by David Theo Goldberg
University of California, Irvine
Recent events across the University of California—at UCSD, at UC Irvine, at Berkeley, and perhaps even more broadly at UCLA, at Riverside, at Santa Cruz, have been lumped together by top university administrators, even if the events are linked together in ways completely belying the administrative default position. Of late, the Muslim student protest against Israeli Ambassador Oren at UCI has been equated with the racist expressions by three separate groups of students at UCSD.
For the University leaders, protest itself appears to have become incivility, disruptive of dominant institutional arrangements and even at times, for some criminalizable. And free speech is to be upheld only when expressing certain positions but not others, disrupting the peace—a criminal misdemeanor—a characterization of an activity reductively in the case of speaking truth to power but not in invoking power to fix or sustain a regime of truth. And pretty much all of the expressions in question are collapsed as “uncivilized” and “despicable” no matter their very different objects of criticism and genealogies of initiation. Where the university should stand for careful distinction it has opted largely for totalization, where it should be committed to nuance and thoughtful consideration it has opted for a blunt bludgeon, where it should stand against racism and stand up for vigorous free expression and critique it has generally ignored the latter save in moments of unusually public pronunciation (such as the current events at UCSD) and undercut the former.
Instead of addressing the critical issues the University has characteristically bundled them all together, infantilized the criticism and soft-pedaled on the racism, criminalizing protest and reducing racism as if it were the mere expression of epithets rather than a historical medium of power and subordination. In short, the University once again diminishes racisms to the more or less innocent ignorance of youthful indiscretion, individualizing the transgression once again as the work of a bad apple or two. It has shown far more concern for the public relations fall than with the social conditions under which students of color—those who continue to attend UC despite the repeated demonstration of inhospitability—continue to exist. UCI has just thrown limited resources at the questionable PR firm, Alan Hilburg and Co, to ensure its image is not tarnished by these events rather than using the funds to maintain staff in the face of demoralizing budget cuts or to create thoughtful programming around the issues in question. The crisis at the University of California is as much one of leadership as it is of the budget cuts we continue to suffer through.
There are four sets of recent events across UC that are worth distinguishing. The first concerns student protests, including sit-ins, regarding the fee increases and budget cuts. Here Berkeley has been the focus campus even if other campuses have seen significant action too. Second, there is the case of protesting a speech of Israeli Ambassador Oren by members and UCR supporters of the UCI Muslim Students Union, repeatedly disrupting but not preventing him from completing his speech. Third, there is the case of racist expression at UCSD, involving members of a fraternity, a campus supported student radio, the hanging of a noose in the Geisel Library on campus by a senior and at least two of her accomplices, and as recently as yesterday a pillow-case shaped as a KKK hood placed over a statue’s head outside the Library. And fourth–I want to insist that this is a separate consideration—the significant protests among UCSD students, staff, and faculty of the long trajectory of racial conditions on campus. It remains to be seen whether this latter movement—which insists on connecting the campus racism to the budget crisis, linking budgetary transparency with demands for racial equity, public access, and the public good—can sustain itself.
The Berkeley protests against fee increases and budget cuts were met fairly early on by police action. The police intervention preceded the widely reported and ill-conceived damage of property late at night to the Chancellor’s home. That damage followed police breaking up the sleep-in under contested conditions after campus negotiations broke down, with little police notice and perhaps some rhetorical student provocation in the very early hours of a morning at Wheeler Hall after assurances had been given to the students–who were largely peaceful even while engaged in the protesting sleep-in—that they would be allowed to stay.
The UCI MSU protests have been widely reported, including a well-circulated YouTube video. Student after student disrupted the Ambassador’s speech even after being warned they would be arrested. Each stood up at some minutes’ interval, yelled out, and then peacefully left the hall under police escort, handcuffed and booked on charges of “disturbing the peace”. The University has argued repeatedly that their actions were not protected by the First Amendment, that they embarrassed the University, would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law but that it was up to the District Attorney to decide whether to press charges. A number of faculty has protested this unfortunate strategy and the lack of thoughtful intervention in letters and emails to the administration, to no avail thus far. Senior administrators seem to be responding, perhaps understandably, to a concern that the University may lose private contributions if it did not take a hard line. While there has been an occasional threat by individual donors to end an individual donation as a result of the Oren disruptions, most donors concerned with these issues have in fact written that they are open to helping out in whatever way would be deemed most useful, an offer that seems to hint more at seeking thoughtful dialogue than prosecution.
On the La Jolla campus, the University response has been all over the map. The fraternity members hosting the racist theme party seem to have evaded direct action on grounds that they do not fall under the direct jurisdiction of the campus administration. So free expression reigns for racist actions by students of the University so long as not doing it directly in the University name or on their dime or directly on University property. The student radio station seeking to justify the racist expression of the student party led to the suspension by the University of all 33 student based media outlets on campus while policies are reviewed. So effectively reputable and responsible student groups with absolutely no connection to these expressions are paying a price equal to the violating radio outlet itself. And this as the President of the University, Mark Yudof, calls explicitly and volubly for upholding free speech as the central core of a university even as he equally strenuously supports the UCI administration’s determination that the Muslim Students Union disruptive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment. At the same time, UCSD has suspended the senior who admitted hanging the library noose, but not her two accomplices as “investigation continues,” and it has pointedly refrained from prosecuting anyone for “disrupting the peace,” let alone threatening it or with the intent to terrorize, which California law characterizes as a misdemeanor.
The UCSD administration response to the concerns expressed about the history of racism on campus and the dismal record of the University in attracting and retaining African descended and Latino students and faculty has been to hold a town hall meeting for the campus, to sponsor a teach-in on racism, to condemn racist expression, and to leave undisrupted campus sit-ins this last Friday of the University administration offices. They have yet to respond to student and faculty demands. Due to continue on Monday it remains to be seen how long the Administration occupation will be left to linger unhindered.
What, then, can be drawn from this admittedly partial set of descriptions? First, distinctions matter. Others have pointed out that the UCI case is about free speech and its disruptions. The Berkeley events are part of a longstanding tradition at universities generally, and across UC in particular, of protesting diminishing support for higher education. The UCSD events are all about racisms, their long lingering ground conditions in the academy and across UC as well as the incapacity of the University to have the comprehension or the courage to address the simmering concerns. The fact that a senior a quarter away from graduating can go through almost four years of college and be able to claim that she failed to realize the symbolic and material implications of a hanging noose in this country says as much about the failure of university education—our collective malaise on racial matters—as it does about the young students’ lack of character. That the UCSD administration seems so readily to have swallowed her excuse says something about their naïveté too; after all, if she didn’t know what she was doing—if she didn’t intend to harm, as the usual defense would go—why on earth did she hang the damned thing, and in a library no less.
The University generally wants to uphold its commitment to academic freedom and free speech. “A university is a special place for the exchange of views and ideas,” Mark Yudof has stated in response to recent events. And UCSD’s Chancellor Fox adds, “The remedy for dangerous, offensive, or extreme speech is more speech, not less.” Except when it isn’t, when the speech isn’t quite the right kind or expressed by quite the right folks, or expressing quite the right views. Witness Irvine. Or Berkeley. It doesn’t help to hide behind the First Amendment constraints because of course the law need only be invoked to curtail or prosecute or protect or promote one side or set of views over another, as convenience and commitment prevail.
As a private university Yale is considerably less bound by First Amendment considerations to protect free speech than the University of California. And yet at a recent talk by Richard Goldstone at Yale he was hounded by Israeli supporters throughout his speech, in the question period after, even pursued and shouted at on his way to and at the reception following his talk. Yale officials did not apologize (at least publicly), did nothing to curtail the offensive and disruptive interventions by his critics and opponents, and no outcry about civility or protecting balanced exchange has been heard (for the record, while his report of the Gaza invasion has been scathing of Israel, Justice Goldstone is hardly one who has not expressed support for the country over the years). (Thanks to Paul Amar, UCSB, for the reference.) Edward Said, I am told, suffered a similar fate in the final talk he gave at UCLA not long before his passing with no expression of concern from the University of any sort. If the University is going to be bothered by incivility it would at the very least be more believable if it showed a modicum of evenhandedness and consistency across place, time and people rather than condemning some outbursts or protests while turning a blind eye to others depending on the viewpoint expressed.
Second, it seems that the University generally responds to expressions of concern or protests about issues of passionate and justifiable concern and conviction with a degree of impatience that is more often than not breathtaking. This has a long history. Expressions to the contrary notwithstanding, the University has a long history of intolerance of disruption and protest it finds uncomfortable. The breaking of the Berkeley promise about the sleep-in is far from the first time violent police response has been the default. Think of the Free Speech movement. The student in the UCLA library last year didn’t have to be tasered, the UCSC student, African American as it happens, protesting budget cuts a couple of years ago didn’t have to be suspended for a year or more, the Irvine 11 don’t have to be prosecuted and indeed didn’t have to be arrested to begin with.
I went to college in South Africa in the mid-1970s. There was an agreement between the university establishment and the state that the police would not be allowed on campus unless called for by university administrators. I fully understand the conditions that made such an arrangement possible at that time, and the differences—not complete, of course—between then and there and here and now. Occasionally viciously violated by the police at the time to dampen protest and arrest anti-apartheid organizers, nevertheless a campus like the University of Cape Town was generally patient, tolerant, even supportive of student sit-ins, loud protests, a university-wide disruption and a closing down or two. Such events became part of the campus landscape , of the learning ecology and experience. We might take a leaf out of that book.
We are an educational institution, not a criminal justice one. Our commitment is—should be—to educate first and last, not to prosecute where really unnecessary, to inform in the sense both of providing information and forming dispositions to make wise judgments in the face of every sort of challenge. Where we don’t we have failed, our mission, ourselves. Where our default is the impatience of discipline and prosecution we are no longer an educational institution but a correctional one. No wonder Governor Schwarzenegger is finally so at ease switching prison dollars for higher education ones. While we may welcome it, I am suggesting this might give us some pause. Interestingly, the five principal Jewish student groups on the Irvine campus get what the campus administration has failed to comprehend; they have called, in the name of committing to education, for more dialogue with MSU members rather than their prosecution. Sometimes, the University administration should listen to and learn from our students.
This would be the case also with regards to the long history of racism, the exclusions, intimidations, hostilities and inhospitality towards many student, staff and faculty of color across the University. The UCSD events did not happen in a vacuum, they were not the anomaly of a misguided few. The events are deeply undergirded by stereotypes of incapacity, of failure to comprehend or insist upon what it would take to turn these conditions around, commission after commission, study after study, recommendation after recommendation notwithstanding. At most every campus across the system. At the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa, a major bastion of segregated education and social conditions and the ideas underpinning them during the apartheid years, about a year or so ago white students horrified much of the country by urinating in the food of black women cleaning staff and then forcing the women to eat it. Jonathan Jansen, the new and first black Rector at the University, assuming the position after the event, took considerable risk (not to mention heat) by refusing to pursue the prosecution of the young men. Instead, he consigned them to cleaning the university bathrooms for a considerable period, so they might learn “the dignity of labor.” At the same time he raised considerable funding to promote racial diversification of the faculty at the highest levels of the professoriate. That takes courage, in the circumstances, and exhibits the sort of leadership we could do with here.
Expressing horror at the event, UCSD Chancellor Fox called the noose incident “truly a dark day in the history of this university” No, Chancellor Fox, given this history, given the repetition of like incidents, it is not a very dark day, even as one understands the recourse to cliché here. It is, alas, an all too white day. A day even the response to which surfaces and reproduces the easy continuation of the structural conditions of presumptive white privilege. (To say this emphatically is not to condemn whites, all or even any particular individual, as is too often assumed. Rather, it is to call into question the prevailing structures of power and privilege that reproduce these conditions and events. Whiteness, like blackness, on this understanding, is a structural positioning historically linked but not reducible to phenotype.) It is a day that in the absence of commitment and conviction, institutional courage and address, again and again, happens all too often. And no doubt will happen again, with similar handwringing, inconsistency, and embarrassment. We can surely do better, for our students, for ourselves, this time and next.
A Very White Day at the University of California