Ethnic Studies Faculty and Student Response to UCSD Campus Crisis Precipitated by the Event Dubbed the “Compton Cookout”

We welcome all thoughtful, informed and reasoned comments to our departmental statements. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of all faculty and graduate students at the Department of Ethnic Studies, the Regents of the University of California, or the University of California, San Diego. Please post your comments below.

As faculty and graduate students in the Ethnic Studies Department at UC-San Diego, we unequivocally condemn the February 15th off-campus party, dubbed the “Compton Cookout,” as an example of racist, classist and misogynist stereotyping that degrades Black people through disparaging representations of so-called “African American culture.”  Like similar events thrown on college and university campuses across the United States, this “theme party” in one quick, broad stroke reduced the complex lived experience of a heterogeneous racialized community to a caricatured depiction of cultural deviancy. All the more troubling, this particular themed party was intentionally organized to mock ongoing celebrations of African American History month in the U.S. and specifically here at UC San Diego.

This “monstrosity” (as some of the organizers called it) has a violent and racist history that began with blackface minstrel shows in the U.S., starting in the early 19th century, heightening with popularity during the Abolition Movement, and extending into 20th century theater and film.  Both blackface minstrel performances and parties such as the “Compton Cookout” reinforce and magnify existing material and discursive structures of Black oppression, while denying Black people any sense of humanity, negating not only the actual lives that exist behind these caricatured performances but the structural conditions that shape Black life in the US.  Far from celebrating Black history, events such as this one are marked celebrations of the play of power characteristic of whiteness in general and white minstrelsy in particular: the ability to move in and move out of a racially produced space at will; the capacity to embody a presumed deviance without actually ever becoming or being it; the privilege to revel in this raced and gendered alterity without ever having to question or encounter the systemic and epistemic violence that produces hierarchies of difference in the first place. Moreover, like their blackface minstrel predecessors, the organizers and attendees of the “Compton Cookout” demonstrate the inextricability of performances of white mastery over Black bodies from structures of patriarchy: by instructing their women ‘guests’ on how to dress (“wear cheap clothes”), behave (“start fights and drama”), and speak (“have a very limited vocabulary”), these young men not only paint a degrading and dehumanizing picture of African American women as so-called “ghetto chicks,” but offer a recipe for the objectification of all women—made permissible, once again, through the appropriation of blackness.

Contrary to what some have claimed, the recent “Compton Cookout” is neither an aberration nor unique. Rather, it is best understood as part of a broader social reality that despite the celebrated juridical/political advancements achieved by people of color in the United States through centuries of struggle, full racial justice remains a goal, rather than accomplishment. The same month that we witnessed Barack Obama sworn in as the first Black man to reach the White House, the number of Black men imprisoned in the United States reached one million. Meanwhile, the backlash against affirmative action in public institutions that began a decade ago in the state of California has reduced representation of people of color in institutions ranging from the University of Michigan Law School to the New Haven Fire Department to public school districts across the US, making the criminal justice system the only state institution in which African Americans are still sought after and included in large numbers. Indeed, the unacknowledged slow reversal of the promise of Brown v. Board of Education is evident here at UCSD: Black students currently represent less than 2% of the undergraduate population here at UC San Diego, a percentage that is scarcely better than the 1% representation of Black people among faculty and academic professionals. Given this, despite the protestations of its organizers, events like the “Compton Cookout” are never “harmless fun.”  Rather, they are the cultural matter through which raced and gendered hierarchies of difference are reproduced and instantiated; they are the venues in which white privilege is rationalized through the representation of African Americans as less civilized and more deviant, less human and more animalistic, less deserving of education and more worthy of satire.

Indeed, the “Compton Cookout” demonstrates that as a country and as a campus, we have yet to create the institutional systems that would make places of higher education more accessible to and less alienating for Black students and other students of color. Indeed, if recent events on campus are any indicator, as a campus, we have only begun the work of recognizing our own complicities in the problem at hand. As scholars of race and power in the United States and transnationally, the faculty and students of the Ethnic Studies Department and our affiliates are well-versed in the history and intersectional analysis of events such as this recent party, and the continuing raced, classed, and gendered structures of inequality that it represents. We remain ready to assist the administration in not only developing “teach-ins” but also institutional policies capable of radically changing the campus climate within which such events can be conceived of as ‘harmless’ and be carried out unchecked.

In that vein, the Department of Ethnic Studies calls upon the University of California, San Diego administration to view this event not as an incident of wayward students violating the principles of UCSD’s community, but rather to engage this event as a moment to re-think the logic of institutional accountability: who is responsible for creating a campus climate of permissibility around racial/gendered representational violence, and who pays the price of such a climate? We applaud the intellectual, political, and emotional work that is already being done by students, faculty and staff around the party and the broader issues it points to; at the same time, we recognize that moments such as this place additional and exhausting demands on a limited number of bodies, in part due to administrative expectations that students, faculty, and staff of color will serve as educators and crisis-managers, counselors and public representatives of the University. We therefore call upon the administration to model institutional accountability at the highest levels by taking concrete steps to make UCSD the educational and social environment promised by the Principles of Community—a university that is not only accessible to and affordable for African Americans and other students of color, but one in which students of color can feel valued, safe, and protected.

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Ethnic Studies Faculty Statement on UC and Public Education

The UC San Diego Department of Ethnic Studies endorses and will actively support the September 24th walkout of staff, faculty, and students across University of California campuses. Over the past two decades, the state of California has been a testing ground for national and global efforts to privatize public institutions and resources in ways that disproportionately affect the state’s most vulnerable populations.

In this context, the University of California’s recent actions—drastic fee hikes, unequal pay cuts for workers, and the reduction and/or elimination of crucial University services—cannot be excused as a singular response to a fiscal ‘state of emergency’ brought on by state budget cuts. Rather, the adoption of the Higher Education Compact must be understood as an extension of the logic through which elected and appointed officials make political decisions about which public resources “deserve” protection and which are expendable; which communities can be abandoned and which constituencies may carry on business as usual.

By instituting a pernicious combination of fee hikes and salary and financial aid reductions, state and University policymakers have effectively shifted the financial burden of public needs to private parties—UC students, workers, and their families. For many current and future students, particularly those from historically under-represented communities, this ‘compact’ has seriously endangered their already-limited access to a UC education.

For these reasons, we support the September 24th Day of Action, and urge our colleagues, students, and other San Diego community members to join us in demanding that the State Legislature, Board of Regents, and the University of California administration be held accountable for these regressive measures. We recognize that the very future of public education is at stake, and we call on all concerned to make every effort to ensure that all Californians are guaranteed access to their university.

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Indigenous Studies Engages Ethnic Studies

Friday, May 8, 2009 at UC San Diego (times and place TBA)

Join UCSD’s Ethnic Studies faculty members Ross Frank, Mark Harris, Adria Imada, Denise da Silva and specual guests Noenoe Silva (U. of Hawaii at Mānoa), Audra Simpson (Columbia University), and Andrea Smith (UC Riverside) for a day-long symposium on native feminisms and other productive challenges at the intersections of indigenous and ethnic studies.

More than an exclusive focus on indigenous issues, this symposium is meant to engage questions of race, citizenship, gender, sexuality, and nation that we know circulate far beyond our individual and overlapping fields. With this in mind, we encourage all scholars to attend, whether their work is considered to be within ‘traditional’ indigenous or ethnic studies fields or not.

More information to come, and please check the event blog HERE, for our mission statement, reading suggestions, and other updates.

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“Indigenous Studies Engages Ethnic Studies” Mission statement:
We welcome your comments on this statement (click on the comments link below)

As scholars in the Ethnic Studies Department at UCSD, we stand incredibly proud of the cutting edge critical race and ethnic studies work developed in our department, and in its potential to push the limits of the larger Ethnic Studies project. In this spirit, we find that in order for Ethnic Studies to move beyond the usual emphasis on immigration, diaspora and slavery paradigms, the critical potential of Indigenous Studies should become an integral part of our intellectual agenda. Just as the scholarship ‘about’ people of color does not describe our notion and practice of Ethnic Studies, scholarship ‘about’ indigenous people must reflect more than merely the violent history of the academy within indigenous communities. It must, in fact, engage the sophisticated indigenous theories, which have been circulating for many years, especially those that confront the ways in which colonial power still operates in nation-states. In the last few years, a number of graduate students and faculty have taken important steps towards facilitating this integration. These include the creation of the “Voicing Indigeneity” podcast, the Post-colonial Futures in a Not-Yet Post-colonial World Conference, and the proposal for an indigenous studies focused cluster hire.

Building on these efforts, we are organizing a one-day critical indigenous studies symposium to be held on May 8, 2009. The symposium focuses on native feminism scholarship because we believe it offers a critical perspective missing in both indigenous studies and in most analysis of race, gender, sexuality, colonialism and citizenship. We have invited Andrea Smith, Audra Simpson and Noenoe Silva, scholars who are at the forefront of this field of thought. Additionally, we have invited 3-4 senior graduate students who are not only moving the field in new directions, but more excitingly are doing so by employing theories emerging from our Ethnic Studies department, thereby highlighting the critical possibilities that lie at the interstices of these fields. Furthermore, this symposium anticipates our desire to improve the recruitment of indigenous graduate students, post-docs and faculty.

We hope the department will actively participate in this symposium in order to push the limits of our scholarship and political commitments, whether they directly fall within what is traditionally seen as the indigenous field or not. Ultimately, this symposium is an invitation to engage in a productive troubling of the ethnic studies project as well as to expand our understanding of what indigenous studies can be.

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Addendum to the “Statement on Racial Violence in the Gaza Strip”

Scroll down to read the original 1/25/09 “Statement on Racial Violence in the Gaza Strip”

The Department of Ethnic Studies “Statement on the Racial Violence in the Gaza Strip” has elicited a great deal of comment since it was posted in January of 2009. We have followed the responses with great interest and, in response, offer the following addendum to the original Department Statement on Gaza, with the goal of providing a context for our original statement.

As described in its vision statement, the intellectual and political goal of the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego is to pursue the “comparative, relational, and interdisciplinary” study of “fundamental theoretical and political questions regarding the critical conceptualization of social categories…in order to interrogate questions of power, violence and inequality.” The department’s “Statement on the Racial Violence in the Gaza Strip” exemplifies this larger intellectual project of critical engagement in the interests of social justice. All too often, outside and within the University, commentators express confusion regarding the ‘appropriate’ role of academic scholarship in controversial or political issues. As the University of California’s Policy on Academic Freedom reminds us, sound scholarship needs not be “dispassionate,” “disinterested” or concerned only with “the logic of the facts.” Rather, sound scholarship “can and frequently does communicate salient viewpoints about important and controversial questions” (http://www.ucop.edu/acadadv/acadpers/apm/apm-010.pdf). It is in this continued spirit of rigorous intellectual critique, and in the interest of maintaining productive dialogue, that we offer the following with the goal of clarifying our statement:

Ethnic Studies is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to produce and engage scholarship about how power operates in the production and execution of subjection and subjugation, including its most visceral enactments through institutional and individual practices of violence and death. Emerging out of the late 20th century political struggles of people of color in US and colonized peoples globally, ethnic studies scholarship understands the process of racialization and the implementation of racial violence as integral to the execution of power. In this sense, ethnic studies is neither a multicultural project to include ‘different peoples,’ ‘different cultures,’ ‘different races,’ and ‘different nationalities,’ nor does it simply teach about histories of oppression, struggle and resistance. Rather, it is an intellectual project that uses race as a modality through which to understand how power works through the production of difference to construct, reproduce, and transform social formations. Key to this project are the following concepts:

Race is a social construct that makes meaning of relations of power and difference. It is often signified through, but is not necessarily related to phenotype or notions of biological difference, as it was in 19th and early 20th century Europe and the Americas. While race is a social construct, it manifests in material inequalities in the form of racisms.

Racialization represents a social process in which racial meanings are extended to new sites and bodies. By producing seemingly natural categories of inside and outside, superior and inferior, racialization works to demarcate the limits of social existence and political enfranchisement. Racialization operates in historically and geographically specific ways; the process by which modern US ‘races’ (black, white, native American, Asian, Latino, Arab etc.) have been naturalized as social categories is only one version.

Racism deploys codified concepts of group difference in order to assign lesser or greater value to the lives and epistemologies of different populations, thus both producing and rationalizing structures of material inequality.

Racial violence is a state-sanctioned and/or extralegal mode of power exercised in order to control, subjugate or exterminate a people due to the idea that the latter always already pose a threat to the civilization of the former. Racial violence can take many forms, some of which are immediately recognizable (imperialism, enslavement, genocide) and some of which may appear less immediately tangible (economic deprivation, infrastructural abandonment, profiling, incarceration).

Racial logic functions so that an entire people are made to embody the antinorm: deviance, primitiveness, irrationality, violence, etc. Constructed as both outside of and threatening to the presumed ideals of modernity and interests of ‘civilization’ and ‘humanity,’ these populations are thus rendered ‘disposable.’ Racial logic is integral to how acts of racial violence can be represented as ‘normal,’ ‘reasonable,’ or ‘necessary.’

In accordance with our commitment to the study of power, violence, and inequality in the interests of social justice and with respect for the history of ethnic studies as an academic field born from the convergence of activism and intellectual labor, the department has regularly issued collective statements on our website in response to contemporary political, social and cultural events. These include statements on the uneven impact of the 2007 San Diego fires and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina across racial, ethnic and class groups; the importance of protecting academic freedom precisely at times of political conflict; and the issue of immigrant rights. This list in no way represents the limits of our critical scope but stands as an example of the various and diverse sites in which racism results in uneven access to equality, freedom of movement, and survival. While the precipitating events may be diverse, each of these statements share the following characteristics:

• Each has been issued in response to incidents of racial violence, and uses the analytical tools at our disposal as Ethnic Studies scholars to unpack the racial logics underpinning the event in question.

• All emerge out of the ethical and political imperative that drives the praxis of critique as a critical tool for intellectual and political discourse.

• None target individuals or populations, but rather offer a critique of structural formations—nation-states, governmental entities, the media.

The Department of Ethnic Studies’ statement on the recent invasion of Gaza by the state of Israel is, like each previous statement, a critique of racial violence. Rather than suggesting that Israel’s latest act against Gaza is unique, the statement seeks to contextualize this state act of violence within a global history of racial violence that includes not only historical genocides (such as those against indigenous peoples in the Americas; Jews, Roma, and others in mid-twentieth century Europe, and the minority Tutsi in late twentieth-century Rwanda) but African chattel slavery, US military and economic policies in Latin America, and the continuing economic deprivation, infrastructural abandonment, and wholesale incarceration of Black, brown, and poor people in the US. Our critique is of the use of racial power and racial violence (as defined above) by the state of Israel; it is not an attempt to label Israelis or Jewish people as racist. Indeed, as scholars we recognize that social justice often demands critical attention to the dangers of nationalism when used to conflate the state with its individual subjects in order to justify, undergird, or rationalize violence against the few in the name of an imagined many. As a study of our previous statements reveals, we do not consider Israel alone to be a state that executes racial violence; we have provided similar critiques of state and extra-legal institutions within the United States time and again.

In making this statement, the Department of Ethnic Studies joins a national and international groundswell by academics at colleges and universities across the country who have felt impelled to offer an intellectual, political, and ethical critique of the Israeli State’s actions toward Palestine (links to some of these statements are available on the sidebar adjacent to this post). By exercising our academic freedom in this manner, we are continuing a tradition within the academy punctuated by other large public campaigns for social justice, such the anti-apartheid movement on campuses around the country in the 1980s. We engage in this critique within the spirit of critical theory, the philosophy of cultural critique first introduced by the German Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt school, which believes that it is our ethical responsibility as intellectuals to critique, rather than merely explain society. Critical theory is an ethical praxis to which we have committed ourselves as intellectuals striving to achieve the highest level of excellence in our scholarship. That excellence is only achievable if we are able to apply our collective knowledge toward social justice.

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“Statement on Racial Violence in the Gaza Strip”

The faculty and graduate students in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California San Diego condemn the most recent actions by the State of Israel in the Gaza Strip, commencing with the air strikes that began on December 27, 2008 and the ground invasions, which started on January 4, 2009. Both have resulted in the death and mutilation of a large number of Palestinian civilians. While Israel argues that it is targeting Hamas militants, the astounding number of civilian deaths (exceeding 900 as of January 13, 2009) shows a blatant lack of concern for Palestinian lives. They result from Israel’s targeting of hospitals, mosques, schools, residential buildings and other civilian locations, a practice that cannot be supported by the self-defense argument reproduced by media outlets and endorsed by the US government.

As critical scholars in the field of racial and ethnic studies we interpret these violent actions as an indication of how, in the global order, people of color and the places they live are irrelevant to international legal instruments and moral principles. In short, the most recent deployment of the Israeli military arsenal constitutes nothing more nor less than another episode of racial violence. For this reason, we believe that the current military aggression cannot be divorced from Israel’s overall policy of violence against Palestinians, which includes the strategies deployed during periods of “cease fire” such as tactics that deny access to basic necessities including food, water and health care for the Palestinian residents of the Gaza strip. The recent aerial bombing and ground invasions further this systematic practice of racial violence preventing the Red Cross, the UN and other humanitarian organizations from providing urgently needed assistance to the people of Gaza.

In this unique historic moment, on the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American president, we expect the United States government and the American people to condemn such practices of racial violence in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, we hear a repetition of the argument that Israel is exercising its right to self-defense. It is inconceivable that a society that prides itself on its respect for human rights, and now celebrates another milestone in the road towards racial justice, fails to recognize that Israel’s military objectives, the destruction of Hamas, cannot justify the indiscriminate killing of men and women, young and old, just because they live in the Gaza Strip, because they are Palestinians. This generalized construction of the enemy is at the core of racial violence. It criminalizes a whole population. It aliments existing representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Brown people in general as ‘criminal/terrorists.’ In sum, it justifies otherwise morally untenable acts of total violence.

We hope that the Obama administration will remain consistent with its call for change, that it will issue a forceful condemnation of Israel’s killing of Palestinians, and will review long-held US policies, cutting the military, economic, and political support that provide implicit and explicit backing of Israel’s practices of racial terror. We are convinced that only such a stance will reflect a true commitment to peace in the Middle East. More importantly, it will signal the seriousness of the call for change that is the hallmark of the incoming Obama administration. Any policy that accepts Israel’s right to self-defense as a justification for racial massacre, in this case the systematic extermination of Palestinians, favors complicity over change.

If you wish to comment on the statement, please use the commenting feature underneath the “Addendum” posted above (we’re trying to keep all the comments on the Gaza statement in one place). -The Blog Editor

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Racial Emergency: 2007 San Diego Fires

The Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California-San Diego acknowledges the losses suffered by all of those directly affected by the 2007 fires. As Critical Racial/Ethnic Studies scholars, however, we see as our duty to read beyond headlines, sound bites, and quick camera shots. While dealing with the fear of having our homes burnt to the ground; wondering about relatives, friends, and neighbors – even if safe with friends that offered us refuge – we could not miss how the local, national, and international media have chosen to highlight how middle and upper-middle class white San Diegans have been dealing with the havoc these fires brought to their lives: the shot of a yellow Porsche rescued by overworked firefighters; descriptions of the congenial atmosphere at the Qualcomm Stadium; the heroic male rule-breakers that stayed to save houses or returned to rescue vintage automobiles the never-ending reports on the predicament of those who did not know how to find shelters for their cats, dogs, and horses.

After watching the effects of Hurricane Katrina, however, most of us know that this is not the whole story. Certain neighborhoods, districts, suffer more losses due to their location, the materials from which they are built, a smaller tax base, and a general reluctance to tax for common protection coupled with decisions to commit resources to projects more likely to be enjoyed by the privileged few. In the aftermath of these disasters, some will have deal with insurance companies that set up all kinds of impediments to meet their claims; on the other hand, others will not have any insurance and will have to deal with government agencies that, for the most part, fail to ensure access to needed resources in a timely fashion. We can very quickly guess the racial and socioeconomic make up of the communities who will deal with insurance companies and the ones who will have to face FEMA’s redtape.

Fire and water have no political or ideological allegiances; they do not distinguish between the rich and the poor. They hit black, brown and white people on their path: Embers fly. Levies break. We are all in it together, so it seems. But why? Natural disasters do not happen in an empty space. They abruptly disclose economic and symbolic materializations of centuries of institutional (legal and corporate) decisions that position people of color in a subaltern condition. When looking at actual and symbolic effects of the 2007 San Diego fires, we cannot but notice the racial text – in its socioeconomic and symbolic dimensions – that underlies the un-mediated commentaries, especially in the media, that explicitly and implicitly compare to San Diegans to the reactions of New Orleans residents to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina brought to their lives. The racial text functions to explain the process of unmarking those whose bear an unequal burden during disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, and wildfires, in a manner that makes them invisible.

Yet it seems that this ‘lesson’ from Katrina has been missed. For the past week, we have been exposed to a parade of privilege all the while pinpointed by comments about how much this situation differs from the aftermath of Katrina. We hear the staff of donation centers asking people not to give any more, telling them that Qualcomm Stadium is overwhelmed by their demonstrations of concern. What we don’t hear, however, are references to how the fires have affected working San Diegans of color, about whether and where they found refuge, speculations about how many might have lost their homes and other mementos of a lifetime. Why don’t we? That they live in the area is certain because they work in the County as janitors, nannies, cooks, gardeners and farm-workers; much of the wealth we saw parading on TV also embodies their labor power. Why don’t we hear more from and about them? We know there is a donation center operating in Chicano Park that, unlike Qualcomm Stadium, needs more donations. We know that the fires hit at least eleven of the county’s eighteen Indian reservations. We know that the border patrol has been very active, despite public denials, looking out for undocumented workers, even removing them from among evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium. We know that many of them will not seek relief because they fear ‘la migra’ and the Minute Men. We know that migrants perished in the fires without access to reverse 911 calls, official evacuations, or welcome at shelters, although we may never know how many.

We know so much while the media tell us so little about working-class San Diegans of color precisely because the prevailing representation of how San Diegans deal with natural disasters is framed by a racial text, an interpretive framework of the US social space that provides the meanings we capture when seeing or watching wealthy whites and economically dispossessed black, and brown folks in any situation. Because this racial text provides all necessary meanings, a ready-made symbolic apparatus, there is no need for explicit racial comparisons. The mere mention of Katrina by a newscaster, after a report on how much the wildfire refugees at the Qualcomm Stadium are enjoying the break from their daily routines, is enough to produce the image of San Diego as, in the words of one of our graduate students notes, a ‘model community.’

As mentioned earlier, our objective is not to minimize the impact of this disaster upon all San Diegans, including those of us who were not directly affected by the fires but had our daily lives disrupted by closed highways, bad air quality, etc. Our goal here is to unsettle the racial text by identifying its operation and commenting on that which it silences. The links below will take you to some of the analysis a number of us have produced and gathered while, like many San Diegans, we watched on TV or heard on the radio descriptions and interpretations of how San Diego County deals with the fire this time.

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UCSD Ethnic Studies Scholars Make a Statement on Academic Freedom*

It is during times of political conflict and social upheaval when our most cherished national values are tested. Since the events of September 11, 2001 our nation has been struggling with the balancing act of ensuring our national security while upholding our hard fought constitutional protections such as the freedom of speech. This tension emerges quite palpably on university campuses and in the media in public discussions over academic freedom and whether scholars have the right to voice opinions that are in deep conflict with those held by much of the citizenry. We must guard steadfastly against the desire to curb our most basic freedoms in these times. This applies most especially to those of us who may wish to exercise dissent, whether it be in the town square, in a public hearing, in a place of worship, on the airwaves, or in our nation’s centers of higher education. As university scholars, we have dedicated our lives to education—through our teaching, writing, and service—and its critical role in creating and sustaining democratic societies. For this reason, we find it a reprehensible distortion of the most revered principles of education to encourage students and faculty to make lists of teachers and professors labeled as “radical” or “conservative,” instead of engaging them intellectually. Academics have an obligation and responsibility to promote critical thinking in university classrooms and in the public sphere. In other words, one of the most important parts of our job is to encourage students and publics to ask difficult and sometimes troubling questions about our society. Finally, we would also issue an urgent reminder to those who would tread on the academic freedom of others, that the very nation they wish to shelter from controversial expressions of opinion (excluding hate speech, of course) by some individuals and groups, is most at risk when we fail to also protect the rights and freedoms of those persons.

*The University of California’s own policy on academic freedom guarantees these rights as well.

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