Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Open Letter in Response to UC Berkeley "Update on Campus Regulations Concerning Protests and Demonstrations"

In an e-mail to the campus community on Friday, February 19, leaders of UC Berkeley’s administration and faculty senate offer students a timely reminder of “the rules of time, place and manner that govern the rights of protest and demonstration... and our intent to enforce these rules.” The letter, which was signed by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Provost George Breslauer, Professor Christopher Kutz (Chair of the Faculty Senate), and Professor Fiona Doyle (Vice-Chair of the Faculty Senate), goes on to “commend the efforts that students, faculty and staff are making to be respectful of our campus values of peaceful protest and to work together to ensure compliance with campus regulations.” They write, “We are happy to report that student organizers have worked together successfully with faculty and administrators to hold events to promote discussion and debate concerning a path forward for Berkeley and higher education, while abiding by these rules.”

Strangely, the letter does not identify the events it applauds. We can only hope that the Rolling University is implied, a massive outreach effort on the part of student organizers to inform the student body about the March 4 Day of Action. And yet, as the student organizers of recent events that specifically sought to foster discussion between administrators and the community, we feel compelled to express our dismay at the administration and faculty senate’s misleading characterization of the current level of administrative engagement with student concerns.

We take as example the Forum on the Code of Student Conduct held on February 17 with Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard and Assistant Dean of Students Susan Trageser. Far from being a model of “discussion and debate concerning a path forward for Berkeley and higher education,” this event would be better represented by the refusal of the participating administrators to engage in a meaningful and productive manner with the concerns of students and faculty. In meetings and conversations to plan the event, the administrators participating made clear that holding a debate was out of the question. An e-mail sent to student organizers before the event demonstrates Dean Poullard’s opinion of the value of debate that Chancellor Birgeneau, Provost Breslauer, and the Chairs of the Academic Senate claim to encourage: “This should not be a debate but rather an opportunity for students and community members alike to ask questions and seek clarification on what our code says and does not say.” Needless to say, the event disappointed students and faculty who came prepared to discuss with administrators in a civil manner, but were met with evasions, contradictions, condescension, and repeated promises to begin to find a solution sometime in the future.

Despite our frustrations, we appreciate that Dean Poullard and Assistant Dean Trageser accepted student offers to discuss our concerns. We fully understand that improvements to the Student Code of Conduct process could take considerable time. However, the consistency with which administrators have deferred pressing and urgent concerns is entirely unacceptable at an institution ostensibly based on democratic processes and shared governance. While students certainly should not stop pressing administrators to sit down and talk with them, what we witnessed from administrators during the planning and execution of these events cannot be applauded as successful forms of discussion and debate.

The failure of discussion and debate on campus falls squarely on the shoulders of the administrators themselves, not the students who are eagerly participating in and dedicating so much time to organizing these events. We have repeatedly appealed to administrators to talk with us, but are consistently met with refusals to address our concerns. Last semester’s protests and strikes were appeals by thousands of members of the Berkeley community to our campus and university administration to engage with students, faculty, staff, to which we received only one response in multiple iterations: “we must channel our energies outwards,” that is, the fault lies with state government. This is the response we have received, that there is no need for internal debate in matters where our leadership disavows responsibility. Thus the commendation of student, employee and faculty protests—where they abide by campus regulations—only misleads the campus community, while making hollow what it would mean to have a community truly founded on discussion and debate.

Faced with similar behavior by administrators last semester, it is no wonder that frustrated students, in an effort to be heard, decided not to abide by the rules of political engagement set by the administration and refused to recognize what the faculty senate described as the “limits of protest.” That the leaders of the administration and Academic Senate have once again authored a letter informing students of the acceptable terms of “public expression” on campus just before the March 4 Day of Action to Defend Public Education is not surprising. The true attitude of our administration is displayed in a recent email from the Chancellor, which dismisses the months of organizing done by its students, staff and faculty
to hold protests on campus on March 4 as “another set of events... being planned for March 4th and organized by a coalition of labor leaders and others.” Yet again, this is an attempt to redirect “legitimate” protest to Sacramento.

We are writing from the perspective of students who have devoted long hours to organizing opportunities for administrators to engage with students in the very ways the administration and faculty senate espouse. But just like last semester, administrators not only refuse to work together with us, they also insist on using their position of power to manipulate campus perception of student organizers and the administration’s response. We refrain from applauding the engagement of administrators until they begin to acknowledge our concerns and follow through with their promises, such as beginning a process of reviewing the legality of the Code of Student Conduct and rewriting it. We do hope that
the administration will take part in events like the Rolling University, where students, faculty and staff continue to discuss the future of Berkeley and public education.

Shane Boyle
Performance Studies

Mandy Cohen
Comparative Literature

Zach Levenson
Sociology

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