February 22, 2010
Dear Chancellor Drake:
I write to express my concern about your letter of February 17 and other aspects of the University’s response to 11 UCI students’ protest of the appearance of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, and to student protest generally.
Much of the public discussion of the protest has debated whether or not the students’ protest tactics would be legally protected by the First Amendment. The narrow question of legal protection, however, does not define the set of issues that a university should think about on such an occasion. No university believes that its values are exhausted by what is legally required. Rather, universities should be sensitive to all speech and action that is principled, and should be mindful of traditions of civil disobedience. The complex and often illustrious history of civil disobedience in the U.S. includes illegal actions by definition. Many historical, philosophical, literary, and sociological texts commonly taught in the UCI curriculum acknowledge the benefits of such an approach. The idea that the spaces of democracy are kept open through challenges to their bounds and rules *by those who are formally excluded from these very spaces* is familiar and crucial to scholars of democracy.
The case of the protest at Michael Oren’s lecture raises questions about the availability and viability of other means by which the concerns of the 11 could be raised. In addition to Oren, a second speaker affiliated with the Israeli government appears on the UCI calendar this quarter—Daniel Taub, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Feb. 10, 2010). I believe that no Palestinian official has spoken at UCI since Manuel Hassassian, ambassador of the Palestinian General Delegation to the UK, appeared at a forum with Prof. Edward Kaufman (formerly of Hebrew University) in 2006. Further, I’m concerned about the diversity of expression more generally. Over the last decade mainstream scholars have addressed concerns similar to the 11 students’—namely, that gains by the religious right in Israel have resulted in “new discriminatory policies and practices toward the Palestinian minority” and a climate in which extreme “policies of expulsion” are newly thinkable (see Nadim N. Rouhana and Nimer Sultany, “Redrawing the Boundaries of Citizenship: Israel’s New Hegemony,” Journal of Palestine Studies 33 , 5-22). As far as I can tell, the last speaker sponsored by UCI whose main topic was the plight of Palestinians may have been Prof. Saree Makdisi, as part of the conference “”Whither the Levant?,” in December 2008.
Most of the UCI events sponsored by the Ford Foundation have featured speakers from the political center whose main topic has been the desirability of reconciliation. The UCI “difficult dialogues” are not really dialogic and not really difficult, however, unless they include the full spectrum of political opinion. This context may help one understand why the 11 students may have wanted to publicize their point in the way they did. It is worth assessing whether the “Difficult Dialogues” project is serving the needs of the student groups that truly differ, rather than those already occupying the center; and whether, by seeming to align itself with this center, UCI could be seen to be taking a de facto position in the Middle East conflict itself.
The perception that UCI may be more interested in suppressing the appearance of conflict than in working through it is exacerbated by the OC Register’s report that UCI has rehired a public relations consultant, Alan Hilburg, whose previous experience with damage control includes work on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Love Canal, and smokeless tobacco. Alan Hilburg’s previous work for at least one client has included cost-benefit analyses of a company’s taking, or seeming to take, one stance or another; a paper he has given for the national conference of public relations specialists promotes “trust” for its connection to “lower transaction costs” and “high brand value” (“The High Cost of Low Trust: Managing the Climate of Skepticism”). It’s appropriate for a university to maintain its own public relations staff, but not to retain a consultant with such a record.
Finally, although people may agree or disagree with the views and/or tactics of the 11 students who protested Oren’s appearance, no reasonable person could believe that the students were unprincipled. The university must show that it is able to recognize the difference between principled civil disobedience and unprincipled disruption and be careful to treat protestors with respect. Your letter of February 17 falls short in this regard. Its title, “Why do values and civility matter?,” and statement that “some” at UCI have the goal of “closing channels of communication,” seem to assume that the people being referred to lack “values” and “civility” and are ill-motivated. This broadly phrased letter might be taken to extend to recent protests over UC finances (its terms are problematic, however, whether it refers to the smaller or to the larger group). It would be more productive to assume that students engaged in protest—both the 11 students at Oren’s talk and the wider community of protestors—care about the civil society of the university and are expressing, in time-honored ways, values that matter.
Professor of Comparative Literature