Dirks, Steele talk shut down amid protest, campus reacts

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Ariel Hayat/File

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A panel discussion featuring Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele was shut down on Tuesday after a group of audience members repeatedly interrupted the speakers.

About 20 protesters, identifying themselves as graduate students of color and allies, chanted and shouted throughout the event, alleging the university’s failure to accomplish its mission of public good. They referenced hardships for black students, the size of Dirks’ salary and the campus’s decision not to tenure environmental science professor Carolyn Finney, among other issues.

The Berkeley Forum planned the event as a discussion of the meaning and value of public higher education and to address rising concerns surrounding privatization of the UC system in the face of state disinvestment.

Members of the Respect Richmond Coalition, which is working to protect the Richmond community from potential gentrification as UC Berkeley moves to build a satellite campus in the area, protested the event as well. Students silently lined the front of the stage, mouths duct taped and signs in hand.

Amid near-constant interruption from the crowd, Dirks and Steele both commented on the challenges of maintaining a traditional public university mission as state-allocated funding continues to decrease.

They both expressed caution about increasing the admission of out-of-state students while accepting fewer Pell Grant scholars, measures adopted by the university’s peer system, the University of Michigan.

Dirks called for a student-led campaign to develop a political basis on which the “state Legislature will begin to increase, in significant ways, the allocation to higher education.”

As they spoke, audience members  disrupted with chants of: “More black faces in these white spaces.” The protesters made the latest call upon Dirks to use his veto power to overrule the decision to deny Finney tenure.

“There’s a larger systemic issue going on here,” said Iman Sylvain, one of Finney’s Ph.D. students who was present at the protest. “Faculty of color are so low in representation already. It doesn’t seem fair that as you are looking to enter into academia, the one face in the College of Natural Resources that looks like you doesn’t have job security.”

As the crowd became increasingly disruptive, facility coordinators warned that they would have to shut down the event.

“All you guys do is yell,” Steele said to the crowd. “I can’t get anything out with you guys yelling.”

“With all due respect — from one black man to another — this type of yelling is what got you a job,” said David Turner, a Ph.D. student in the campus’s Graduate School of Education.

The crowd was quelled briefly after organizers announced they would reformat the question-and-answer period to accommodate all audience members instead of just the handful who had been preselected to direct questions to the speakers. But shouting and chanting resumed after Steele and Dirks refused to comment on certain questions, and the event was ultimately shut down.

Dirks and Steele were escorted off the stage as members of the crowd booed.

“The vast majority of the audience came to the event hoping and expecting to participate in an important conversation about our identity as a public university,” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “We are saddened by the blatant disregard shown for their interests by those who disrupted and hijacked the event. This university must be run based on how we can best serve the broadest possible interests of our students, faculty and staff, and not according to whoever screams loudest or is most willing to disrupt.”

Berkeley Forum President Pierre Bourbonnais released a statement Thursday saying that the organization was working to identify the crowd members who disrupted the panel and that they would be banned from all future Berkeley Forum events.

“I think it’s hypocritical, but I understand the decision,” said Sylvain about the potential ban. “I acknowledge (the event was) student-run, so I apologize to those individual students. But I feel like diplomacy failed, so it was time to turn to direct engagement.”

Bourbonnais, who used to work in The Daily Californian’s marketing department, also reaffirmed the forum’s commitment to free speech but noted that he believed the activists’ aim to silence the speakers was an act of censorship.

While both Dirks and Steele acknowledged and interacted with the vocal protesters from the audience, they did not comment on the silent protest organized by the Respect Richmond Coalition.

Six members of the coalition were handcuffed and removed following a sit-in inside Dirks’ office April 30. At the Berkeley Forum event, some held signs that read, “You can’t arrest student voices.”

“Arresting students for trespassing on their own campus and threatening them with student-conduct violations does not align with the mission of a public university,” said campus freshman Roya Bana. “We are calling on Chancellor Dirks to stop pursuing student conduct charges for all the students involved.”

The campus is committed to signing a legally binding community-benefits agreement with Richmond sometime in the future, according to Mogulof, but the Respect Richmond Coalition protesters say the campus should sign a firm agreement soon.

Arielle Swedback covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.