Earlier this month, the Board of Regents of the University of California voted to confirm the nomination of the next student Regent, UC Berkeley student Sadia Saifuddin.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Saifuddin’s appointment came “despite some Jewish groups’ claims that she marginalized Jewish students and promoted an anti-Israel agenda ... Saifuddin’s critics had urged the regents to reject the nomination, pointing to a student government proposal Saifuddin co-sponsored calling for the university to divest from companies with economic ties to the Israeli military or Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The critics said it was evidence she is unqualified to represent all of the UC system’s more than 222,000 students”. In a well-written critique of the Board’s obsession with Saifuddin’s views on Israeli colonialism, UCLA student Loic Hostetter noted that “four regents spoke before the vote on Saifuddin’s nomination, and all expressed concern about the divisiveness of boycott and divestment movements”.
The controversy refers to the non-binding divestment bill which was passed by Berkeley’s student senate during the Spring semester. The bill was opposed by a small group of Berkeley faculty, the Chancellor, and ASUC President Connor Landgraf—who, it emerged, had been “treated” by the national Israeli lobby.
All of its opponents characterised the bill as a “divisive”, one-sided attack on Israel’s existence. That those Regents who expressed doubt about Saifuddin’s nomination would cite these homilies suggests that they are either illiterate or were subject to the same propaganda as dissenting members of the ASUC. In truth, the bill was extraordinarily cautious and even-handed, going to great pains to avoid attacking the state of Israel, confining itself to calls of divestment from companies complicit in human rights violations, and calling for any Palestinian organisations which similarly violated human rights to be treated in exactly the same fashion.
After the bill was passed, it was attacked along equally misguided lines by a group of powerful Californian legislators, including the Senate leader, who clearly did not read the divestment bill, but rather whatever propaganda they were handed by the lobbies which choose to defend Israeli colonialism.
It is a testament to the power of Israel’s campus lobby, and to the irresponsible manner in which that lobby wields its power (about which more here), that a perfectly reasonable stance on a single issue could be so twisted out of proportion that it would threaten to derail the nomination of an otherwise uncontroversial appointment.
Richard Blum, amongst the most hypocritical of the Regents—Blum has been attacked as a war-profiteer and as an investor in the for-profit education sector while chairing the Board of Regents—had the nerve to say, “When you’re going to be the student representative, you have to represent all the students and you don’t want to alienate a lot of people”. Blum abstained from the final vote, which was otherwise unanimous. It takes a lot of nerve for the likes of Blum, who was appointed to the position because of his wealth and political connections (his wife is California’s senior senator, a neoconservative, and perpetual defender of U.S. terrorism abroad), to criticise anyone for being unrepresentative.
Under Blum’s leadership, the Board of Regents embarked on what can only be described as a massive privatisation process, which has transferred the burden for funding UC away from the public and onto students and their families. This ongoing project crystallised with the report on the future of UC, which contained devastatingly irresponsible recommendations, some of which called for the veritable break-up of the UC system and an abandonment of its public character and the breadth of coursework and research traditionally associated with public universities in the U.S.
Under his leadership, the University began the process of hiring highly-paid administrators who drew massive salaries from the public purse while trashing the public’s preeminent institution. Under his chairmanship, the board repeatedly approved salary increases for a growing cadre of administrators, insulated from the everyday pain their social irresponsibility forced on students, at the same time that departments and divisions were forced to contract and students were forced to pay relentlessly increasing tuition. In other words, his irresponsible management of the University of California has done more than alienate people: it has diminished the quality of the institution he was charged with protecting.
At the end of the day, none of the accusations slung at Saifuddin amount to more than gripes that she raised controversial topics, debates around which make some people “uncomfortable”. Discomfort is an inevitable part of any political process, and can hardly in good conscience be used as a basis for denying free speech or as a litmus test for public service.
Saifuddin’s role as Student Regent is to act as an advocate for the otherwise entirely-voiceless constituency which the Board of Regents purports to serve. As the recent appointment of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the presidency of the University of California system demonstrates, accountability, transparency, democracy, and good-process are characteristics utterly alien to the patronage-based, market-minded, anti-social Board of Regents, who represent much of what is disturbing about trends in higher education today.
Making her voice heard amidst the nauseating, overpowering cant recited by the Regents—that back-door privatisation, inexorable commodification, and gradual dismemberment are the only way forward for UC—will be a tall order for Saifuddin. But the fact that whilst on Berkeley’s campus she took up cudgels on behalf of a cause she believed in suggests that she might be more qualified than any of her fellow Regents. The fact that she co-authored a mild yet effective divestment bill which made defenders of the indefensible status quo “uncomfortable” (and which the Regents have ignored anyway) suggests that she might be better at her job than many of the amateur advocates who populate California Hall and UCOP’s Oakland offices.
A little discomfort on the Board of Regents would be no bad thing, given that its members have got all-too comfortable in their self-appointed roles in wielding the wrecking ball against California’s Universities in the past decade.
Those Regents and organisations that spoke against Saifuddin’s nomination should think long and hard about the message they are sending to California’s students. They are sending the message that anyone who is passionate about the human rights of those who have been dehumanised, committed to speaking truth to power, prepared to fight hard for a cause they believe in, and willing to serve their community at a time of adversity, should put their head down and shut up if they are not willing to knuckle under to the convention wisdom that is responsible for so many of our society’s ills.
They are suggesting that the values that UC has historically embodied—recall those students on Berkeley’s campus in the ‘60s protesting for civil rights and against a grotesque war and those students on Berkeley’s campus in the ‘80s protesting for human rights and against apartheid in South Africa—are not to be taken seriously. They are arguing directly against the idealism that should inspire the young minds that the University seeks to set aflame with knowledge and passion to use that knowledge in the service of our society. And they are demonstrating yet again—as if our beleaguered University system needed any such reminder—that their values are not ours, and that their cause is a very different one to that which should inspire public- and service-minded Californians. Sadia Saifuddin sounds like one of the latter.