University of California professors condemn school system president’s viewpoint on Middle East conflicts

A group of about 150 University of California professors penned a public letter rebuking the school system’s president for proposing new educational programs that would, in part, train faculty on presenting a “viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.”

In a letter Thursday, the faculty took issue with several aspects of the proposal and called on University of California President Michael Drake to rescind his use of the term “viewpoint-neutral history” from his remarks to the UC Board of Regents on Nov. 15.  

“We are all committed to inclusivity and academic excellence, but to suggest that the UC administration should determine how and what we teach will set a chilling precedent for our field and the many others engaged in teaching topics that might be considered controversial or divisive, like climate change, the history of racism, and genocide and mass atrocity,” the professors wrote in their letter.

By using that term, the professors continued, “you appear to be calling into question the academic integrity of the community of University of California scholars already engaged in the historical study and teaching of the Middle East.”

“It is an unneeded rebuke of the rigorous work done by our colleagues who spend significant time developing and delivering world-class curriculum and pedagogy, not to mention the very principle of faculty shared governance which rests in the faculty the sole responsibility for maintaining the quality of our universities’ academic programs,” they added.

The critical letter comes after Drake earlier this month announced that $7 million of his office’s budget would be dedicated to three specific areas – $3 million of which would go toward emergency mental health support and another $2 million would help campuses “develop educational programs” that would “help inform and improve the public discourse on this issue.”

“This will include programs focused on better understanding anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, how to recognize and combat extremism, and a viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East,” Drake added, in his remarks earlier this month.

Another $2 million would help “train our own leadership, staff, and faculty who are seeking guidance on how to navigate their roles as educators in this space,” he said, adding, “The goal is to ensure that UC leaders and educators are equipped with the knowledge they need to respond when issues arise and that our university policies are supportive, preventative, and viewpoint-neutral.”

In the letter Thursday, the faculty said they were “deeply concerned” about the word “preventative” in Drake’s remarks, saying it is reminiscent of the United Kingdom’s “prevent” strategy which was designed to prevent “vulnerable people from being drawn into extremism.” In reality, they wrote, the strategy referred to methods to “monitor, surveil, silence and intimidate students and faculty who engage in research or express opinions critical of the UK Government and its policies.”

“Your statement has worrying echoes with other countries where governments have attempted to introduce policies that would constrain, censor and punish critical speech and scholarship,” they wrote.

The University of California responded to the letter in an emailed statement, saying the programs Drake proposed would be voluntary and did not refer to classroom curricula.

“The University of California remains deeply committed to shared governance and the academic freedom of our faculty. The president’s remarks were referencing voluntary educational programming on our campuses, not classroom content or curriculum. We are actively working with our campuses to determine how to distribute these funds in ways that will benefit our campus communities,” the statement read.

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