Chancellor’s Corner: Discourse on free speech, civility gives us lessons to take forward

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Rachael Garner/File

I began this academic year at convocation and in my first Daily Californian column talking about the importance of community for this university. I observed that a community that is diverse and yet strong, passionately engaged but also respectful of difference, is what makes it possible for us to take risks: “It is our safety net as we explore new ideas, engage with new people and perspectives, and seek to translate our beliefs and commitments into tangible form.” I also noted, echoing the sentiments of Mario Savio himself, that as a university that became identified with the principle of free speech during a campuswide movement 50 years ago, we must remember that our campus commitment to the constitutional protections on all speech, political or otherwise, comes with enormous responsibility. I anticipated that we would be tested anew, that the balance between civil discourse and free expression in a university community is sometimes difficult to negotiate and that our intellectual obligation to offer and debate divergent views risks creating divisions and even divisiveness. In short order, a national debate erupted about the relationship between free speech and civility.

As I later wrote, that debate missed the point. For one thing, I was assuredly not abridging long-held commitments to academic freedom, a principle that is at the core of what we represent and how we operate as a university committed to truth and freedom. Nor was I in any way seeking to redefine our fundamental adherence to free speech. And yet I was attempting to suggest that as a community, we also have a common belief in the importance of sustaining the social conditions of dialogue, exchange and meaningful engagement — conditions that are part of what a university community aspires to do and to be.

I was right about one thing, for sure: We have been tested anew. The events and judgments around police violence and racial stereotypes in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York; the marches affirming that black lives matter; and the hanging of effigies on campus, among other events, drew our attention to the national context for climate concerns on our campus — around black students as well as for faculty and staff. Student demands for immediate action followed in short order, even while the administration has been working more quietly to build a viable plan for making much-needed progress in providing better support and a more welcoming environment. Meanwhile, other campus communities have expressed deep concerns. For example, anti-Semitic graffiti found in campus buildings has led members of our Jewish student community to question whether we are doing enough to prevent these expressions of hate. At the same time, many Muslim students worried that Bill Maher’s invitation to the December commencement was an expression of institutional support for Islamophobia. As a campus, we have struggled to address more aggressively and meaningfully the epidemic of sexual assault and violence, acknowledging the myriad ways in which traumatic experiences simultaneously reflect, and exacerbate, the fissures in campus climate in a host of other regards, as well. We have worked with veteran groups on campus, as another example, to ensure that we are as welcoming for them as for any other group in the larger context of longstanding tensions around the cultural milieu of the UC Berkeley campus.

In working to create a campus climate that is welcoming and safe for all, however, we cannot — and will not — promise that the reality here, or on any campus, should be about being comfortable. If anything, we have learned again that differences of perspective and opinion can, at least at times, make for discomfort. As Clark Kerr, UC Berkeley’s first chancellor, noted years ago, our goal is to make students safe for ideas rather than ideas safe for students. At the same time, we value openness and empathy as terms that express a readiness to evaluate our actions and beliefs in a broader atmosphere of respect, engagement and understanding. Each year, we invest a great deal of time and major resources in programs designed to support diversity, tolerance, open communication, and our other Principles of Community. This year, the ASUC has taken this on as a key issue. We have staff and student groups and faculty committees that regularly focus on these challenges. And yet we know how much work is left to do and how short we fall of meeting all of our goals and aspirations.

The point about a university community is not that we can create the actual conditions of utopia, but rather that we hold ourselves accountable to the utopian values we share. This is also why we tend to focus on our shortcomings, even as we are prone to dwell on the contradictions that inhabit the spaces between freedom and responsibility. Now that we approach the end of the academic year, when we will once again talk of new beginnings and shared aspirations, it is necessary to acknowledge our failures while also celebrating our accomplishments. And in celebrating what we have done, we must also ask what we have learned. Can we make better and more reasoned arguments while also engaging different subject positions and convictions with greater understanding and empathy? Have we prepared ourselves to move into social and cultural spaces with our utopian values in tact, even when they might seem hopelessly out of place? Have we found ways to convert the contradictions we have lived and experienced into lessons for how to persevere in the outside world, rather than allowing them simply to disable or discourage us? It may be helpful to keep in mind the words of the poet John Donne, written 400 years ago:

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.”

Chancellor’s Corner is a monthly opinion piece by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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