Dissent at Berkeley

BY MICHAEL MERANZE

The following post by UCLA history professor Michael Meranze  is reposted by permission from the Remaking the University blog that he runs along with UC Santa Barbara professor Christopher Newfield.   I have offered my own view of the Milo controversy at Berkeley in “On Milo’s Right to Speak.”

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.

3 thoughts on “Dissent at Berkeley

  1. I was very critical of Dean Hesse’s terrible mishandling of the Palestinian course, but I think this attack on her is completely undeserved. So what if she tweeted out the fact that only a small percentage of Berkeley faculty signed the ban Milo letter? This was at a time when the New York Times was reporting that more than 100 Berkeley faculty had signed the letter without mentioning the size of Berkeley’s faculty, so this is relevant information. No, the numbers given in a tweet are not an intellectual refutation, but nobody claims they are. It is not a threat to academic freedom when a dean tries to marginalize the importance of a letter, even if some junior faculty have signed it. Professors don’t need a pat on the head from administrators praising them for engaging in serious discussions.

  2. Not sure I see what the ‘failure’ here was. Was she attempting to find an appropriate medium to present nuanced and complex arguments? Was she trying to support the faculty? To ‘fail’ she needs to have been trying to achieve something which she did not achieve. If all she was trying to suggest there was no evidence the call had widespread support I think the word you need is ‘succeed’.
    If you do not want to live in Trump’s vision words need to mean things, and using ‘failure’ when you meant ‘did not do what I wanted her to’ is no different than quoting an ‘alternative fact’.
    (The tweet clearly did not comment on her support or otherwise for the right of her staff to protest or debate, so even if you accept that is a responsibility she has, the tweet is not evidence one way or the other for her failure or success).

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