Campus must be defended against hostile private interests

Adeline Belsby/Staff

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Although the threatened right-wing invasion devolved into the “most expensive photo-op in the university’s history,” this is unlikely to be the last attempt to disrupt our campus. There are lessons to be learned.

Freedom of speech is one foundational principle of the public university. Academic freedom is another. Since 1964, when the UC Berkeley administration was successfully challenged by the Free Speech Movement to extend First Amendment protections to campus space, the university has had to balance the obligation to allow citizens’ speech against the commitment to academic freedom. As a public entity, UC Berkeley must respect the airing of diverse viewpoints; as a higher learning institution, UC Berkeley must protect its autonomy from political interference and harassment. Increasingly, the threat to the campus’ autonomy, on which academic freedom depends, derives not from government legislators—as in the era of the FSM, when former UC President Clark Kerr and former UC Berkeley chancellor Edward Strong were faced with adjudicating competing obligations to free speech and academic freedom. Rather, the threat increasingly derives from private interests hostile to the university’s mission of research and teaching.

These private interests include hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major investor behind Milo Yiannopoulos, as well as the billionaire Koch brothers and Amway billionaires Richard and Helen Devos who back the Young America’s Foundation, sponsors of the college campus circuits of David Horowitz, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro.

The entire right-wing spectacle at UC Berkeley must be seen within this larger context of a long-running war upon public higher education. Its aspects include reducing its tax base, discrediting scientists whose climate-change findings lend support to government regulation of polluting industries, and a culture war upon desegregated communities of learning. Quality mass higher education, intellectually rigorous research and the embrace of diversity are the hallmarks of a public university’s service to democracy.

So far, our administration has opted to respond to these private interest groups’ disingenuous use of the First Amendment on their chosen terrain, by rolling out a welcome mat for speakers opposed to the public university’s mission. This strategy has already proven an extraordinarily expensive endeavor and will surely not be financially sustainable into the future at a time when huge cuts are being dealt to our core academic mission. There is, after all, a zero-sum relationship between moneys dedicated to providing security for professional provocateurs and moneys unavailable for the development of undergraduate education, for providing graduate students, lecturers, and staff with living wages for the Bay Area, or for making buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The costs of this administrative strategy are more than financial. It is a legally defensive strategy restricted to a narrow focus on First Amendment liability that has exposed minoritized members of our community to harassment and danger. The protection of equity and inclusion is no mere rhetorical accessory but rather a precondition for a flourishing academic life.

From a public relations perspective, accepting the terms of a right-wing narrative about supposedly illiberal campuses by bending over backwards to subsidize an already well-financed right-wing assault on the university may do more to confirm the erroneous claims of that narrative than to change them. That narrative has become a crucial element in the arsenal of weapons used to attack our democracy. Make no mistake: the groups that attack transgender people, Muslims, people of color, women, legal immigrants as well as undocumented students, are also those that attack science, and feel no obligation to hold their views to academic standards of evidence or coherence. We, therefore, urge the administration to creatively and courageously confront the way free speech is being deployed against our academic freedom, and—in deciding what can take place on our campus — to prioritize the conditions that enable teaching and research.

Michael Burawoy, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Paul Fine, Lisa García Bedolla, Penny Edwards, Peter Glazer, Gillian Hart, Lyn Hejinian, Seth Holmes, Celeste Langan, Gregory Levine, Colleen Lye, David O’Sullivan, Christine Rosen, Leslie Salzinger, Shannon Steen and James Vernon are the members of the Berkeley Faculty Association Board.