UC Berkeley Professor Harley Shaiken probably did not expect to be denounced as a tool of the racist establishment when he came to class recently. After all, he was simply giving a midterm exam when protesters appeared to demand that he checked his “privilege” and cancel his exam due to the stress that it was causing for students. Instead, the students demanded that he assign a “take-home essay with significant time to prepare.” The scene was truly Felliniesque but whatever humor might be found in the moment was lost by the fact that this is not an isolated occurrence on our campuses, as we have previously discussed.
The protesters insisted that their “well-beings are being put on the line because of the emotional, mental, and physical stress that this university is compounding with what is already going on in [their] everyday lives.” Shaiken (who is an expert on Latin American studies) balked at the notion that Berkeley was an oppressive environment: “This is a campus that is truly related throughout Latin America to the notion of free speech.” The effort to dialogue with the protesters only made things worse and one shouted: “Have you ever checked ‘unlisted’ or ‘undocumented immigrant’? I don’t think so!” The students further objected that Shaiken could not teach workers rights in Mexico as a white man.
Shaiken begins by trying to say that he “admires” their passion, but the protesters quickly cut him off. He then tried to give his own bona fides as a regular protester and denounced right-wing protesters on campus. He said that he is part of protests on the left all of the time but refuses to let “right-wing demonstrators” shut down the school. When he mentions the “integrity” of the school, the protesters smirked and dismissed him. Shaiken offered to give them a forum in the Thursday class to discuss this issue (though it is a bit unclear why the other students have to sit through another diatribe on the issue as opposed to setting aside time outside of class). He then tried to get the students to let the other students complete their exams and speak with him outside.
When other students objected to their disrupting their class they were then attacked and told to shut up and listen: ” Are you trying to silence us right now? Is that what you’re trying to do? . . . you need to listen to us.”
Finally, rather than speak with Shaiken outside of class, the protesters took their complaints to the Department of Ethnic Studies. However, they remained long enough to denounce the students who waited to take their midterm exams as fostering white supremacy . . . because they were at Berkeley for an education. The student insisted “I don’t know why you’re still, like, sitting down, y’all. I don’t understand. I really don’t understand. Y’all can take your fucking test, but people are dying out there.” She added “you can take your f–king exam but people are dying out there.”
We have seen students openly block speakers and disrupt classes on campuses across the country without any discipline from their schools. I recently discussed how students prevented a Northwestern professor from teaching a class with a visitor from INS — leading only to an expression of disappointment from the university. I do not view such disruptions as exercises of free speech but the denial of free speech and free thought. Universities have always protected free speech and fostered debate and dialogue. Schools like Northwestern are not only undermining academic freedom but free speech in not taking action against students who disrupt classrooms and events on campus. These students at Berkeley did not hide their faces or identity. They felt . . . well . . . privileged in disrupting classes. The response from schools should be clear. Students should be suspended for such actions and, if particularly egregious or repeated, they should be expelled. As this video vividly demonstrated, there are students who worked hard to get to Berkeley and want an education. Shaiken clearly wants to give them an education. As educators, we do not run our classes by plebiscite or subject to some “heckler’s veto.” The fact that students at Berkeley and Northwestern feel entitled to disrupt classes is a chilling statement about our priorities as academics. They are clearly being reinforced in these views by university administrations have fail to protect the sanctity of classrooms and the principle of academic freedom.
As a final note, Shaiken does not actually fit the image of a tool of white supremacy and has been recognized for not just his work but his teaching:
Harley Shaiken looks at the role of schooling and skills in the global economy. He explores issues at the intersection of information technology, work organization, labor, and globalization. In particular, he has examined issues of economic and political integration in the Americas, with a focus on the United States and Mexico. He is currently the recipient of grants from the Ford and Hewlett foundations. Since 1998, he has been chair of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. In 1991 he was presented with the Outstanding Teaching Award at the University of California, San Diego. He has served as an adviser on globalization to key leaders of the United States Congress and to policy makers throughout the Americas. His article, “The New Global Economy: Trade and Production under NAFTA,” was published in the Austrian Journal of Development (2001). He is also the author of several books, including Mexico in the Global Economy (1990); Automation and Global Production (1987); and Work Transformed: Automation and Labor in the Computer Age (1985).
Like the Northwestern professor, Shaiken was extremely supportive of the students despite their disruption and he openly identifies with the causes of the left. That does not matter. These students repeat terms like “privilege” like some mindless mantra that shuts down any dialogue and dismisses the arguments of the speaker. Indeed, as previously discussed, some members of groups like Black Lives Matter and Antifa have expressly denounced free speech and the liberal democratic model. Such views reject the very foundation for learning and higher education on our campuses. Yet, too many university officials are cowed by these protesters and evade their responsibilities of protecting academic freedom. The videotape below shows vividly the inevitable result of such academic acquiescence: