Letter to UCLA Vice-Chancellor Jerry Kang re disruption of the lecture on “Islamophobia and the attacks against Palestinian Organizing and Scholarship” in Anthropology M114P

May 31, 2019

Jerry Kang, Vice-Chancellor

For Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

University of California, Los Angeles

Dear Vice-Chancellor Kang:

We, California Scholars for Academic Freedom,** a group of over 200 academics in California universities and colleges, are dismayed by actions taken following a recent event (May 14) in an undergraduate classroom in the UCLA Anthropology Department.  The class, Anthropology M144P and entitled “Constructing Race,” is cross-listed with Afro-Am and Asian-Am Studies, and is specifically designed to deal with highly charged subjects in order to find a broad analysis of the construction of race and its implications. Out of her concern about Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the U.S., the class instructor, Dr. Kyeyoung Park,  included this topic in her class. She invited a guest lecturer with expertise in the field, Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas and professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, to  speak on “Islamophobia and the Attacks against Palestine Organizing and Scholarship.” This is an important topic for the UCLA campus, especially given the number of incidents of the violation of academic freedom directed at faculty who teach or do research on the Middle East or Arab and Muslim issues.

On May 14th, during Prof. Abdulhadi’s lecture, two students interrupted the class during the Q & A period by shouting, crying, and talking over her.  Witnesses confirmed that to her credit, Dr. Abdulhadi stayed cool, affirming students’ feelings and expressing respect for their right to hold differing views. As she sought to respond, students persisted, making it nearly impossible for her to finish her responses to their questions. The lecture was streamed live and the recording is available online here.

We cannot have students shout down a guest lecturer irrespective of whether the talk is on or off the subject of the class. The complaints filed by a few students claiming that Dr. Abdulhadi had engaged in “hate speech” fail to make the absolutely crucial distinction between statements critical of Israeli state policies and their Islamophobia and “hate speech.” Have you investigated whether these students were a part of an orchestrated and well-funded campaign? It is well documented that this has actually been the case a number of times on the UCLA campus.  

Apparently, it was suggested to Dr. Park that she invite a speaker from the Anti-Discrimination League, a group that defends Jews, Israelis, and Zionists and that itself has engaged in Islamophobia. (see Here). Several years ago, UCLA faculty fought the battle of an outdated view of administrators that any one lecture or course, or panel or a program must be “balanced.”  Faculty were liberated by the view that won the day (or so we thought) by the accepted stance (or so we thought) that no one event has to be “balanced,” as long as the university itself is balanced. and we note that balance is also a normative criteria depending on the context. Would you demand that a professor offering a course on evolution also present the case for creationism?  If so, where would this stop?

We want to remind the leadership of UCLA that we all have a commitment to free speech and academic freedom on campus.  We are alarmed that the professor’s academic freedom was not respected or seen as an immediate cause of concern and that, to the contrary, a knee-jerk reaction by the administration led to the unverified assumption that something anti-Semitic had taken place in the class. Too often the very word “Palestinian” sets off alarms in the minds of some.  We have to guard against this if we are categorically committed to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

While students are free to complain, it would be quite troubling if UCLA administrators were to take action against the professor (and in this case, two T.A.’s) in response. Exposure to different viewpoints does not amount to harassment or “hate speech.” It is in fact what makes it possible to engage critical thinking and promote student intellectual growth. Should the students not be held accountable for disrupting the class? In fact, as nearly as we can tell, the administrators took action without even consulting with the professor first or verifying the facts. We are asking that the students who disrupted the lecture be held accountable to the university’s student code of conduct.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education has long rejected arguments that a student’s hurt feelings warrant censorship or discipline. We refer you to this report from the Center for Constitutional Rights.  In its letter to UC Berkeley, OCR officials stated that student demonstrations in support of Palestinian rights “constituted expression on matters of public concern directed to the university community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment.”

Most urgently, we turn to the objection that Professor Park did not manage the situation to the satisfaction of the complainants.  Unless there is an explicit rule that Park failed to abide by that you can cite, we reject any attempt to discipline her, either directly or indirectly, and any and all attempts at retaliation. Vice-Chancellor Kang, you were a popular choice for the position. UCLA faculty seemed assured that “diversity” would not be used as a weapon when the incident is sensitive.

We demand an immediate apology to Professor Park.

Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi also deserves an apology from UCLA for the abuse she suffered and the infringement on her rights to academic free speech as a guest speaker on your campus.  We further demand that you make a public statement about the classroom incident based in fact rather than in scurrilous, inaccurate and false information.

We will be watching this case carefully, as will other academic and civil rights groups.

On behalf of California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Contact Persons:

Sondra Hale

Professor Emerita/Research Professor

Anthro and Gender Studies

University of California, Los Angeles

sonhale@ucla.edu

Sang Hea Kil,

Associate Professor

“Justice” Studies

San Jose State University

sang.kil@sjsu.edu

Susan Slyomovics 

Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures

University of California, Los Angeles

Carole H. Browner

Distinguished Research Professor

Center for Culture and Health

Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior,

Department of Anthropology,

Department of Gender Studies

University of California, Los Angeles

Jamal Nassar, Dean Emeritus

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

California State University, San Bernardino

Saree Makdisi

Professor of English

University of California, Los Angeles

Dennis Kortheuer

Department of History, Emeritus 

California State University, Long Beach

Dr. Brooke Lober

Scholar-in-Residence

Beatrice Bain Research Group

UC Berkeley Gender and Women’s Studies

James Quesada, Ph.D.

Professor

Department of Anthropology

San Francisco State University

**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM is a group of some 200 academics who teach in 20 California institutions.  The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives. Many attacks have been aimed at scholars of Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern descent or at scholars researching and teaching about the Middle East, Arab and Muslim communities.  Our goal of protecting California Scholars based mainly in institutions of higher education has grown broader in scope to include threats to academic freedom across the United States, and where relevant, globally as well. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere.

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