An intentionally racist bake sale. Police officers jabbing batons against nonviolent student protesters. These images were some of the most iconic of fall 2011, but they should not be the ones that completely characterize this semester.
As we move into the spring, we cannot forget the progress that has been made and the potential for change that the successes of this past few months have demonstrated.
The semester began much the same as any other, with a less-memorable protest effort in September and threats of continued tuition hikes, but several key events later brought heightened attention — and scrutiny — to the campus. The Increase Diversity Bake Sale elicited doubt about the ability of the community to respect individuals’ unique views and sensitivities. The events of Nov. 9 cast a pall over the campus as many witnessed the police use of excessive force against protesters and condemned the administration’s response.
However, Nov. 9 was also a turning point. Protest efforts that day and afterward elicited widespread support and involvement from ASUC officials, high-profile professors and administrators. These events along with the bake sale ultimately spurred discourse and gave rise to honest conversations across campus. This is progress. Our campus now stands to build upon the dialogue that was ignited this semester.
The bake sale, for example, demonstrated that we can nonviolently express diverse views within the same space — in this case Upper Sproul Plaza. The event also enabled conversations on important topics like race, tolerance and affirmative action.
Additionally, our campus witnessed enormous student, staff and faculty presence on multiple days of action, including on Nov. 9 and a Nov. 15 speech by professor Robert Reich. The sheer numbers shifted away from the previous trend of dwindling participation in protests and bolstered confidence in future efforts.
The magnitude of these protests and the variety of people involved demonstrated how strong our campus can be when diverse members of the community unite under the same cause.
Even within highly criticized events, there was hope. Though condemnation of Nov. 9 police action was pervasive, various groups voiced their concerns about the day — students, professors, administrators and even the police officers themselves. For example, the open letter by the UC Berkeley Police Officers’ Association was a unique and important point of view to add to the spectrum of sentiments expressed following the events, especially in its call for others to put themselves in the officers’ shoes. What emerged from all of these voices were frank and honest perspectives.
Though administrators’ policies and actions during and after that day revealed their disconnect from students and faculty members, a dialogue unfolded nonetheless. While Chancellor Robert Birgeneau stumbled through a succession of ill-timed and poorly-phrased emails regarding the harsh police actions on Nov. 9, he attended a campus division of the Academic Senate meeting Monday to speak openly and to apologize to roughly 300 faculty members. The senate ultimately voted on a resolution criticizing the administration, but Birgeneau’s presence demonstrated a willingness to engage with and to listen to the concerns of others on campus.
Without bringing these important issues and outlooks to light through such discourse, we will never achieve a genuine understanding of one another or advance as a community. Likewise, if we do not take the time to listen to each others’ perspectives, regardless of whether we agree or not, we will not be able to fully evaluate the events that have occurred in order to move on.
Our campus community must not lose the momentum that it has gained. On Tuesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on education officials “to look ahead and start thinking more creatively — and with much greater urgency,” about containing the costs of education. This call to action is recognition of this critical time for higher education, and those working to advocate for our own university must not lose sight of this because of winter break or final exams. We encourage protesters and advocates to maintain their vigor and to not give up their efforts.
Still, as protesters continue to rally for improved conditions for the UC, we realize that some may feel discouraged due a lack of tangible results at the state level. Therefore, state legislators — not just education officials — should feel responsible for taking action. This week, State Senator Kevin de Leon dared Birgeneau to a “high noon challenge” and spoke to students as well as the chancellor. This effort was a first step, but the action was also quite adversarial because the challenge implied an us-versus-them attitude. State officials must extend a hand seeking collaboration in order to join efforts to save higher education.
We must remain active in pondering how our campus can continue to grow. After this semester, there is a stronger sense than before of the potential our community possesses to make positive change for higher education. This is our time.