How “Unwavering” is UC Berkeley’s Commitment to Academic Freedom?


The National Park Service has pulled funding for a Black Panther Party legacy project to be undertaken at the University of California at Berkeley in response to criticism by conservative organizations, according to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle and the East Bay Times.  In September, the Park Service announced that it would award Ula Taylor, chair of African American Studies at Berkeley, the $98,000 grant for “truthfully honoring the legacy of BPP activists and the San Francisco Bay Area communities they served,” according to an official notice.  However, in an October 19 letter to President Donald Trump, the Fraternal Order of Police objected to what they interpreted as the memorialization of a “militant anti-American group,” claiming that the grant insults the memory of a U.S Park Ranger murdered in 1973 by a self-proclaimed Panther.

In its September announcement of the grant, “Black Panther Party Research, Interpretation & Memory Project,” the Park Service said the project would “discover new links between the historical events concerning race that occurred in Richmond during World War II and the subsequent emergence of the BPP in the San Francisco Bay Area two decades later through research, oral history and interpretation.”  According to the proposal, the project would seek to document “how the BPP impacted the visual arts, music, dance and styles of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and underscore the vastness of its impact on American culture.”  The announcement added that “Bay Area sites that shaped the BPP will be identified in an effort to memorialize a history that brought meaning to lives far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Taylor was co-author of Panther: A Pictorial History of the Black Panther Party and the Story Behind the Film.  She served as historical consultant on the Mario Van Peebles’ film “Panther.” Two of her consultants for the Berkeley project were members of the Oakland Panther party.

The Washington Free Beacon was among the first conservative news outlets to report on the grant.  The Beacon complained that the park service awarded the grant outside the normal competitive bidding process,” adding that Berkeley, which Trump threatened with a federal funding cut, has supposedly been intolerant of conservative voices.  Seething on his radio show about the grant, Bill O’Reilly said: “That should never in a million years happen. … I understand it’s a drop but it’s not necessary.  Even if you agree with the Black Panthers, which very few Americans do because it was a Marxist, violent organization, you don’t waste a hundred-grand researching some dopey stuff.”

Park Service representative Craig Dalby said that despite the notice of funding availability posted for the project a month earlier, the “cooperative agreement” was never finalized.  “After an additional review of the project, the NPS decided not to move forward with funding the project,” Dalby said.

A university representative said research funding agreements are left up to the principal investigator and the funding agency, but added: “Faculty have academic freedom to pursue research interests and to go after the funding that makes those pursuits possible.  As always, we have an unwavering commitment to academic freedom.”

So, now here’s the question: What, if anything, will the university actually do to uphold its “unwavering commitment to academic freedom” in this case?  The Park Service’s original announcement noted that the university had already committed to a bit more than $52,000 in cost sharing.  Will Berkeley now contribute the remaining $98,000 to ensure that the project will be completed, despite the Park Service’s craven capitulation to outside pressure?  Or might the university’s attorneys challenge that capitulation administratively or even in the courts?

After all, on Friday University of California President Janet Napolitano announced, with considerable fanfare, that the UC system was creating a new National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement in Washington D.C.  Napolitano herself will chair the center, headquartered at the university’s Washington offices, and funded from the system’s presidential endowment, a blend of unrestricted philanthropic gifts to the UC system, and from fundraising.  The plan is to establish a fellowship with up to eight fellows who will receive a stipend and spend up to a year studying free speech issues, delivering seminars, and visiting a UC campus for a week.  The center will host a national conference in 2018.  Although no budget was announced, these activities suggest a financial commitment well into at least six or even seven figures.

A number of UC faculty members have already raised concerns about this initiative, in part because its advisory board contains not a single UC faculty member and appears to be dominated by individuals with a particularly narrow conception of campus free speech.  Moreover, while it is possible that leaders of the system’s Academic Senate may have been consulted about the project in advance, there is no mention of faculty involvement in developing the project nor does the description of the center’s mission suggest that protecting faculty academic freedom will even be one of its concerns.

Given that both the UC system and the Berkeley campus have already devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect the free speech rights of conservative outsiders like Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Ann Coulter and that the system will now devote perhaps even more than that to this new center, is it churlish to ask whether either Napolitano or the Berkeley campus will also be willing to put a relatively small amount of its money where their mouths are by picking up the funding that the National Park Service has withdrawn from Professor Taylor’s project?  Or might they at least devote some resources to fighting this brazen act of political interference in the academic freedom of one of its professors?

In short, how “unwavering” is the University of California’s commitment to academic freedom in reality?

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