Robert Birgeneau served as the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley between 2004 and 2013. During this time the campus was rocked by protests as the UC Regents raised tuition at a staggering rate, pushing students up to and over the brink, all but privatizing California’s preeminent universities in a matter of a few years. As students shouldered the burden for funding their education—a burden that the state’s public had once borne—they pushed back.
When they did so, they were met with a mailed fist. Or to be more precise, with truncheons, baton charges, and rubber bullets as UCPD took sides in a political dispute at the behest of a flustered administration. But perhaps worse than the naked violence that met students who urged that they receive the same support from which their parents’ benefited was the contempt and hostility from the administration.
Robert Birgeneau is a mulish man, as convinced of his own righteousness as of the pettiness of students’ grievances. His e-mails to the campus communities amidst protests which occurred again and again became legendary. One year, protestors were a “health and safety issue”, like rats in the basement or a leak in the pantry. The next, his presence in Asia became an excuse for his neglect to rein in savage police violence.
But his most notorious moment came when, given the opportunity to check violence against the students whose welfare should be his primary concern, Birgeneau characterized those who linked arms while stationary as “not non-violent”. It was unfortunate that a man who trots out his own participation in the civil rights movement with startling regularity as a defence for the violence he unleashed on his campus would make such an elementary mistake as characterizing students following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s example as behaving violently.
These were Birgeneau’s most egregious sins, but his true legacy will be that he presided over the privatization of the country’s foremost public university system. And he did so not as an unwilling partner to the transformation of a citadel of learning into a cellar of market profiteering. Rather, he did so as a proponent of privatization that would punish students by reducing them to customers who could be priced out of what had once been a public good. His swan-song involved advocating that each University of California campus should be able to set its own tuition rates, effectively creating stratified institutions, admission to which would be awarded not on merit but on the ability to pay.
Feted after his departure from Berkeley as a leader in higher education, Birgeneau was this year invited to be the commencement speaker at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania.
Fifty students and faculty at that Quaker institution, well-aware of Birgeneau’s legacy, wrote to Birgeneau, reminding him that he “supported UC Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against non-violent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of non-violent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for”. They expressed their discomfort with honoring Birgeneau, and noted that UC Berkeley has argued that “the actions of [Birgeneau] and the Berkeley police were justified”.
They asked that Birgeneau’s speaking to students be contingent on his taking part in a restorative process, involving “a full accounting of one’s violation”, urging him to express remorse for unleashing violence on students, acknowledge his wrong-doing, and work to help the students who were subjected to violence in November of 2011, the most egregious of several moments of extraordinary police violence on campus over the last five years.
Birgeneau’s response demonstrated the same impatient hauteur towards any questioning of his actions which had by the end of his tenure made him such a figure of revulsion at Berkeley.
“First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands”, Birgeneau harrumphed, perhaps missing his California Hall war room from which he grandly plotted maneuvres against students, as documented in the film At Berkeley. “Second”, he continued, warming to his favourite of themes, “as a longtime civil rights activist and firm supporter of nonviolence, I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks”.
And that was all.
I suppose if you think that linking arms is an act of violence, writing a letter might as well be terrorism. But most reasonable people, in addition to recognizing the accuracy of Haverford students and faculty’s claims about Birgeneau’s actions, would have a hard time describing legitimate criticism, recorded on paper, as “violent”.
But such is Birgeneau’s sense of “dialogue”: just as he spurned the Berkeley students whose livelihoods he pummeled and whose bodies his police beat, he has no time for his critics at Haverford.
But students and faculty there are right to question the decision to honor a man like Birgeneau, and are right to reject his use of violence against students who are already being subjected to the cruel forces of a new, discriminatory education market that Birgeneau and other university administrators around the country are creating.