On September 17 a committee of the Regents of the University of California discussed at their regular meeting a proposed “Statement of Principles against Intolerance” that had been drafted and offered for their approval by President Janet Napolitano and her staff. The Regents resoundingly rejected the draft, by implication questioning Napolitano’s judgment that it was worth their time. Items on the Regents’ agenda rarely attract public attention, but this one was different. Before the meeting the Regents received thousands of communications objecting to the statement, and both before and during the meeting there was severe criticism by individuals, organizations, and Regents.
Both state and national press reported on the event, but these accounts seemed in some ways confusing because the statement was criticized for two quite different reasons. Some thought the statement went too far, while others thought it didn’t go far enough. The latter wanted stronger action against campus anti-Semitism, while the former saw in the statement a threat to the free expression of ideas. But both wanted it withdrawn.
To fully grasp what happened at the meeting we need to understand that two different developments on the UC campuses, involving very different kinds of people, led up to the meeting. The one involved an ugly series of anti-Semitic incidents on the campuses. The other was a movement to identify and stamp out “microaggressions.”
The anti-Semitic incidents were well documented, and persistent. There have been painted Swastikas, graffiti expressing Nazi sentiments (e.g., “Hitler was right” and “Zionists should be sent to the gas chambers”), vandalizing of a Holocaust Museum, physical threats and even physical attacks. In particular, students wearing the Star of David are often menaced or assaulted. In one case a student was surrounded by angry Muslim students who threatened to kill him. Before the meeting over 100 UC faculty wrote a letter to the Regents expressing alarm at campus anti-Semitism, and noting that too often criticism of Israel crosses the line into attacks on Jews as people.
The campus climate is also influenced by bias in many classrooms, where treatments of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute commonly fall short of what competent academic inquiry must be: a sober presentation of all the relevant historical facts (not just those that favor one side), and of how those facts are interpreted by all the major participants. Instead, lectures and readings often present only one interpretation, and therefore only the evidence that supports that interpretation.
At the meeting, Regent and former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez laid to rest any possible doubts about the authenticity of these campus reports when he coolly said that he himself had witnessed actions on a variety of campuses which by any reasonable person’s definition were anti-Semitic. But perhaps the most compelling incident was the UCLA student Council’s vote to deny Rachel Beyda’s proposed appointment to its judicial Council on the grounds that she was Jewish.
The Nuremburg laws at UC? (The vote was hastily reversed only when the majority began to understand what this would cost them.) The microaggression hunters, on the other hand, seemed to need a microscope to find what they were looking for. They wanted to see intolerance, bigotry, racism and sexism in all kinds of seemingly innocuous everyday language, so that, for example, to say “the most qualified person should get the job” must be interpreted as covert aggression and bigotry towards minorities, and not (as we always thought) simply the expression of a common view of an important question in social policy.
The common expression “America is the land of opportunity” might seem benign to most of us, but for the microaggression people it too carried dark implications of bigotry. And if a professor notices a minority graduate student looking lost in the corridors of a campus science building and offers help, that too is a microaggression, because the implication is that the student is really there to break into one of the labs. The draft statement offered a real gem: calling disabled people disabled would be a microaggression too.
Side by side, the two situations formed an odd contrast. The microaggression hunters strained to find bigotry that nobody else could see, but managed not to notice all too real, well-documented bigotry and aggression that horrified others. They were quick to notice the slightest hurt to anyone’s feelings in some cases, but couldn’t see real emotional anguish even when it was repeatedly brought to their attention. What explains the exaggerated zeal in the one case, and total lack of concern in the other?
First of all, microaggression theorists have a finite list of groups that are oppressed and need protection, and Jews are not on their list. (History is not their strong suit.) Another motivating factor is surely a desire to narrow the range of permissible expression on campus. People who have reasoned doubts about affirmative action, or who think the free market a powerful force for the good, would be effectively silenced if the microaggression theorists had their way.
Finally there is the fact that on the modern campus denouncing racism and sexism seems to satisfy a deep-seated need for moral self-congratulation, though it is now terribly hard to find much of it there: campuses are devoutly politically correct places. Hence the frenzied attempts to find even the faintest traces of the sins that can afford the delights of ritual moral preening.
Needless to say, whenever accounts of microaggression theory come to the attention of the general public, the common sense of those who don’t live on campuses comes into play: the public finds all of this so stupid as to border on demented. And for everyone but the tiny charmed circle of microaggression obsessives, there is no need for any more nuanced judgment.
While both strands of campus life fed into what happened at the Regents’ meeting, only one of them actually provoked the session. The clamor at widespread, gross campus anti-Semitism became so great that something obviously had to be done about it. But—and this is the crucial point for an understanding of what happened at the meeting—while anti-Semitism, not the notion of microaggressions, sparked the need for the meeting, Janet Napolitano assigned the drafting of the statement to the wrong side: she gave it to the microaggression theorists. She had recently created the new position of Vice-Provost for Diversity and Engagement (at a salary around $200,000), and the first appointee to that title is UC’s premier advocate of microaggressions. Predictably, microaggression people wanted to use the occasion to advance their own ideas, and so the draft was heavy on microaggressions, and didn’t even mention anti-Semitism.
This couldn’t have been a simple misjudgment on Napolitano’s part, for she is herself heavily invested in microaggressions. Earlier this year she set up a series of seminars on each of the ten campuses in which microaggression theory was relentlessly pressed on deans and department chairs. When protests arose about the inanity of the content of these meetings, Napolitano had her staff claim that the seminars had been purely voluntary. But that was a lie. In her letter of invitation to the seminars she had spoken firmly of “the seminar you will be attending,” and bluntly informed everyone that she had asked to be informed of attendance on each campus. Attend, or else, was the clear message.
Reaction to the draft at the Regents’ meeting was withering. Many Regents were openly contemptuous of a statement that avoided any real engagement with campus anti-Semitism. Regent Norman Pattiz set the tone, leading off his remarks by asking: “What is this? It doesn’t say anything about anything.” He went on to say that it was “insulting” to the people who had brought the problem to the Regents.
Pattiz was clearly angry at UC’s attempt to dodge the problem of anti-Semitism, and the next three Regents explicitly associated themselves with his devastating remarks. The remaining five who spoke took essentially a similar view. John Perez called the statement a “whitewash…one which essentially says nothing,” and just walks away from offensive behavior. Bonnie Reiss lamented the fact that the statement gave no indication that the Regents had listened to the complainants. Bruce Varner said that we needed a statement that dealt with the real issue. And the student Regent, Abraham Oved, said that he had tried to make suggestions to the Vice-Provost who was drafting the statement, but was rebuffed.
Regent Richard Blum even went to the extraordinary length of saying that he had discussed the draft with his wife (US Senator Diane Feinstein), and that she planned to comment publicly about the university unless it produced something much better than this. As a UC faculty member I’ve seen 10 Presidents come and go, and don’t recall any of them being treated with such contempt.
People concerned about the free expression of ideas on campus had been just as disturbed. A few days before the meeting, free speech theorist Eugene Volokh had published a highly critical analysis of the draft: . But though it was the microaggression silliness in the draft that prior to the meeting had most attracted adverse comment by those concerned about free expression, it was barely mentioned at the meeting, except in so far as the statement was repeatedly denounced as meaningless and empty.
Evidently, all present felt that that was all the commentary that microaggression deserved. Apart from issues of substance, the statement was also a confused and contradictory mess. It claimed to honor free expression while attempting to restrict it. It claimed not to be punitive while condemning certain expressions as unacceptable. As staff work it was lamentably incompetent, and yet Janet Napolitano thought it good enough to place before the Regents.
The furor at the meeting was a humiliation of Napolitano, and she knew it. She responded to the discussion only with a short, halting, barely coherent comment. But then the next blow fell: the Regents took the whole matter out of the President’s hands, giving it to a committee that they would set up expressly to deal with it, one composed of Regents, faculty and students. Napolitano and her Vice-Provost for Diversity and Engagement would no longer be in control.
Grasp of Free Expression
The result of the meeting was in one way encouraging for UC. The university community and the Regents had recognized the draft for the absurdity that it was, and demanded better. And the Regents had done what governing boards so rarely do: they had intervened decisively after it had become clear that the administration could not or would not do the right thing.
What particularly impressed me was Regent Perez’s clear grasp of the nature of free expression indispensable to campus life, and of the need for firm action on anti-Semitism but only within the limits of that framework. University spokesmen never came close to this level of analysis and understanding. What was not so encouraging was that UC’s President had been unable to recognize empty verbiage when she saw it, that she had committed herself unequivocally to the foolishness of microaggression theory, and that she was wasting a great deal of the university’s time and money on it.
When Napolitano was appointed, doubts were expressed about the appointment of a political figure with no experience in academic institutions. What has now become clear is that things are much worse than that. To debate the pros and cons of Napolitano’s performance in restrained academic fashion, setting out logical points for and against, would not really do justice to the situation. Only some rather more blunt language will do that: the meeting at which Napolitano presented her draft statement on intolerance brought shame on a great University, and a realization that it now has a politically correct president who is not up to the job.