Profs downplay U.C. academic freedom policy change

U.C. Berkeley professors are dumbfounded.

They can't understand why their approval of a revamped U.C. academic freedom policy has led to accusations of setting the table for classroom demagoguery.

The new statement regarding classroom teaching methods and subject matter replaced a 70-year-old version that viewed scholarship as "dispassionate," promised to "give play to intellect rather than passion," and affirmed that "the University of California is a creature of the State and its loyalty to the State will never waver."

According to U.C. officials, the old statement was "outmoded" and reeked of an era when the government worried that communist sympathizer professors were indoctrinating students in Red rebellion.

In a 45-3 vote last week, the U.C. system's Academic Assembly OK'd a paragraph urging professors to "foster in [U.C.] students a mature independence of mind." Students and faculty must be "free within the classroom to express the widest range of viewpoints within the standards of scholarly inquiry and professional ethics."

Up to and following the vote, members of the assembly received critical e-mails from readers of Web sites such as

The policy was a little-read Depression-era relic until pro-Palestinian activist and graduate student Snehal Shingavi last year taught a course titled "Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," which, in course literature, urged "conservative thinkers to seek other sections."

Upon reviewing the academic freedom policy at the time, U.C. officials decided it was antiquated and needed to be replaced. Regardless of the policy change, several U.C. officials said moves such as Shingavi's to bar or ostracize students from a class are still in violation of university policy.

Asked his opinion, Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he seeks to ensure that "academic freedom is a two-way street."

"If a professor has an agenda he wants to pass on and a student objects, I don't care if it's about the Mideast or the moon being made of green cheese, my objective is the student should be able to dissent from the professor's point of view and not be penalized. We will be monitoring this," he said.

"We will work with our colleagues on campus to ensure Jewish students in particular are not ostracized if someone is pushing an anti-Israel agenda in the classroom."

While overwhelmingly popular, the new policy was not approved unanimously. Martin Trow, a U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of public policy, complained in a letter to the academic assembly that the current policy no longer obliges professors to present alternative points of view.

Raymond Wolfinger, a longtime U.C. Berkeley professor of political science, sees this as a good thing, however.

"The idea of giving equal time is ridiculous," he said.

"When I teach my course on Congress, I don't have to give a certain amount of attention to any number of conspiracy theories: Kennedy was killed by the Mafia or LBJ or nuts on the left or right who think the trilateral commission runs the world."

While the new statement raised some eyebrows in excising statements condemning "those who would use [the university] as a platform for propaganda," professors noted that coercive teaching methods have always been condemned within the Faculty Code of Conduct.

"Rules about coercion and fair representation of views and so on are the same now as they were before," said Donald Mastronarde, a professor of classics.

Within the code are detailed "provisions against coercion of students in the classroom and the introduction of inappropriate materials in the classroom."

Adds nutritional science Professor Sharon Fleming, "I can see nothing in the [new policy] that suggests it's a risk at all."

The professors contacted by the Bulletin believed the changes to the policy were largely "symbolic" and would not alter professors' classroom behavior.

Fleming noted that she had never previously read the academic freedom policy in her 23 years at U.C. Berkeley.

When asked if he had ever reviewed the paragraph-long policy at any previous time in his 32-year tenure at U.C. Berkeley, Wolfinger replied, "Good Lord, no."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.