Palestine: A Settler Colonialism Analysis Course — Israel and Limits of Academic Freedom at UC Berkeley

As the sponsoring faculty member for the now “suspended” student-led DeCal course Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis, I must set the factual record straight and provide a list of the institutional academic procedures followed to approve the class offering.

The Chancellor’s Office letter providing the reason for “suspension” stated that: “it has been determined that the facilitator for the course in question did not comply with policies and procedures that govern the normal academic review and approval of proposed courses for the Decal program.” Certainly, one would expect that the Dean and the Chancellor’s office would have reached out and communicated with the student facilitator and sponsoring faculty to clarify and consult before taking action to suspend the course two weeks into the semester, but it was not the case. Up to Tuesday morning September 13, 2016, I and Paul Hadweh, the student facilitator, did not receive any communication or requests for clarification from the Administration regarding this course or any issues related to it.

The decision to suspend the course was communicated to me via a terse email by Executive Dean Carla Hesse at 9:59am on Tuesday morning, September 13, 2016 with an urgent request to meet either at 3:30PM on the same day or next morning. I responded with a 3:15pm time for a meeting with the Dean Hesse, Paul and Chair of Ethnic Studies Professor Shari Huhndorf. In the meeting, we listened to a list of claims that reflected the content of the letter by the 43 external groups that opposed the course.

The Dean insisted that the course did not comply with policies and procedures and the syllabus should have been submitted and needed the approval of the Dean of the College of Letters and Science per University policy. However, as a matter of factual record, the DeCal page that details the steps to be followed for approval includes the following language in bold letters: “Note that DeCals in the College of Letters & Science no longer need to submit a copy of their proposals to the Dean starting Fall 2014.”

The Dean also raised concerns of “political indoctrination,” espousing a “single view” and possibly crossing the line into political organizing as other reasons for the suspension. In the meeting it became clear that the concerns about the course content itself were behind the fig leaf of policies and procedures, and were the driving force behind the suspension, despite the course being already approved by the Academic Senate Committee on Courses.

Finally, a claim was raised as to whether the course dealing with Palestine and settler colonialism belongs in Ethnic Studies and whether the more appropriate sponsor would be the Department of Near Eastern Studies or the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The question on whether Ethnic Studies is the right place for such a course is an issue for the faculty of Ethnic Studies to determine, and all evidence points to a substantial engagement on the part of Ethnic Studies with the field of colonialism, postcolonial and decolonization. Furthermore, the call for other units on campus to be the sponsors is thoroughly misconceived, since both Near Eastern Studies and Middle Eastern Studies have a long-standing policy of not sponsoring any DeCal courses. The fact that Ethnic Studies facilitates such cutting-edge courses is part and parcel of the history and institutional memory that brought the field into existence through similarly led student-run initiatives. In the abstract, the question is legitimate and has merits, but in the context of this course, it is challenging the rights of faculty members in Ethnic Studies to determine the scope and content of courses taught that have transnational and comparative aspects to them.

The charge of the class being a form of “political indoctrination” is simplistic and offensive to Ethnic Studies, the faculty who reviewed and approved the course, and the intelligence of UC Berkeley students enrolled in the course. In reality, the departure of the course into a new and innovative area of academic inquiry that is outside the existing status quo is the key issue. Precisely the attempt by the student to engage in complex comparative approaches within an academic exploration of settler colonialism in relation to Palestine is what caused this firestorm of external ideologically committed groups from inside the US and Israel to mobilize in opposition to the course. Settler colonialism is an expanding academic field of study and a classroom is the right place for students to explore the complexities involved as they relate to Palestine as a subject matter.

As to the claim of a single point of view espoused by the course, which implies that settler colonialism can be reduced to a mere listing of names and simply associating them with a reductionist political view, is, at best, erroneous. In fact, the groups targeting the course demand a uniformed adherence to a predetermined and narrowly prescribed framing which is closed-minded to an engagement with the diverse academic literature on settler colonialism, including a substantial body of work produced by Israeli, Palestinian and world scholars alike.

Certainly, the questions raised by the administration could have been addressed had the university leadership followed the principles of shared governance and communicated directly with the student and sponsoring faculty as soon as any concerns were raised. Having sponsored upward of 15 other DeCal courses in the past with students following the same procedure published on the University website, I find it utterly offensive, shameful and bureaucratically spineless that the university leadership opted to use bogus procedural grounds to blame Paul Hadweh, an undergraduate UC Berkeley student who took the initiative to organize a course following published guidelines on the University’s own website. It is clear to me that the Administration swiftly yielded to external political pressure from ideologically and Islamophobically committed groups led by the AMCHA Initiative, a political advocacy organization, and opted to punish the student rather than work to defend academic freedom, free speech and inquiry on campus and within DeCal courses. In my opinion, this kind of action ultimately results in the university fueling anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on campus by creating a false confrontation that stigmatizes academic inquiry.

Confusing PR work with communicating facts in a tier 1 research institution, UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof continued to give conflicting reasons for the supposed procedural shortcomings for course approval. Again, to put emphasis on the factual rather than the spin, the Academic Senate Committee on Courses, which is responsible for reviewing academic offerings, passed the 1 unit course on July 27th, 2016, and established that it met the academic expectations for having significant pedagogical content and the necessary level of organization and faculty supervision. The last attempt at spinning the “suspension” to deflect from the political pressure is the claim that the acting chair of the Ethnic Studies Department during the summer did not have the authority to approve such courses, but only the permanent chair. When the PR story shifts daily, then this is a clear sign of an administration that made a decision in haste and is trying to find ways to shift the blame away from the politically and content- related cause of action by the Dean and the Chancellor.

DeCal courses are part of a long established tradition at UC Berkeley that views education and knowledge production as a dynamic process with the encouragement of students to pursue ideas and explore them in an open-ended fashion. The fact that such a course was organized by a student to engage a highly contested issue should be seen as a positive development, a sign of maturity and intelligence for all those involved. Closing the door to such free academic inquiry, while tarnishing the reputation of both the student and the sponsoring faculty, leads to greater mistrust and isolation on campus rather than fostering an open, inclusive, and rigorous academic arena.