‘L.A. Times’ Article Highlights UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Folly

January 14, 2011

An article in the Los Angeles Times today highlighted the critical response to University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau’s campus-wide e-mail from this week, in which he "linked a Tucson shooting rampage with Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants and the failure of the DREAM Act."

As FIRE’s Adam Kissel detailed in a Torch post that was picked up by The Huffington Post, Birgeneau sent a message to the Berkeley community after Jared Lee Loughner’s mass shooting in Arizona killed six people and seriously wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Birgeneau placed part of the blame for this tragedy on a "climate" of hateful speech that demonizes others.

Birgeneau’s e-mail, reprinted in full on the Torch, claimed that "it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons." He described "[t]his same mean-spirited xenophobia" as playing a "major role in the defeat of the Dream Act by our legislators in Washington." Birgeneau then exhorted the Berkeley community to "eschew expressions of demonization of others, including virulent attacks on Israel, anti-Muslim graffiti, racism towards African-Americans, Chicano/Latinos and other underrepresented minority groups, and homophobic acts" in order to achieve a "safer campus."

The L.A. Times described Birgeneau’s e-mail as "unusually political for a prominent college leader." It also quoted some of the unfavorable reaction to the e-mail, including that of Diane Schrader, who accused Birgeneau on NewsReal Blog of issuing "a nasty political rant even while condemning-you guessed it-nasty political rants!"

The article also contained a forceful interpretation of Birgeneau’s actions by Adam:

A leader of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties group, also criticized the chancellor’s remarks. "The supposition that political expression created a climate that led Loughner to his choice is an idea that seems to have sprung from whole cloth out of the minds of people who likely were upset beforehand about ‘rhetoric’ and ‘hateful’ speech, including, apparently, Chancellor Birgeneau," Adam Kissel wrote.

Adam properly condemned Birgeneau for using the Arizona shooting to promote unrelated ideas he already possessed regarding the propriety of certain types of protected speech and political ideologies. In fact, a spokesperson for Berkeley is quoted by the L.A. Times essentially confirming Adam’s view.

"This was his personal view," [Berkeley spokeswoman Claire] Holmes said of the e-mail. "He’s been a long-standing proponent of something like a DREAM Act, so these talented individuals have a pathway to citizenship, so they are better able to make a contribution to society."

Regardless of one’s opinion on the DREAM Act, Birgeneau’s use of his platform as a university leader to shame others into supporting his own political views is unfortunate, given that the academic environment should foster debate and dissent to enable a true exchange of ideas. Birgeneau may have been expressing his personal opinion, but sending an email to the entire Berkeley community, as chancellor, is sure to stifle debate on this issue. Except in extraordinary cases, the role of the university, characterized by a famous 1967 "Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action" by the University of Chicago, is to be the "home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic." Although the university may advance positions on issues, its leaders should not make statements that leave no room for debate within the university community when reasonable minds may differ.

Birgeneau’s e-mail, while condemning rhetoric that demonizes others, actually demonizes those who do not share his views about immigration policy. He vilifies his political opponents by delivering a baseless accusation that their "xenophobia" is connected to Loughner’s criminal and deviant behavior. Birgeneau’s actions illustrate the problem with universities determining which speech is "hateful," and his political message, while attempting to preach tolerance, shows an unabashed intolerance for those with whom he disagrees.

We support Birgeneau’s right to express his disappointment about the failure of the DREAM Act, and to express his aspirational goal to create a campus more tolerant of diverse groups, but he should start by following his own principles.

Schools:  University of California, Berkeley