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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017
The turmoil surrounding Milo Yiannopoulos's visit to Berkeley has garnered national attention.  Despite the reality that UC Berkeley as an institution honored the invitation of the College Republicans and that the protests by campus members were peaceful and in accord with everyone's First Amendment rights (I say nothing here about the individuals who invaded the protest intent on violence) right-wing figures from President Trump on down have used the incident to inveigh against the University and to threaten its funding and demean its students and faculty.

The eagerness with which the Right has attacked UC Berkeley (both the institution and the students, faculty and administrators) should not surprise us: it is clear that there is now a concerted effort from Iowa to Tennessee to Wisconsin to North Carolina and beyond to undermine the academic autonomy of public universities and to decimate employee rights.  In this situation it is more important than ever that universities and their leadership stand firm in their defense of reasoned debate and dissent no matter whether they agree with it or not.  From my perspective, at least, Chancellor Dirks' statement as to why he would not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus did just that--elaborating his reasoning and attending to the arguments opposed to it.

Unfortunately, at least one Berkeley administrator failed in this responsibility.  As you probably know, a group of Berkeley faculty wrote a series of letters to the Chancellor calling for him to prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking on campus. As they argued:

Yiannopoulos’ deplorable views pass from protected free speech to incitement, harassment and defamation once they publicly target individuals in his audience or on campus, creating conditions for concrete harm and actually harming students through defamatory and harassing actions. Such actions are protected neither by free speech nor by academic freedom. For this reason, the university should not provide a platform for such harassment.

And as they point out, Yiannopoulos had indeed singled out an individual at a previous speech at UW Milwaukee.  One does not have to agree with the call to disinvite Yiannopoulos (personally I don't) to recognize that the letter makes a series of arguments that need to be taken seriously.

But that is not the tack taken by Carla Hesse, the Dean of Social Sciences at Berkeley. Instead, she entered into Donald J. Trump's favorite mode of communication to tweet: "Because the facts still matter: Of 1522 UCBerkeley faculty, 88 (6%) signed letter to Ban Milo."

Leaving aside the fact that this statement came from a dean who last year pointed out that there could be legitimate reasons for urging restraint on abusive speech or who earlier this year appeared to have no difficulty in suspending a student run course in Palestinian studies to look at its syllabus at precisely the point that outside groups had complained about it, and leaving aside the fact that she understated the numbers of signatories, the statement itself is unconscionable.   For what could be its possible purpose but to marginalize the faculty signers, many of whom teach in her division, some of whom are junior faculty?  Shouldn't a dean who is genuinely committed to academic freedom and the right to dissent have aimed to stress that the faculty members were engaged in a serious discussion of an important issue?  Isn't that what universities are for?  Even more importantly, why not point out that UC Berkeley has been engaged in a deeply serious and open discussion of free speech and academic freedom--arguably the most engaged one since the 1960s? Does the dean think that the validity of an argument depends on how many people are saying it?

Especially at a moment when colleges and universities are attacked when they allow criticism of the current policies of the state and the increasingly hostile denigration of those on the margins or in minorities, it is incumbent upon university administrators to support the efforts of students and faculty at their institutions offering reasoned and important dissent.  Dean Hesse's tweet failed that responsibility.  Let's hope that others do not fail as well.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Thursday, February 9, 2017
As you may recall, a bill to eliminate tenure was recently introduced into the Iowa State Senate. After a good deal of pushback it appears to have stalled.  But that doesn't mean that the state's Republicans are done trying to attack the rights of Iowa's public workers.  In their latest salvo, they are proposing to severely restrict the range of public employee collective bargaining (with the exception of police and firefighters) and also to make it more difficult to establish and maintain union representation. Although this is a widespread attack on all public employees, the proposed legislation will strike hard at the state's graduate student employees.

At the core of the proposed legislation are two important issues.  The first is to make it illegal to negotiate things like benefits or supplemental income or retirement.  In effect, the aim is to make it possible only to negotiate on wages and leave workers to the whims of their employers (or the Governor) as to issues such as health care.  Although University of Iowa officials have indicated that they would continue to maintain graduate student employees' health care, one never knows what would happen in the face of a gubernatorial decision to reduce benefits or in the case of funding cuts to the University.

The second and equally serious threat is posed in a change to the system for certifying unions.  The legislation would make it necessary for a union to get the vote of a majority of workers within a collective bargaining unit for the right to represent, as opposed to getting a majority of those casting a ballot.  This is a high hurdle for any union or any candidate: under these rules, the current Iowa Governor would not have been elected since he only received 59% of an electorate that was approximately 50% of the state's eligible voters.  It is especially burdensome to graduate student workers whose eligible unit members are so often in flux.  Moreover, the bill would force re-certification elections every two years.

In taking these steps, Iowa Republicans are seeking to undo a long-standing system of collective bargaining for public employees.  Since 1974 Iowa public employees have operated within a system that forbade strikes (and there haven't been any) in exchange for a system that recognized their right to bargain collectively over a wide set of issues.  Iowa's Republicans are now seeking to destroy that system and hamstring public employee unions.  Given the material constraints that graduate student workers (and graduate students more generally) live within, the most likely result is a reduction in Iowa graduate students' total compensation and quality of life.

But this is more than just an Iowa issue.  Iowa has long been a right-to-work state and its hostility to unions is clear.  But just as with Wisconsin, Iowa Republicans are part of a larger drive to attack unions and worker's collective rights across the country.  One Iowa Representative (along with one from South Carolina) has recently introduced a national right to work bill in the House of Representatives. These initiatives are not simply of local interest.  They threaten to roll back the recent gains that graduate students have obtained through the NLRB and the ability of academic workers everywhere to unionize and defend their interests through collective bargaining.   The result will be to worsen the working conditions and autonomy of academic professionals in general and further subject education itself to the dictates of politicians and managers.