From a comic perspective, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau bears no small resemblance to George W Bush. During his tenure, as maddening as many members of Berkeley’s community have found him, he is also the gift that keeps on giving. He referred to student protesters as a “health and safety” issue. He sent the University psychologist to deal with those upset about the tuition increases. He earnestly tried to persuade us that the lack of e-mail in Asia (he was on a trip there flogging UC to international students even as he made it less affordable for Californians) had distorted his view of police violence against students. Oh, and of course, he described student protest which involved linking arms in a stationary position in imitation of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. as “not non-violence”.
Undoubtedly, those who appreciate his way with words (it’s not everyone who knows exactly the wrong thing to say on a given occasion and also has the gumption to say it), and his knack for alienating large swathes of his constituency, will be sad to see him go.
But even in his final days of managing Berkeley, the Chancellor is hitting all the wrong notes. Last week, the campus debated whether to recommend that the UC Regents (a patronage network for the Governor which represents the interests of Corporate California and seems bent on privatising UC by stealth) divest from companies which do business with Israel’s armed forces. Feelings ran strong, the debate was intense, a variety of constituencies and advocacy groups weighed in on all sides, and in the end the student Senate voted in favour of the divestment bill.
Now the Chancellor, as much as anyone else, has a right to express his opinion on the matter. Birgeneau did so, and did so in a manner which demonstrates that his lack of understanding about the power relations involved in the struggle between Israel and Palestinians is matched only by his absence of conscience and failure to see the hypocrisy in his own words.
Basically slapping down the divestment bill, Birgeneau expressed his belief that “targeting a single nation or state in this highly complex world is not appropriate and does little to advance the cause of peace and coexistence”. This rather pathetic argument is one which suggests that we adopt a paralytic approach every time we are confronted by complexity, rather than unpacking that complexity and trying to establish how to make headway. The Chancellor went on to write that “ultimately, we believe that engaging in dialogue on these difficult issues is the best hope that we have for achieving peace”. As noted elsewhere, for dialogue to occur, both parties have to believe that dialogue is in their interest, something which the Chancellor ignores altogether. There is, after all, only one nation or state involved in this dispute: the other party is that state’s colony.
The Chancellor’s other point was that the debate could lead to “rancor and divisiveness”, and while I, too, would love it if everyone could just get along and agree all the time, in the absence of a miracle, I think the best way to tackle tough problems is to discuss them and argue about them. If people are passionate about things, they should express their views, respectfully, but also forcefully. Silent meditation on complexity achieves nothing in a community.
I wonder what Chancellor Birgeneau would say to that generation of students who protested and agitated on this campus so that the UC Regents finally divested $3 billion dollars from the apartheid government of South Africa, a move praised as not only just, but important by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Would he say that they should have meditated further on the complexity of the situation in South Africa?
Would he have said that holding the South African government responsible for its policies was “not appropriate”? That they shouldn’t have pointed fingers when they saw wrongdoing? That non-white South Africans and their supporters abroad should have just waited patiently for the nationalists to come to the table, or freedom to materialise on its own? Should people have refrained from saying critical things (which happened also to be true) because other people would have their feelings hurt?
Finally, I can’t but mention Birgeneau’s ability to raise my bile. He remarked that “As Chancellor, a pillar of my vision for UC Berkeley has been to create a campus where equity and inclusion are fundamental values that sustain our principles of community and allow freedom of expression to occur through civilised and informed debate”.
When I read those words, the only thing I can think about are the lines of students peacefully surrounding Wheeler Hall in the driving rain, being set upon without warning by columns of police who wielded their batons with vicious savagery. Or those same police firing rubber bullets into stationary students. Or the fact that every time people on campus had the temerity to gather to protest what was being done to their university—their home—they were met with derision by an administration which almost instinctively used language and adopted behaviour designed to delegitimize those students and, if that was not enough, chose to meet their peaceful protests with stunning violence.
I have never been so angry or so disturbed as when seeing students, some of whom I know and have taught, set upon by police as though they were criminals, or posed some threat to the safety of their fellow students. At that moment, it ceases to be about the politics involved, and becomes instead about the decision of the Chancellor to authorise violence towards members of my community in an effort to silence them. What kind of a leader is it who sends a message that this is the way to conduct debate? What kind of person sends the disheartening message to the students who make up our future that only the strong and only those willing to resort to brutality are able to make their voices heard when it counts?
I hope this is the last post I ever write about Robert Birgeneau, who will hand over leadership of the campus in the coming months. I’d like to assume that he meant well. But his approach to campus politics has done more than any divestment bill or any harsh words to divide this campus and unleash violence against its students, and he should be ashamed of himself.