Professor L. Ling-chi Wang’s colleagues across the country tell him he’s lucky to work at UC Berkeley, a bastion of academic freedom.
But Wang, an associate professor in the departments of ethnic and Asian studies, says he knows better: “I’ve always maintained to friends and colleagues that (UC) Berkeley is anything but progressive. It is so conservative that the students have no choice but to rebel.”
Most recently the university administration declined to support Ethnic Studies Department efforts to put on and promote a teach-in on torture, scheduled for April 28. Wang says he won’t go so far as to say the university’s failure to support the teach-in was a conspiracy against him or an attempt to undermine the First Amendment, but still, he says, “I have to wonder if it’s a deliberate effort.”
While the university sends out releases to the press almost daily, highlighting conferences, exhibits, sporting events, faculty deaths and such, Wang said he was unable to get the public relations department to fax publicity on the torture teach-in to the media. After making the request, he followed up and was told that “higher ups” were considering it. It took a week for the department to finally turn down the request, making independent efforts to publicize the conference difficult, Wang said.
Identifying herself as the “higher-up” who makes decisions on what publicity to release, Marie Felde, UC’s director of media relations, said that sending out press material is a question of priorities. Last week, when the request came to them, there were a number of critical issues to which the department had to respond: a hazing incident, the inauguration of the new chancellor, labor issues, Cal Day and more.
“We can only do so much at one time,” Felde said.
And then there was the question of getting a room for the teach-in. Even with more than a month lead time, Wang was unable to schedule a venue at the university. Scheduling manager Walter Wong, however, says there’s no conspiracy against Wang. It’s hard to get large rooms for special events on weekdays when classes are in session, he said.
Had this been the only time the university failed to adequately support a project sponsored by his department, Wang said he could have shrugged it off. But this lack of assistance comes directly on the heels of another event where Wang had to fight the university for logistical support. That was when the Ethnic Studies Department invited the highly controversial University of Colorado professor, Ward Churchill, to speak March 28. Churchill has come under fire for post Sept. 11 writings in which he argued that the attacks on the World Trade Center were a direct response to U.S. policies responsible for deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Middle East.
University officials wanted the noontime event held at Clark Kerr campus, about a mile from the university. Wang argued that would have discouraged students from attending. He said it took a lot of time and pressure to get the venue approved at centrally-located Pauley Ballroom; when it was finally given an OK, he had only three days to alert the public to the event.
Wang underscores that in both instances—the Churchill event and the torture teach-in—that he can’t be sure the lack of support from the university is directed at him or his department. “I’m not prepared to say it’s a conspiracy,” he says.
Nevertheless, he places the lack of support in the context of what he sees as increasing conservatism on campus and points to a well-publicized incident two years ago to make his point: Associate Vice Chancellor Robert Price removed two paragraphs in a fund-raising letter for a research project on Emma Goldman’s life and work. The deleted remarks were Goldman’s call to protest “war madness” and a warning about the loss of free speech. (Officials reportedly said at the time that they feared Goldman’s remarks, quoted prominently at the top of the letter, would be construed as university opposition to war in Iraq.)
In trying to understand why only 104 academics signed the call for the torture teach-in, which includes an invitation to the attorney general and secretary of state, Wang says some of his colleagues believe it’s because of a political climate since Sept. 11 that has chilled free speech. But Wang says he thinks it has more to do with a growing apathy and conservatism on and off campus. “There’s no moral indignation and outrage,” he said.
Robert Knapp, professor of classics and chair of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate—the organization, which speaks for the university’s professors—sees campus politics in a different light. He says the university community continues its tradition of support for those who speak out on controversial subjects. “I don’t see people being silenced or told they can’t organize a conference or invite people (to speak),” he said. Pointing to campus opposition to the Patriot Act and its support for the First Amendment, he asserted, “Berkeley is still a very liberal place.”
The teach-in on torture kicks off with a rally at noon April 28 in Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus, then shifts to the Berkeley Repertory Theater at 2025 Addison St., with panel discussions focusing on United States’ promotion of torture at home and internationally; the conference ends in the evening with a discussion on creating a national movement to write policy opposing United States torture. Participants include: Barbara Olshansky, CCR lead Guantanamo lawyer; Lucas Guttentag, ACLU case against Rumsfeld; Marjorie Cohn, International Human Rights Law Professor and National Lawyers Guild vice president, Uwe Jacobs, Survivors International director, Terry Karl, Stanford Political Science professor, expert on Latin American torture; Carlos Mauricio, torture survivor and As'ad AbuKhalil, human rights advocate. For more information go to www.teach-intorture.org.
Teach-In on Torture, a call to action against torture, will include a noon rally on Thursday April 28 at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley. The teach-in will be held 1:30-10 p.m. at the Thrust Theater at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addision St. For more information, see www.tortureteachin.org.