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

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.

Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comment policy
  • The best cure for free speech you don’t like, is more free speech. Lest any one forget, the first amendment gives everyone the right to say a comic is funny or not, or one religion can criticize another in essence, say what they want without being hauled off to jail. When there’s more FREE SPEECH in the world than guns, I’ll put my words back in my holster. I am defending an institution/concept that has shunned my own book on the subject.(Weapon:Mouth)..HA! it goes…
    ..Mario Savio…we miss you!

  • M2000

    This is the best defense? Call for “civility”? Even when the opposing side that hates the speech doesn’t want you to show up at all? Yea…how far will that get you?

  • s randall

    It makes the administration’s job easier if everyone plays nice. All things being equal, if it has no effect on the desired effect, it doesn’t hurt to place nice.

  • Fanon

    LOL what a steaming pile of garbage platitudes. Please resign.

    • Dan Spitzer

      Why, Fanon? Because you don’t like what the Chancellor says? Is it not in line with your moniker of Franz Fanon who wrote that only bloodshed during revolution purifies a society?
      You are as much beholden to freedom of expression as is Mariam Navid and Muslims who attempted to rescind Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at Cal and therefore abrogate his freedom of speech. Your hypocrisy is as distasteful as those who bust into Administration meetings trying to short circuit them. This is not what the FSM and Mario Savio stood for…

      • Fanon

        LOL did you just google Mario Savio? How adorable. Get out of my face, Dan. Not all of us are lucky enough to not have to work for a living and be able to troll the comment sections of college newspapers all day long. Please explain how me exercising my free speech and calling for Dirks’ resignation betrays the memory of Mario Savio. I don’t recall him having much love for the Berkeley Chancellor of his day…

        Also, it is rich for the guy who defends every war crime of the Israeli government to decry supposed violence embedded in the name “Fanon”. Stop cheerleading genocide and ethnic cleansing on the daily and your critiques of Fanon might carry more weight.

        • Dan Spitzer

          I wonder what YOU do for a living, Fanon. Nine books written, a dozen edited and teaching journalism on the college level is my bio. When you compile a resume of legitimate work, let us know.
          People who support those who burst into the UC Chancellor’s meetings or those of the UC president are clearly those who don’t support the freedom of expression which the FSM and Mario Savio held dear. And Chancellor Dirks is the current chancellor, not Clark Kerr. Moreover, Savio and the FSM never tried to shut down the free expression of anyone.
          If you can’t discern the violence embedded in the work of Fanon, you clearly have never read him. Fanon believed that a people “purified” themselves via revolutionary violence. That crackpot notion died with him, so it’s amusing to see it revived by someone taking his moniker as a screen name.
          And do you really know what “genocide” and ethnic cleansing mean? These are the terms of Hamas, not the people or government of Israel…

          • Fanon

            You seem to use the past tense when talking about what you currently do with your days…

            And you’re right, Mario Savio *hated* protest and always showed respect for authority. Talking about throwing his body on the gears of the machine was a joke he often told before telling people to listen quietly and respectfully to oppressors when they speak. You sure showed me.

          • Dan Spitzer

            I’m editing a book as we speak, which enables me to take breaks and respond to the ludicrous commentaries I see on Israel in the DC, including yours. Again, Fanon, what do you do for a living? Since you deflect attention away from issues to personalize commentary with which you differ, let us know how you make your living.

            Mario Savio had the guts to go South (as did I) during the Civil Rights Movement. Those who did could well have been injured, jailed or killed and some were. It’s great to see some of the pro-Palestinian minion excoriate Mario. That’s oh-so-revealing. They would have knocked him even more if they knew Savio was an ardent supporter of Israel, as they would find by reading the excellent bio “Freedom’s Orator.” I recommend this fine biography to those who protest today given that the the way they go about it is clearly so ineffectual. They might actually learn something from it…

          • It is wholly fascinating that what someone does for a living under such an oppressive system is still held in high regard as to their moral worth. What a weird world we live in.

          • Dan Spitzer

            Let’s see: who doesn’t live under “such an oppressive system?” That won’t be the lovely Palestinians, would it, who jail or murder dissidents, ditto gays, and who thoroughly suppress their women? Just ask’in…

          • I’m impressed! I haven’t met a troll this nihilistic yet. Congrats :)

          • SamXie

            Fanon works on campus and is active in our union. A veritable child of privilege, who plays part time anarchist.

          • Dan Spitzer

            That comes as no surprise, Sam. Bill Ayers, the “founding father” of the Weathermen, was the son of the Chairman of Con Ed and one of the richest men in Chicago. He used to head a group of lunatic radicals he named with no little irony, “Sons and Daughters of the Power Elite.”
            There are numerous prominent participants over at KPFA who are living off trust funds. It’s fun and games for people like this to play at being “radicals” as they are taking no risk, financially or professionally.
            Speaking of the latter, these days many of these idiot-logues have become professional anti-Semites. They like to sit around moaning and groaning about “the wretched of the earth” (Franz Fanon’s book title) but don’t reality wish to see anything change as then they’d have nothing to live for.
            Of course, a number of these haters are Jewish women in their 50’s, some of them gay, who champion the Palestinian cause. Yet they won’t spend a minute living as a Palestinian wife or in a Palestinian town given the way women, let along gays, are treated there. Among them locally are the so-called Women in Black (several of whom are gay) and the head of the Middle East Childrens’ Alliance, Barbara Lubin. And then there is the publicity hound head honcho of Code Pink, Media Benjamin, who will do virtually anything to get her radical ranting on TV…

Tags No tags yet