KC Johnson drew our attention to an extraordinary development at UCLA, where the faculty senate of a major campus is now on record approving use of a class to promote an instructor's personal political agenda. The practice itself is not new, but to date objections have been met either with obfuscation or outright denial.
The sequence of events that led here began on March 29, 2012, when two members of the UC faculty, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of UCSC and Leila Beckwith of UCLA mentioned Professor Shorter's promoting the boycott of Israel on his official class website to four UC officials: system President Mark Yudof, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, statewide faculty senate chair Robert Anderson and UCLA senate chair Andrew Leuchter.
What happened next was astonishing. Though similar queries had been brushed off, within 24 hours Leuchter promised a full investigation by senate and administrative leadership and barely two weeks later he assured Benjamin and Beckwith that the case was resolved.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Leuchter cut many corners to get this rapid result. He compressed the investigation, consultations, and resolution of the case into a few days. As an old senate hand, Leuchter knew that he should have handed the matter over to his Academic Freedom committee, but he didn't. And he ended the matter by directly ordering Shorter's department chair to chastise him, which Leuchter had no right to do since he was only an elected faculty leader without administrative appointment. He also publicly announced the disciplinary action against Shorter, a prohibited action which violated Shorter's right to the privacy of his personnel file.
We need not look far for what prompted UC officials to bury the Shorter case as quickly as possible. On March 30, the California Association of Scholars (CAS) sent to the UC Regents its report entitled "A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California." The report cited copious evidence to demonstrate UC's politicization. Advance copies had been circulating for two weeks, and reporters had already begun to phone UC officials for comment.
University spokesmen resorted to the argument that the report was merely anecdotal. However, a lengthy, supportive account of the report in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Berkowitz made that shopworn tactic look rather silly. More importantly, any reader of the eighty page report itself could easily see that the talking point was a flagrant lie. This context explains why Benjamin and Beckwith caused a panic. They proved that CAS's evidence could not be dismissed.
Leuchter failed to consider the effect that his ill-considered action would have on Shorter and his many allies on campus. Though he acted to protect the politicized status quo from CAS scrutiny, Shorter saw only a restriction of his previously unlimited freedom to politicize his classroom.
Accordingly, Shorter and his allies struck back hard. He denied having ever conceding his error, organized a letter of protest signed by many of his fellow professors, and appealed to the campus Academic Freedom committee that Leuchter had improperly bypassed. Dominated by Shorter's ideological allies, the committee failed to grasp that Leuchter was only trying to keep CAS at bay. It backed Shorter as a matter of principle, and now Leuchter's stratagem had backfired spectacularly. He thought he had deprived CAS of the evidence of Shorter's politicized class, but he had actually provided CAS with the infinitely more important evidence that Shorter's politicizing was approved by a large and important segment of the faculty--exactly what the CAS report had argued. He had shown that pro-politicization sentiment was rampant among the UCLA faculty.
The university administration aspires to protect the university, but its conception of "protection" is extraordinarily shallow. It does not extend to defending the University's core value of pursuing integrity in teaching and research. Ultimately, this administration aims to protect itself against individuals wishing to restore it. This means avoiding the wrath of faculty radicals who bark at the mere mention of quality control.This episode confirms that neither the faculty nor the administration can be trusted to protect the core values of the University. That leaves only the Board of Regents, a body with the constitutional duty to protect both its academic integrity and public reputation. What will it do?
John M Ellis is a former Dean of the Graduate Division at UC Santa Cruz, and President of the California Association of Scholars