Faculty role in demonstrations experiences a decline in 2011

UC Berkeley professor of English Lyn Hejinian was one of only two faculty members who spoke at Sept. 22’s Day of Action rally — and this came after a UC Davis professor was the only ladder-rank faculty member who spoke at a town hall meeting the Monday before.

“I’m sure I’m perceived as being on some lunatic fringe,” said Hejinian.

But just two years ago, Hejinian was among a large number of faculty members, including UC Berkeley professor of public policy Robert Reich and professor of city and regional planning Ananya Roy, who visibly advocated in similar settings and whose speeches at a teach-in in September 2009 drew resounding cheers from a packed Wheeler Auditorium.

Such faculty involvement “has, and will always be, an essential part of this movement,” said UC Berkeley student Marco Amaral, who has organized a number of protests.

But while the faculty’s goal of maintaining the university’s excellence has not changed, the path to achieving those goals has evolved, according to Robert Jacobsen, chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate.

Sept. 22’s protest and the teach-in held the Monday before did not draw faculty speakers in the same numbers as in 2009.

The Solidarity Alliance — a coalition of faculty, staff and students that played a leading role in the fall 2009 protests — which Hejinian chaired, no longer organizes rallies.

Associate professor of art history Gregory Levine suspects many faculty members feel a sense of “anxiety and powerlessness.”

“Untenured faculty members fear that their tenure wouldn’t be approved (if they protest),” said Hejinian. “Junior faculty have been warned to lie low.”

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said that faculty have the freedom to express themselves without fear of repercussions.

“We absolutely respect the free speech rights of faculty, students, staff and others, with the expectation that they, of course, follow campus policies, state laws, and respect the rights of others to work, study, go to class, or go about their day,” she said in an email.

However, the challenge faced by a faculty member actually trying to speak to members of the UC Board of Regents — which has a more over-arching authority on budget issues than campus administrators — parallels those of a voter trying to speak to the U.S. president, according to Jacobsen.

In the face of such hurdles, individuals have tried to voice their grievances through larger organizations.

“Faculty have put huge amounts of energy into … many efforts that are not public — in particular, efforts to address issues through the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate,” Levine said in an email.

The campus division of the senate, composed of faculty members, speaks on behalf of the faculty to voice its concerns to the administration and through the administration to the board.

But the senate’s progress does not always keep pace with the rapidly changing funding situation for higher education.

“Because the faculty works in a deliberative way — a somewhat slow way, by some people’s standards — and because the budget came fast, there was some mismatch there,” Jacobsen said.

Levine said that the faculty’s advocacy movement still has traction and that its goals have remained the same since 2009.

However, Hejinian said she was not sure the movement would achieve its goals.

“I am not optimistic that these protests will stop what’s going on, certainly not in the near future,” she said.

Regardless of the prospect for failure, Jacobsen said the faculty will continue to advocate for the university so that it remains a premier institution, despite differences between individual faculty members.

“The faculty is a whole range — we don’t agree on anything except that we want this place to be great,” Jacobsen said. “We differ on tactics, on strategy, even sometimes on what great means, but we want this university to be great.”