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Mark LeVine
Mark LeVine
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
How ego and ideology are destroying the world's greatest public university
Universities are the canaries in the coal mine for determining the health of society at large.
Last Modified: 11 May 2012 19:52
The university continues to clamp down on student protest [GALLO/GETTY]


Irvine, CA -
The University of California is home to many of the country's leading scholars in dozens of fields, and for decades it has been an important laboratory for social change in the United States. It has also been at the forefront of many struggles for political, social, civil and labour rights struggles, as both an incubator of new ideas and practices and as a laboratory in which various attempts to change the balance of power and responsibility between social groups, and between society and government, have played out.

So you might not be surprised to learn that as one of the most important May Days in several generations approached last week, the office of the president of the University of California, Mark Yudof, released a statement calling on members of the university community to reflect on how May Day might impact them, and what they could do to commemorate it in a meaningful manner.

But would you have imagined that the president suggested that the UC community "avoid all protests"? Yes, that's right, Yudof's office urged UC faculty, students and staff to stay as far away as possible from any sort of commemoration, lest they - wittingly or unwittingly - get into trouble, or even get hurt commemorating the struggles and supporting the rights of the workers upon whose backs this country, and UC, was built.

As recounted by my UC Irvine colleague Jon Wiener in The Nation, President Yudof sent a mass email communicating that "various activist groups will stage protests, rallies, and marches across the US on May 1 ... The Occupy Wall Street movement has called for a general strike, asking participants to abstain from work and economic activity on the same date". The message was a warning.

May Day could bring - God forbid - transport and business disruptions, and even "scuffles with police". At UC, there aren't so much scuffles with police as incidents of police launching unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters. It's not much different anywhere in the US these days.

"The president of UC... is advising members of his community to act like black people in a white neighbourhood 40 years ago: Dress well, stay low, don't talk to strangers, stay clear of the police."

Rather than using May Day as an occasion to urge the faculty and students to engage in positive actions - teach-ins, solidarity - with our own staff, many of whom work for close to poverty wages, or to learn about the history of labour rights struggles in US history, we are simply warned to "avoid all demonstrations as a precaution".

Such a travel alert is highly unusual for a university community. The last such travel alert was, fittingly, for Japan after the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident of June, 2011. Supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement might be cheered that it has instilled such fear at the very height of the nation's intellectual-administrative elite as to be considered a threat on par with a once-in-a-century natural and nuclear disaster. But I don't think that was Yudof's intention.

Beware immigrants and workers

The letter would be amusing except for the larger context in which he frames his warning: Avoid "cities with a large immigrant population and strong labour groups". In other words, stay away from places with lots of dark people and/or wage-working people, especially those with the nerve to fight for their rights.

Instead of using his supposed expertise as a legal scholar on issues related to free speech to call for greater respect by the police for the rights of citizens, Yudof instead offered "tips for reducing your vulnerability". They include "avoid[ing] all large gatherings", because "even seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with resistance by security forces".  

But as Wiener so correctly highlights, the letter doesn't stop here. The admonition continues: "Bystanders may be arrested or harmed by security forces using water cannons, tear gas or other measures to control crowds." Most astonishingly, members of the UC community that must travel near protests should "dress conservatively... maintain a low profile by avoiding demonstration areas... [and] discussions of the issues at hand."  

May Day, not April Fools' Day

In essence, the president of UC - in fact, the office of the president; that is, the institutional embodiment of UC's executive authority - is advising members of his community to act like black people in a white neighbourhood forty years ago (or, sadly, in many places in the US, four weeks ago): Dress well, stay low, don't talk to strangers, stay clear of the police, and most of all, don't do anything to draw suspicion to yourself. And for God's sake, don't mess with the one per cent.

This is not April 1, it's May 1 we're talking about, and this letter is no joke - even if it elicits a slight smile of incredulity from the reader. It suggests a president and an administration who are completely out of touch with the history and present realities of the larger community and the best interests of those they represent.

"And so, with the smell of pepper spray still in the air, UC students were arrested and are now facing up to 11 years in jail at the urging of the same UC Davis administration that had them pepper-sprayed for ... a sit in of the campus branch of US Bank."

To release such a statement is evidence that Yudof is no longer competent to serve in the position he occupies. He should resign as president, and if he will not leave of his own volition, it is well past time for the regents to hand him a pink slip and replace him and the senior university administration with leaders who will protect fundamental freedoms and forcefully advocate for the measures necessary to restore it to its once vaunted position.

A record of fighting against free speech

Yudof's position on May Day isn't surprising if one views this in the context of his larger record. It merely freshly reflects his unwillingness to support free speech and other basic rights the other 364 days of the year. Under his administration, the situation for these rights has become abysmal at UC, in no small part because of his office's endorsement or encouragement of violations.

Everyone has seen the infamous pepper spray video at UC Davis, in response to which he appointed a supposedly independent commission headed by a celebrity former police chief, Bill Bratton, whose company was already under contract with UC to provide security issues, while protecting Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi from the consequences of her policies.

In fact, it now seems clear why her position was protected; her attacks on students are precisely what the senior UC administration wants to see. And so, with the smell of pepper spray still in the air, UC students were arrested and are now facing up to 11 years in jail at the urging of the same UC Davis administration that had them pepper-sprayed for - run for the hills - a sit in of the campus branch of US Bank to protest its role in, and profiteering from, the ongoing privatisation of public education at UC. Here it becomes clear how the more well-known prosecution of the so-called "Irvine 11" students, who disrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine in 2010, has served as a template for even more aggressive prosecutions of dissenting speech in its wake.

This prosecution of peaceful protest is happening, despite the fact that the UC Davis Academic Senate has taken the remarkable step of censuring Chancellor Katehi for her actions during the Occupy protests, with no noticeable impact on either her position at Davis or her policies. Of course, it hasn't occurred to Yudof or other UC officials to protest and even fight against the fact that the more the university is privatised and tuition rises, the more banks such as US Bank rake in profits through student loans.

The "office of the president" has the time to offer detailed warnings to May Day travellers, but no time to develop a sophisticated counterattack against the very real threat of a student-loan complex that is eating away at the fabric of higher education.

In-depth coverage of the global movement

The only time Yudof uses the power of his office to speak up as a matter of principle or politics is when he feels impelled to defend Israel or Zionist UC students against faculty or students who might criticise the ways in which Palestinians are governed or their rights violated. Here, he has demonstrated an astonishing ability to make accusations that are either ungrounded in fact or flagrantly false, and then simply ignore all requests by those he's accused to correct the record, allowing "fabrications [to] become the public record of note". The most recent response by Jewish students to such attempts to "protect" them from supposedly anti-Israel protests can be found here.

And to remedy the supposedly hostile climate, he's attempted to bring in none other than the Anti-Defamation League, one of the most partisan pro-Israel groups in the US, whose record of spying on critics of Israel and launching scurrilous attacks against them has been well known for decades.

On the other hand, Yudof has offered not even a faint hint of concern about a clear and politicised violation of academic freedom against a UCLA professor of world cultures, David Shorter. In this case, the chair of UCLA's Academic Senate, Andrew Leuchter, took the extraordinary step of responding directly to a complaint by the right-wing Israel advocacy group AMCHA, which who was critical of Shorter's use of a website on BDS issues as part of a course on the use of global media by indigenous peoples. In doing so, Leuchter conducted his own investigation into the matter, circumventing Senate rules and due process regarding the investigation of supposed faculty misconduct. He then warned Professor Shorter not to use such websites in the future, after which he communicated directly - and falsely - with AMCHA, declaring that Shorter understood "his serious error in judgment has said that he will not make this mistake again".

Leuchter's information was a complete fabrication, one based on his misapprehension of a conversation between Shorter and his chair. Worse, such conversations are privileged and should not have been communicated to any outside group, never mind the one attacking Shorter. Yet despite the flagrant nature of the violation of Shorter's due process and academic freedom and the growing media coverage of the scandal, Yudof has remained silent, something he has shown little proclivity to do when it comes to attacks on Israel he feels are in bad taste.

Nor has he, or any other senior university official, said anything about ongoing arrests of students who are not even protesting, and in fact attempting to comply with police orders. Such was the case at a March 29, 2012, meeting of the Regents, UC's governing board, when several students were arrested and manhandled by police even though they were not engaged in any protest. In fact, rather than criticise officers for such actions, Yudof walked over and shook their hands. The students were charged with criminal offences and, even more onerously, forced to post bail in excess of $10,000 each, which necessitated their raising $6,000 to pay the fees for their bonds.

As UCLA comparative literature professor Katherine King put it to me: "The harm from these police actions radiates beyond their effect on the arrestees. Violently arresting non-violent protesters, strip-searching them and charging them thousands of dollars for their freedom is clearly intended to instill fear in future protesters. It is chilling to free speech, a key ideal of the university."

The threat of privatisation

More broadly, President Yudof has shown neither a capacity nor a willingness to fight the forces that seek to privatise the University of California in all but name. For well over 150 years, public universities have had as a core mission the provision of services that "promote the wellbeing of communities and states"; privatisation inevitably leads them to "abandon this social contract", a process that has accelerated in the past decade as the share of public universities' revenues derived from state and local taxes has declined precipitously. As the former president of the University of Wisconsin, Katharine C Lyall, explained the implications of this situation, public universities' "mission used to be to serve the public good. But if private donors and corporations are providing much of a university's budget, then they will set the agenda ... Public control is slipping away".

"And so early May Day morning, police burst into the apartments of activists across New York City to harass them about the planned May Day protests by Occupy Wall Street."

The result of such slipping away of public control is that administrators with little understanding of the role of the university in society and almost no relationship with the faculty they are supposed to serve increasingly have the power to reshape the university towards private ends. As the Reynoso Report issued in the wake of the UC Davis pepper spray incident reveals, administrators, and the police who serve them, are today far more concerned with campus order and restricting free speech than with campus safety and its protection; and they are more inclined to see students and faculty as nuisances, if not enemies, rather than the heart of the university.

The disaster of privatisation could be averted if the UC had a president who was willing to lead a robust defence of the system and the basic value of public rather than privatised higher education. But even though UC could be returned to its previous high levels of public funding and low tuition with only a modest raise in state taxes, Yudof and the rest of the UC leadership won't even consider advocating such a policy. Instead, they ask "friends" of UC to call the governor of California and ask them to "support a long-term funding plan" for the university without having the courage to say what everyone knows - in the absence of a rapid and large economic recovery, more funding won't come without more tax revenue to pay for it.

Whether it's the United States or the University of California, what good is a president who won't speak honestly and directly about the major problems the people he represents must confront?

UC as microcosm of federal and local government policies

President Yudof's record on these matters is one of bland acceptance - or even advocacy - of de facto privatisation, whose consequences are enforced with greater repression of free and dissenting speech practices at UC. But it is even worse. The UC system under his tenure has become a laboratory for the wider national pattern of criminalising individual conduct at the same time that corporate conduct is given the widest freedoms possible to arrogate the country's wealth away from ordinary people and to the ever more powerful "one per cent". As Bernard Harcourt demonstrates in his recent Guardian op-ed, the Supreme Court increasingly supports a policy universe in which "liberty is sacrosanct for the market, not the citizen".

And so early May Day morning, police burst into the apartments of activists across New York City to harass them about the planned May Day protests by Occupy Wall Street. Sadly, it seems they hadn't seen Yudof's message. Of course, they were sleeping in their own beds, so it wouldn't have mattered. It also didn't matter when, back on the Left Coast a few weeks before, students at UC Davis were dragged out of their beds at the exact same hour, handcuffed and had their computers seized by police, just because one of them had the gall to protest at a campus event.

Sacramento and New York City might be on opposite coasts, but the increasing derogation of basic rights by those at all levels of official power has the same roots and is part of the same pattern as we see playing out in UC. What we are seeing is criminality rife throughout US economic life, and the criminalisation of civic life. Liberties at UC and the Occupy movement are merely just the biggest, but by no means only, victims. The increasing crony capitalism that dominates the US economy and international global economic relations more broadly, is part of the same process that leads the highest levels of the UC administration to warn people to stay low and avoid protests. "You should feel lucky you're even allowed in here..." is the message, "...even if the price of admission is becoming increasingly steep."

Even journalists, film makers and scholars are no longer considered to be constitutionally protected, as the US government has decided it has the authority not only to spy on them without warrants, but to confiscate their computers and other communications and data sources without a warrant and steal their contents for future use in the never ending war on terror democracy.

A model of courage

With budget cuts, tuition hikes and the poaching of faculty (even by wealthier UC campuses, in a startling lack of professional solidarity), this is an increasingly desperate time for the University of California. Voices throughout the UC system are being raised against the increasing privatisation and attacks on basic academic freedoms, but mostly by those with little if any institutional or administrative power to challenge these processes.

"Many of [Professor] Klein's critics implicitly fuse the elected policy of the Israeli government with God's covenant with the Jews as a spiritual people and/or ethnic tribe. This consolidation empowers them to denounce, with the fury of Jeremiah, dissent to policy as if it were apostasy."

- Harry Hellenbrand, interim president of CSU Northridge

Yudof made sure of this when he eviscerated the power of the Academic Senate to share in the governance of the university in 2009, as UC entered its present crisis. Seemingly inspired by George W Bush's "unitary executive" thesis, Yudof sought and was granted "emergency powers" that allowed him to bypass the norms of shared governance which have long defined the management of the university by faculty and administration. In stark contrast to Yudof's legacy, the most inspiring recent example of leadership at the administrative level has come not from UC but from the California State University system; specifically from the interim president of CSU Northridge, Harry Hellenbrand.

In response to attacks on one of his professors, David Klein, by the right-wing Israel-advocacy group AMCHA, Hellenbrand wrote an open letter to the Cal State community which powerfully restated the importance of both academic freedom and free speech, and rather than parroting false information from such partisan groups (as Yudof did with his own recent "open letter to the UC community", fuelled by a similarly spurious AMCHA intervention, a critique of which is available here), Hellenbrand took on and refuted the allegations of the groups attacking the professor in question.

Hellenbrand wrote that "many of Klein's critics implicitly fuse the elected policy of the Israeli government with God's covenant with the Jews as a spiritual people and/or ethnic tribe. This consolidation empowers them to denounce, with the fury of Jeremiah, dissent to policy as if it were apostasy. The apostate is censured, not stoned".

He goes on to offer harsh criticism of the attempts by groups such as AMCHA and the atply mis-named "Scholars for Peace in the Middle East" for accusing his and other California universities of being hotbeds of "harassment and intimidation" of Jewish students, and for their constant comparisons of criticism of Israel with existential threats against Jews and even impending holocausts. It is impossible to imagine President Yudof emulating such principled behaviour or ever standing up to these groups, or even owning up to his personal participation in their constant dissemination of lies against members of the professoriate who are their perceived enemies.

"Why should the internal problems of the University of California matter to anyone outside the system, or the United States? Because universities... are the canary in the coal mine for determining the health of society at large."

Hellenbrand's conclusion is a powerful restatement of the fundamental importance of free political speech in the university, and, by extension, in the United States, at this pivotal moment in the history of both. He argues that groups such as AMCHA "would eliminate nearly all political speech that had the slightest trace of public funding in higher education".

"Invoking the apparatus of the state to proscribe broad categories of speech in hubs of innovation and disruption such as public universities will have the paradoxical effect of chilling public exchange while heating up zealotry." This is precisely the kind of sophisticated and honest discussion that is so desperately needed and tragically missing at the leadership level of the University of California.

Why UC matters

Why should the internal problems of the University of California matter to anyone outside the system, or the United States? Because universities, especially public universities, are the canary in the coal mine for determining the health of of society at large. If the foundations of free and open exchange of knowledge and debate over ideas, and tolerance for dissent are repressed inside the so-called ivory towers of academia, the situation in society at large will most assuredly be worse. This is a situation academics in Egypt, Bahrain, China or so many other developing countries know all too well.

In this regard, Yudof and other senior administrators of the University of California, the regents who govern the system, and the larger political class in California and across the United States have forgotten that universities were among the first and remain among the last bastions of truly liberal thought - that is, one that encourages critical thinking, free debate and openness and tolerance towards divergent points of view.

Moreover, across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, universities are increasing following the corporatised, privatised and efficiency-obsessed model of higher education first blazed in the United States. At the same time, governments reduce and concentrate funding - and corporations increasingly look at universities as adjuncts of their needs rather than incubators and repositories of the common weal.

Indeed, in societies otherwise so thoroughly dominated by money and its colonisation of every sphere of private and public life, it is imperative that public universities remain one of the few places where a democratic, non-commodified public sphere can function, one that encourages open research and debate not overly determined by financial or partisan ideological considerations. It's hard to see how societies can address the myriad challenges they face and survive democratically if the great public universities such as UC and its counterparts across the United States and globally continue along their present course. Sadly, the current leadership of the UC is contributing to the rapid deterioration of public discourse and to the stifling of knowledge production, which will be crucial to any possible economic and political renewal in the United States.

It might well be too late to stop this process here, but those observing this debacle from the outside would do well to learn from our mistakes before they suffer a similar fate.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books) and The Five Yar Old Who Toppled A Pharoah (University of California, forthcoming).

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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