UC Berkeley has reinstated a student-led class on the history of Palestine suspended on 13 September, following sustained outcry by students, members of faculty, lawyers and supporters of campus free speech and academic freedom.
More than 40 off-campus Israel-aligned groups – along with the campus’ Hillel chapter – had pressured the university and its outgoing chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, to censor the class.
The groups claimed it was a venue for “political indoctrination.”
There are indications that an Israeli government official and the heads of Israeli universities also acted to pressure the Berkeley administration.
In suspending the class, Dirks and the executive dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, Carla Hesse, had accused Paul Hadweh, the student teacher who planned the course, of failing to follow procedures.
Hadweh maintained that he and his faculty sponsor, Hatem Bazian, complied with all policies and procedures for approving the class.
Palestine Legal sent a letter to Dirks on Friday, warning the administration that suspending the course was a violation of the First Amendment and “undermines Hadweh’s right to an equal educational opportunity, and subverts the university’s stated processes for approval of DeCal [Democratic Education at Cal] courses.”
Members of the academic senate planned to discuss the suspension of the course during an extraordinary session on Monday.
But on Monday morning, Hesse announced to members of faculty that she had reinstated the course after conducting a review.
However, she still singles out Palestine-related subject matter for special scrutiny.
Hadweh told The Electronic Intifada that although he is relieved the class has been reinstated, he “expects nothing less than an apology” from the administration, which has not yet made concessions to him for his mistreatment.
“The changes are just clarifications to the course description, its objectives and the final project,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
The course seeks to explore the body of scholarly literature and ideas related to the history of Palestine and settler-colonialism, he explained.
Hesse says that she suspended Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis “because it became apparent that neither the chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies, nor I had been made aware formally of this DeCal class offering, nor seen the syllabus.”
Bazian told The Electronic Intifada that the dean has not personally reviewed the syllabuses for the other 193 DeCal courses offered this semester.
“Not a single course that I have sponsored in the past had to be run by the dean’s office, including the two that I sponsored last year,” he said.
He added that the other DeCal courses that are under the College of Letters and Sciences “had not submitted nor had any issue raised with them regarding the procedural process.”
“Palestine-related courses are subject to regulations by exceptions, administration and political intervention that run contrary to the principles of academic freedom and inquiry,” he explained.
“The discussion in the meeting was not about procedural matters but rather the content of the course and claims made directly based on the letter that came from the 43 external, ideologically-committed groups.”
In a meeting last week, Bazian says that “Dean Hesse did ask for changes to the content, considered the course to be one-sided, claimed it to be a type of ‘political indoctrination’ and even held up the poster [advertising the class] stating that Israel is not included in it.”
He said that Hadweh “directed the dean’s attention to read the text, which actually had it [Israel] and described in detail the shifts in land and territory held by Israel.”
Bazian added: “I, also, asked if this is the case, then could Dean Hesse point to me on the map Israel’s borders so as to include a demarcation of it? At that point, the dean put the map away realizing that such argument does not hold.”
Hesse said she had asked Hadweh, Bazian and the department chair “to assess whether the course description and syllabus had a particular political agenda structured into its framing.”
She also asked if the course description had “potentially violated” the university’s policies on course content as well as the “principles against intolerance,” which were also recently formulated under intense pressure and scrutiny from Israel lobby groups.
“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,” Bazian had said over the weekend.
In scrutinizing the course in order to justify a suspension, Hesse also challenges its placement under the Department of Ethnic Studies.
She states that she asked the department’s chair, along with Hadweh and Bazian, “to clarify how a course focused exclusively on Palestine was consistent with the academic mission of the Department of Ethnic Studies, as opposed to another department or program with expertise in regional area studies.”
The placement of a class is an issue for the department’s faculty to determine, Bazian said, “and all evidence points to a substantial engagement on the part of ethnic studies with the field of colonialism, postcolonial and decolonization.”
Victory, but damage done
“This is a victory for Paul who spent spent eight months going through all the recommended and mandated procedures to facilitate a course,” said Liz Jackson of the legal advocacy group Palestine Legal.
“It’s also a victory for the 26 students who enrolled and had their academic studies severely disrupted, and for students and scholars across the US who are facing a coordinated attack on the right to speak and study freely about Palestine-Israel,” Jackson added.
She told The Electronic Intifada that “from the moment this controversy broke to now makes it obvious that the university is applying special scrutiny to the Palestinian perspective, to a Palestinian student trying to study Palestine. They can’t undo all of the facts that make that clear.”
Jackson added: “From the fact that Israel advocacy organizations brought the class to the administration’s attention, complaining about something that they don’t like, to the large number of Israeli studies courses that are also arguably ‘one-sided’ and which ignore history and are political, to the fact that they did not apply similar scrutiny to other DeCal courses, to the fact that they tried to cover up viewpoint discrimination by applying procedural errors which did not exist, this all makes it very clear that this is special treatment toward Palestinian perspectives.”
She said that the reinstatement of the course is a good thing, “but the university has a lot more to do to repair the damage they’ve done to the educational environment.”
John K. Wilson, an expert on academic freedom issues who edits the American Association of University Professors’ Academe Blog, also says that questions about the administration’s conduct linger despite the reinstatement of the class.
Wilson quotes Shari Huhndorf, chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies, challenging Hesse’s claims that changes were made to the course description and syllabus to meet concerns raised by the administration.
Supporting Hadweh’s assertions, Huhndorf says that the revisions to the syllabus “simply clarify that the course does indeed comply with relevant university policies.”
The revisions did not involve changes to the class’s content, according to Huhndorf.
“It is also becoming increasingly clear that Dean Hesse may not have had the authority to suspend the course at all,” Wilson adds, citing university rules that place authorization and supervision of all courses under the authority of the academic senate.
Meanwhile, as he prepares to teach next week, Hadweh said he’s “feeling great” about the course’s reinstatement.
The university’s suspension of the course meant that the first two classes were missed and will have to be made up for.
But, he said, “I’m excited to get back into the classroom, which is where I wanted to be from day one.”