Dear Chancellor Nicholas Dirks,
Your administration’s unwillingness to change Bill Maher’s invitation as Saturday’s fall 2014 commencement speaker — as well as your unwillingness to issue a public statement in support of concerns raised by students, staff and faculty — is deeply disturbing.
You stand by the decision to have Maher as a commencement speaker despite the fact that members of our campus community voiced their concerns directly to you about Maher’s bigotry and hate speech. You stand by this decision despite the fact that an online petition signed by nearly 6,000 individuals urged the administration to reconsider Maher’s invitation. You stand by this decision despite the fact that the Californians, the student group responsible for inviting commencement speakers, voted to rescind Maher’s invitation. You stand by this decision despite the fact that honoring him by inviting him to speak at commencement means implicitly honoring his hate speech, which marginalizes countless students, staff and faculty on your campus. Your decision means you have chosen to ignore our collective voice.
As a public academic institution, it is our duty to uphold the values of free speech and critical discourse and to engage in issues that challenge prevailing biases and norms. Inviting Maher to campus as UC Berkeley’s commencement speaker does not align with these values. On the contrary, his invitation reinforces biases and silences those students whom Maher has attacked, including women, Muslims and Arabs, reaffirming their position on the margins of our campus community.
Commencement is not a space for dialogue or discussion, as students do not have the opportunity to ask questions or even speak to the invited guest. Subjecting graduating students and their families to a speech by someone who repeatedly makes sweeping, harmful generalizations about more than half of the world’s population, based on no factual evidence or substantive research — critical thinking skills upon which UC Berkeley has built its reputation — should never be acceptable on our campus.
In recognition of our commitment to free speech, we have voiced our position over the past few months that Maher would be welcome to UC Berkeley to speak in a forum that engages students and faculty in critical dialogue. As the student decision to rescind Maher’s invitation was overridden by the administration, only you hold the power to rescind Maher’s invitation and invite him to an alternative forum in conversation with members of UC Berkeley’s population.
Maher’s hate speech should not be uplifted by the campus administration in any way, shape or form. Muslim and Arab students already face the difficulty of living within a society that silences and criminalizes their identities and narratives. The issues we face on the UC Berkeley campus are a microcosm of a much broader context that undermines and negates the voices and humanity of Muslim and Arab communities in the United States and abroad. At a time when thousands around the country are rightfully demanding respect for the dignity and lives of communities of color, we find it especially difficult to understand how the administration can so easily disregard issues that impact so many people on our campus.
Rather than sideline the concerns of students and faculty, the UC Berkeley administration should work to make all of its students feel that they belong on campus and are assets to the campus community. As professor john powell, who does not capitalize his name and is director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, so aptly describes, “belonging or being fully human means more than having access. It means having a meaningful voice, and being afforded the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging entails being respected at a basic level that includes the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions.”
These demands by students, staff and faculty for respect and recognition are not reflected in the structure or organizational process of this institution, and the administration’s position on this issue only marginalizes these communities further and sets a dangerous precedent that hate speech, misogyny and bigotry will be honored and rewarded by giving them a public, high-profile forum. In light of your recent comments on “civility and free speech,” your inaction is especially egregious. We would like to know: Whose speech do you find civil? Whose speech are you uplifting and honoring?
Commencement speakers, who are entrusted with the responsibility to speak to graduating students about their futures, should embrace values that respect the dignity and integrity of their audience members and challenge them to be better citizens of the world. By bringing Maher to UC Berkeley’s commencement, the administration and institution are, in essence, telling students that bigotry and racism are acceptable and, moreover, that students should aspire to these values — on what should be one of the most rewarding days of their lives.
We urge the campus administration to publicly recognize and validate the concerns of its community, institutionalize a student-led process for inviting commencement speakers that guarantees both transparency and accountability, commit to lifting up our voices institutionally by funding research initiatives on Islamophobia, advance the true values of free speech and critically engage in issues that challenge structural and systemic biases.
Nadia Barhoum is a researcher at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Marium Navid is an ASUC senator.