Criticism from campus to Congress: A dark end to UCLA Chancellor Block’s tenure

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block was once known as a defender of human rights, protector of undocumented students and a champion of equality, but weeks of campus protest and conflict have left a bloodstain on his legacy.

Golf ball-sized contusions, brain hemorrhages, and bone fractures — these are among the injuries reported by UCLA students in the Palestine solidarity encampment following an attack by counter protesters on April 30 and raid by law enforcement on May 1.

And there are scars that can’t be seen.

There’s the constant anxiety and fear many Jewish students felt simply walking to class during the student occupation of Royce Quad. The trauma among pro-Palestinian protesters who faced violent attacks and forceful arrests. And the deep mistrust of the UCLA community in the governing bodies they expected to protect their rights and safety.

A UCLA faculty member holds up a sign condemning Chancellor Gene Block during a news conference in Los Angeles Thursday, May 9, 2024. Weekend commencement ceremonies at some U.S. universities went off with few interruptions despite the national wave of protests over the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

UCLA faculty and staff members hold signs outside Murphy Hall on the school campus while being stopped from entering the building to drop off a letter to Chancellor Gene Block in Los Angeles, Thursday, May 9, 2024. Weekend commencement ceremonies at some U.S. universities went off with few interruptions despite the national wave of protests over the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

UCLA faculty member Nancy Marie Nithlo makes a sign to support students protesting the Gaza war and the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza on Monday, May 6, 2024. A number of student protestors were arrested early Monday in a UCLA parking lot for violating a curfew on campus. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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Now, Block’s reputation is on the chopping block.

He faces condemnation from faculty, grapples with a potential federal civil rights investigation and prepares to defend himself before U.S. Congress on Thursday. Block held long-standing plans to step down in August 2024, but this must be a far cry from how he imagined spending his final weeks on the job.

“This is definitely a stain on his legacy here at the eleventh hour when he had an opportunity to exercise leadership and he didn’t,” said Matthew Barreto, professor of political science and Chicana/o studies, referring to Block’s handling of the encampment. “It was very disappointing.”

On Thursday, Block is scheduled to testify before the House Committee on Education and Labor in a hearing about campus antisemitism. Last week House Committee Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., asked the U.S. Department of Education to open a federal civil rights investigation into antisemitic incidents at UCLA.

“I am horrified by UCLA’s negligent and incomprehensible reaction to antisemitic violence and exclusion on its campus,” Foxx wrote in a May 15 letter to UC leadership. “UCLA’s leaders have allowed their campus to become a severe and pervasive hostile environment for Jewish students, standing by as students, faculty and affiliates were assaulted and harassed.”

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In a Monday morning statement, Block said he was dedicated to spending the rest of his term rebuilding trust, while addressing community safety, tackling discrimination and harassment and protecting free expression — an ambitious agenda.

When it comes to the congressional testimony, he vowed to speak honestly and insist that “antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia, anti-Arab hate and any form of bigotry, hostility or discrimination, is antithetical to our values, corrosive to our community and not to be tolerated.”

He is continuing to face fierce backlash on campus for the harm that came to Pro-Palestinian protesters during the attack by Pro-Israel counter-protesters and a subsequent police raid.

An injured person gets help at a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA late Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Los Angeles. Dueling groups of protesters clashed at the University of California, Los Angeles, grappling in fistfights and shoving, kicking and using sticks to beat one another. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)

CHP officers in riot gear took down a pro-Palestinian encampment on the UCLA campus early Thursday morning in Westwood on May 2, 2024. A dispersal order was issued Wednesday evening and by 3:30 a.m. Thursday,
officers advanced on the encampment. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer)

Counter-protesters, right, confront a pro-Palestinian protest encampment on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles early Wednesday morning, May 1, 2024. Administrators called in law enforcement officers after violent clashes broke out, a university official said early Wednesday. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

CHP officers in riot gear took down a pro-Palestinian encampment on the UCLA campus early Thursday morning in Westwood on May 2, 2024. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer)

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Last week the union representing graduate workers voted to authorize a strike in response to arrests and use of force in dismantling the encampment. More than 900 of the university’s 2,960 faculty members have signed a letter calling on Block to resign, saying that if a strike goes ahead they will not take on any work to replace the striking workers.

Block also faced a censure vote and a no confidence vote from the UCLA Academic Senate last week. Those motions did not get the required two-thirds votes to pass, but they signaled that many faculty members believe his failure in leadership was enough to demand consequences.

“Regardless of how anybody feels about the underlying protests, no one deserves to get beat up for advocating for what they believe,” said UCLA assistant professor of medicine Russell Buhr. “No one deserves to end up with a potentially life-threatening traumatic injury because they were exercising free speech, period.”

“To be completely frank, it’s really lucky nobody was killed because it could have easily happened,” he added, speaking on his own behalf and not that of the UCLA Health system.

According to a statement released by volunteer medics at the encampment, more than 150 protesters were assaulted with pepper spray and bear mace and at least 25 protesters were transported to emergency rooms during the counter-protesters’ attack.

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Among them was UCLA student Yusef, who said he needed 14 staples and several stitches to his head after being hit with a wooden plank. He did not give his last name due to safety concerns.

Yusef, a pro-Palestinian student, shows on Wednesday, May 1, 2024 during a press conference head injuries he sustained from counter-protestors at the UCLA encampment in Westwood. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

“Throughout the estimated four-hour attack on the encampment I continuously became worried for my life,” he said at a May 1 press conference. “I remember texting my family group chat, telling them I love them, as if I was about to die.”

The attack began around 11 p.m., and for the first several hours UCLA police officers and private security hired by the university did not intervene, according to a statement by the student encampment leaders. LAPD arrived on scene at 1 a.m., but did not manage to break up the attack until around 3 a.m., according to reports from those on scene.

The Greater Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) has demanded that California Attorney General Rob Bonta “investigate the lack of response of UCPD (university police) and LAPD as the pro-Israel mob brutalized and terrorized students at the encampment.”

A spokesperson for Governor Gavin Newsom said the “limited and delayed campus law enforcement response” was “unacceptable” and “demands answers.”

A day after the attack, Block launched an investigation into the perpetrators of the attack and into UCLA’s security procedures. In Monday’s statement, he said that accountability is critical to moving forward and that both investigations are continuing.

Related links

UC and USC grad student workers authorize strike over handling of campus protests
UC faculty call for resignation of UCLA chancellor over protest handling
UCLA shifts classes back online amid renewed pro-Palestinian protests, arrests, outcry
UCLA pro-Palestinian encampment left in a rubble as students vow campus protests ‘are not over’
Slow police response to violence at UCLA campus protest under investigation

“I know there are many questions, and while we may not have — or be able to share — all of the answers right now, we are committed to getting you the facts that you seek and deserve,” he said.

Block is also being slammed by some faculty and civil rights organizations like CAIR-LA for ordering the May 1 police raid on the encampment, which cleared the area and resulted in more than 200 arrests of protesters.

“Honestly, it was one of the scariest experiences of my entire life and the closest I’ve ever been in something that I would say resembled a war zone,” said Isaac Speer, a lecturer in the sociology department, “I thought somebody was gonna die, really. It was so chaotic.”

During the police raid, students were struck by rubber bullets and police batons and shields — resulting in bone fractures, lacerations and contusions, according to the medic’s statement. At least 20 encampment members were reportedly taken to emergency rooms.

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Speer said he saw officers fire rubber bullets into the crowd at eye level and used their guns as flashlights by pointing the scope at protesters’ faces.

Police advance on pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)

California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers clear a pro-Palestinian encampment after dispersal orders were given at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, on May 2, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. The camp was declared ‘unlawful’ by the university and scores of protestors who refused to leave were detained during the operation. Pro-Palestinian encampments have sprung up at college campuses around the country with some protestors calling for schools to divest from Israeli interests amid the ongoing war in Gaza. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Police break through a barrier set up by pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

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“I’ve seen a number of protests over the course of my life, but I’ve never seen this kind of level of excessive force,” he said.

Block said it was necessary to clear the encampment because it created a dangerous environment and interfered with the university’s ability to educate students.

“In the end, the encampment on Royce Quad was both unlawful and a breach of policy,” he said in a May 2 statement. “It led to unsafe conditions on our campus and it damaged our ability to carry out our mission.”

Barreto, the political science professor, said he’s upset that Block made the decision to order the police raid without first consulting the Academic Senate or meeting with student protesters.

“We have a shared governance structure and the chancellor is not the dictator of UCLA, so I think many faculty are very disappointed in how this happened,” he said.

Barreto feels particularity let down by Block who in other instances took bold actions to protect the rights of students of all races and ethnicity.

When President Donald Trump announced the cancellation of DACA in 2017, a program that granted citizenship to children of illegal immigrants, Block created a task force to ensure DACA students were well-protected and felt included on campus.

Similarly, when Trump announced a temporary ban on foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, prohibiting them from entering America, Block created a task force to protect Muslim community members.

“In previous instances he had been very outspoken in terms of issues related to equality,” said Barreto.

During Block’s tenure, UCLA has dramatically increased the number of Black, Latino, first-generation and low income students it admits. And it has consistently been ranked as the number one public university in America and the most applied to university in America.

But now, after 17 years of leadership, the light of these accomplishments are at risk of being snuffed out by his dark final chapter.

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