaders of some schools, including Harvard University and Northwestern University, to explain how they have responded to antisemitism complaints or chosen whether to negotiate with pro-Palestinian protesters who set up encampments on their campuses. Another congressional committee hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

The hearing Tuesday before the Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee was billed as an effort to "learn about a pattern of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish" incidents at the University of Minnesota. At times, there were sharp exchanges between lawmakers and testifiers about what constitutes antisemitism.

The committee is chaired by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who faced criticism from his own party members for his comments about Palestinians last year. He repeatedly asked speakers if they found certain slogans or actions to be antisemitic and on at least one occasion accused a speaker of dehumanizing fellow Jewish people.

In his remarks, Ettinger said he has heard from both Jewish and Palestinian students who have experienced struggles since the war began in October, and that the university has tried to support them all.

"We have seen a significant increase in political activity on campuses nationwide, and unfortunately we have seen a corresponding increase in bias claims as well," he said.

The U is one of more than 100 schools being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education over "discrimination involving shared ancestry," a term the department uses to describe incidents that occur based on someone's ancestry or nationality.

Bias reports at the U more than doubled in the 2023-24 school year, with 169 reports filed as of mid-June. Of those, 54 "reported bias against Israel/antisemitism" and 33 "reported bias against Palestine/Islamophobia." Another 12 reports are related to the conflict in some other way, usually by expressing an opinion on the divestment debate.

This is Ettinger's final week as interim president. For about 45 minutes, he fielded questions from lawmakers who wanted to know why faculty members had posted statements about the war on U websites, how the U responded to graffiti they found offensive or antisemitic, and whether he had encouraged pro-Palestinian protesters by negotiating a deal with them to end an encampment.

"To me, that's just not a good look," said Sen. Michael Kreun, R-Blaine. "It's not a responsible way of doing that, of being a competent responsible administrator."

The committee also touched on Ettinger's recent announcement that he was pausing the search for a new director for the U's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The job had been offered to an Israeli historian who wrote that Israel was committing "a textbook case of genocide," a statement that drew ire from some local Jewish organizations.

Last week, an assembly representing students and faculty in the U's College of Liberal Arts voted to express "no confidence" in Ettinger, saying they believed the move was unprecedented and feared it could chill free speech.

Ettinger told lawmakers that during his term he has faced calls to silence speakers from multiple political persuasions and that recent months have reinforced for him the idea that a university "should be an arena, and not a participant."

"It should not be taking sides on a political basis," he said.

Testimony from different viewpoints

The hearing also included testimony from members of multiple Jewish organizations, some of whom said they had vastly different experiences on the U campus and different thoughts on whether slogans used in protests qualified as antisemitic.

Benjie Kaplan, executive director of Hillel, a Jewish student organization, said he has seen "a level of toxicity that jeopardizes the physical safety of our Jewish students."

Kaplan said he knew of at least one student who was so alarmed by a roommate's anti-Israel rhetoric that they requested a room change. He said others have felt alienated in classes. Earlier this month, someone fired BB pellets into the organization's windows, both U and Hillel leaders said.

"This is not the university we know and love," Kaplan said.

Members of another organization, Jewish Voices for Peace, told lawmakers that didn't match their experiences on campus and they had, on some occasions, joined pro-Palestinian protests. Some of them said they feared that people were inappropriately conflating legitimate criticism of Israel's actions with antisemitism, inflaming tensions.

"I was struggling to hold back my words," said Zach Fisher, a Jewish Voices for Peace member and recent University of Minnesota law school graduate, who was repeatedly questioned by Latz. "I just want peace."