Statement by the California Association of Scholars Regarding Chancellor Birgeneau's Remarks on the Tucson Shootings

Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor of the Berkeley campus of the University of California, has issued a statement on the shootings in Tucson. The California Association of Scholars finds this statement improper and incompetent.  It demeans the office which Birgeneau holds and the institution which he serves.

In his statement Birgeneau is more concerned with political advocacy than with educational policy. He argues for the DREAM Act, which was recently defeated in the U.S. Congress, and opposes Arizona’s SB 1070, which passed both houses of the Arizona legislature by large margins and was signed into law by the Governor on April 23, 2010.

Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of the DREAM Act and of Arizona SB 1070; in each case, there are principled arguments on both sides. But Birgeneau insists that all those who disagree with him are motivated not by any reasoned argument but instead only by “mean-spirited xenophobia.”  We find this reprehensible for several reasons.

First, and simplest, university regulations forbid the use of university resources for political purposes. State law also forbids it, and two presidential directives that are still in force give more concrete form to that general prohibition:  “University facilities and the name of the University must not be used in ways which will involve the University as an institution in the political, religious, and other controversial issues of the day,” and “There are both educational and legal reasons why the University must remain politically neutral….if the University were to surrender its neutrality, it would jeopardize its freedom.” In contravention of all these prohibitions, Birgeneau openly uses his office to promote his own political views, and associates his campus with them by using his title and letterhead without disclaimer. This is an official message from Chancellor to the campus which purports to speak for “we at UC Berkeley.”

Second, Birgeneau attacks “demonization of others” and yet, astonishingly, goes on to demonize those who disagree with him, and to attack their character and motives in a particularly ugly way.  The Regents must now face squarely the question: is it appropriate for the leader of a great educational institution to use his office to insult all those citizens of this nation whose political views differ from his own?  Or, perhaps even more pertinently, to insult those of his own faculty, staff, and students who differ with him politically?

Yet important as these first two considerations are, they pale in comparison to the importance of the third, which strikes at the heart of the university’s mission and purpose.  A university is a place where complex issues are analyzed carefully, with judicious attention to arguments on the one side and the other, and with all the relevant evidence scrutinized without prejudice before judgments are made.  That makes the campus a very different place than the everyday political street, where invective and ad hominem slurs drown out reason and evidence, and prejudice precludes careful attention to the full spectrum of arguments. The most disturbing aspect of Birgeneau’s statement is that it is an example of the rancorous, intellectually lazy, ill-informed and undisciplined thought which the university exists to transcend. It presents the worst possible example to the students who come to his campus to learn to think in a disciplined way, and to the campus faculty whose job it is to work toward that end.  And it must undermine public support for the university when the people of this state see the leader of its most distinguished educational institution speaking in a way that is so completely deficient in the careful thought and measured analysis that they expect of the educated mind.

The Board of Directors of the California Association of Scholars believes that Chancellor Birgeneau’s statement falls so far short of what should be expected of a leader of a great educational institution that his continuing to lead the Berkeley campus should now be in question.   


Contact: John Ellis, President, California Association of Scholars
(831) 476 1144 

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