Should any academic department within the University of California endorse statements on political issues in the name of the department?
As scandalous as that may seem, that is exactly what has been proposed in the UC system by the University Committee on Academic Freedom.
The “Academic Council has requested recommendations from the University Committee on Academic Freedom (UCAF) regarding the ability of academic departments on campus to issue, or endorse, statements on political issues in the name of the department,” their letter to the UC Academic Senate says. “We have given the matter a great deal of thought, consulted with colleagues on the campus academic freedom committees as well as general counsel at UCOP, and conducted our own research.”
The Globe spoke with Professor Ethan L. Miller of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who emailed about this shocking proposal. “I couldn’t make this stuff up,” Miller said. “Individual faculty has a right to take positions on issues, but an entire department would jeopardize UC’s status as a tax-exempt non-political organization. And it would not further the protected rights of individual Univ. of California employees to engage in free speech, but could very well have the opposite effect.”
Miller said this proposal violates the State Constitution and University of California policy. “It’s critically important because we need to make sure the university remains apolitical,” Miller said. “This admitted risk of intimidation is especially serious for the most vulnerable members of the UC community, untenured and non-tenure track faculty. And obviously students will have no protection whatever.”
“The UCAF letter explicitly admits that its new policy may chill the expression by UC employees of ideas that do not agree with those of the majority of their UC peers,” Miller explained. “This admitted risk of intimidation is especially serious for the most vulnerable members of the UC community (untenured and non-tenure track faculty). And obviously students will have no protection whatever.”
Miller also noted that the minute a department takes a position on a political matter or controversial issue, they risk being shut down by legislative authorities, now or in the future, as the Wyoming Senate did last Friday, ending funding for the University of Wyoming’s gender and women’s studies program, The Hill reported. “Senators in Wyoming on Friday passed an amendment to the budget to terminate funding for the University of Wyoming’s Gender and Women’s Studies program over concerns that state dollars were being used to fund ‘biased’ educational and extracurricular programs.”
Miller gave an example: “No one will ever shut down a political science department for studying Karl Marx. But if the department supports Marxism, that’s an endorsement. It’s political theory versus an endorsement.”
In 2021, the Department of Asian American Studies at UCLA issued a letter stating their support for Hamas, even as Hamas was bombing inside the Gaza region in Israel, Miller said. “The UC Committee on Academic Freedom got involved in that because it was a department making the endorsement.”
Miller said the letter from the University Committee on Academic Freedom admits this may have a chilling effect on free speech, but they recommended it anyway:
“Our conclusion is that, while such statements are sometimes ill-advised and have the potential to chill or intimidate minority views, departments should not be precluded from issuing or endorsing statements, so long as a) such statements make clear that they are not intended to represent the views of the University as a whole and b) allowances are made for minority views to be expressed in some reasonable fashion.”
Miller said the UC system put restrictions on the use of University resources and facilities for political activities in 1970, specifically so entire departments, at that time, would not express opposition to Angela Davis, who was a UC Santa Cruz professor and on the FBI’s list of the 10 Most Wanted, for participating in a courtroom siege in which the attackers took several people hostage, including judge Harold Haley, who ended up being murdered.
Miller commented how that policy was created so the university could not be political. Ironically, that same policy is now in the way of entire UC departments itching to express their political views publicly.
Miller added, “This is not and should not be a partisan issue.”ucaf-proposal
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