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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dissent at Berkeley

The turmoil surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos's visit to Berkeley has garnered national attention.  Despite the reality that UC Berkeley as an institution honored the invitation of the College Republicans and that the protests by campus members were peaceful and in accord with everyone's First Amendment rights (I say nothing here about the individuals who invaded the protest intent on violence) right-wing figures from President Trump on down have used the incident to inveigh against the University and to threaten its funding and demean its students and faculty.

The eagerness with which the Right has attacked UC Berkeley (both the institution and the students, faculty and administrators) should not surprise us: it is clear that there is now a concerted effort from Iowa to Tennessee to Wisconsin to North Carolina and beyond to undermine the academic autonomy of public universities and to decimate employee rights.  In this situation it is more important than ever that universities and their leadership stand firm in their defense of reasoned debate and dissent no matter whether they agree with it or not.  From my perspective, at least, Chancellor Dirks' statement as to why he would not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus did just that--elaborating his reasoning and attending to the arguments opposed to it.

Unfortunately, at least one Berkeley administrator failed in this responsibility.  As you probably know, a group of Berkeley faculty wrote a series of letters to the Chancellor calling for him to prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus. As they argued:

Yiannopoulos’ deplorable views pass from protected free speech to incitement, harassment and defamation once they publicly target individuals in his audience or on campus, creating conditions for concrete harm and actually harming students through defamatory and harassing actions. Such actions are protected neither by free speech nor by academic freedom. For this reason, the university should not provide a platform for such harassment.

And as they point out, Yiannopoulos had indeed singled out an individual at a previous speech at UW Milwaukee.  One does not have to agree with the call to disinvite Yiannopoulos (personally I don't) to recognize that the letter makes a series of arguments that need to be taken seriously.

But that is not the tack taken by Carla Hesse, the Dean of Social Sciences at Berkeley. Instead, she entered into Donald J. Trump's favorite mode of communication to tweet: "Because the facts still matter: Of 1522 UCBerkeley faculty, 88 (6%) signed letter to Ban Milo."

Leaving aside the fact that this statement came from a dean who last year pointed out that there could be legitimate reasons for urging restraint on abusive speech or who earlier this year appeared to have no difficulty in suspending a student run course in Palestinian studies to look at its syllabus at precisely the point that outside groups had complained about it, and leaving aside the fact that she understated the numbers of signatories, the statement itself is unconscionable.   For what could be its possible purpose but to marginalize the faculty signers, many of whom teach in her division, some of whom are junior faculty?  Shouldn't a dean who is genuinely committed to academic freedom and the right to dissent have aimed to stress that the faculty members were engaged in a serious discussion of an important issue?  Isn't that what universities are for?  Even more importantly, why not point out that UC Berkeley has been engaged in a deeply serious and open discussion of free speech and academic freedom--arguably the most engaged one since the 1960s? Does the dean think that the validity of an argument depends on how many people are saying it?

Especially at a moment when colleges and universities are attacked when they allow criticism of the current policies of the state and the increasingly hostile denigration of those on the margins or in minorities, it is incumbent upon university administrators to support the efforts of students and faculty at their institutions offering reasoned and important dissent.  Dean Hesse's tweet failed that responsibility.  Let's hope that others do not fail as well.


Fernando Leanme said...

Seems to me USA college campuses have gradually been taken over by administrators which support censorship and the end of free speech. This of course makes it easier to brainwash students into whatever position is held by the controlling entity. And it leaves graduates unable to grasp and deal with real life outside of the ivory tower. The net effect is bad for democracy, freedom, and diversity of opinion.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that Dean Hesse's statement about the percentage of faculty signing the letter was 'unconscionable'. Within Berkeley those who wanted Milo uninvited always present that faculty petition as representing the desires of 'the faculty'. But 6% does not represent "the faculty" and so that may be the point of her tweet-- that the issue had been misrepresented. But of course a far larger percentage may support the Milo ban, and now may be a good time to take another reading of faculty opinion, as there is talk of him being reinvited. If a majority of the faculty sign such a petition that may change things, though as you say, the popularity of a measure doesn't or shouldn't determine whether it's the right thing to do.

Anonymous said...

It's more complex than this of course. Some administrators do support free enquiry and expression, some faculty merely wish to impress their views upon students and the reverse. The ebb and flow between them constitutes intra-ivory tower battles. Still brain-washing is not an official agenda and virtually anyone would disavow such an approach. It doesn't mean that individuals don't work for this, cognitive dissonance be damned. But that it's not an official position speaks to something for the side we fall on, at least for the present.

Anonymous said...

Adios Milo, turns out you can't go around saying anything and everything to sell your book. Back into the dustbin of hoax history where you belong. If you would be so kind as to send in a 100K+ check from your CANCELLED book advance (actually I hope you had to return the advance to S&S) to UCB to reimburse the UC for the damages your vile shock jock get rich quick scheme caused the UCB campus (and every other university you took advantage of to advance your profile) you would prove to me you are in fact a decent human being. Then again now that you are out of a job you may need that money. I hope the karma gods keep dark clouds over your head eternally.

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