Cal’s Dr. Nadesan Permaul Letter to Haverford about Commencement

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On  May 14, 2014, the University of California’s Dr. Nadesan Permaul sent a letter to The Bi-College News, concerning Haverford’s response to Robert Birgeneau as one of the speakers for the 2014 commencement.  The letter is below:


Dear Haverford College,

I regret that a minority of students and faculty were able to dissuade Chancellor Robert Birgeneau from speaking at your campus. Chancellor Birgeneau is one of the leading educators in the United States, and lead the nation’s and the world’s premier public university through an era of operational challenges that no private college in America could have weathered as successfully. He also collaborated with student leaders to 1) revitalize the student managed student center after 50 years of neglect, provided a middle class option to reduce tuition at Berkeley to a fraction of what Haverford students pay, and lead the policy initiative that eliminated tuition for the thousands of students [7,700+] whose family income is under $40,000 a year and attend Cal. Do any of the Haverford students or the faculty who condemned him appreciate those achievements in comparison to the questionable decision made by other campus administrators in his absence regarding the occupy protest? He never avoided responsibility for campus management decisions, and while honest folks will disagree on the decisions that were made, they do not overshadow the important achievements of his tenure as Chancellor. When progressives act like their reactionary counterparts condemning leaders based on a single issue, they diminish the concept of progressive, and they call into question the quality of the very liberal education we value. As a person of color who lived through the student movement at Berkeley, now teaches at Cal, and someone who self-identifies as a progressive, I am disappointed at the shallow intellectual effort that precluded many from hearing Chancellor Birgeneau. You missed an opportunity to validate the very principles that Berkeley students are rightly famous for championing; “free speech.”

Dr. Nadesan Permaul
University of California, Berkeley

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  1. Thank you for your thoughtful letter, Dr. Permaul. Now, with your knowledge of Dr. Birgeneau’s progressive views and history in the civil rights movement, could you please explain what he might have meant when he declared, both before and after the police attack, that linking arms is “not non-violent”? It sounds like the kind of remark that Bull Connor might have made in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. (Predictably, the cops behaved like Bull Connor’s cops.)
    Again, with your knowledge of Dr. Birgeneau’s progressive career, could you also please explain what he might have meant when he said that the protesters, including apparently those hospitalized with broken ribs, got what they were looking for?
    I’m asking you these questions because Dr. Birgeneau refused to answer the superb letter from students and faculty members, which he apparently considered insolent and arrogant. (Here is the letter, which I think has been badly misreported in the media.
    Since you’re at Berkeley, could you also please tell me what was wrong with the tents on campus in the first place? The “sanitation” claim was surely ridiculous. These are students on a campus. They can easily go into any building to use a restroom, get coffee or lunch, and can go back to their dorms to shower and sleep – as they did. Students at Duke camp out in tents every year to buy athletic tickets, and receive support from the Duke administration, which even provides WiFi in the tents. My freshman year at Cornell, students erected tents to protest inadequate housing. The Cornell administration, far from calling in the campus police (much less in riot gear, which they didn’t have) entered into discussions with the students and agreed to build more dorms and involve students in the design.
    And could you please tell me: is there some explanation for this authoritarian streak among university administrators in California? Tasers (UCLA), pepper spray (UC Davis), billy clubs (Berkeley)? At Stanford, where Condoleezza Rice is based, they have established a tiny “free speech” zone like those imposed by the Bush administration. Not only is it a very small space on that vast campus, it’s only one hour a day, Monday through Friday, without a microphone except on Fridays with a special permit. You can’t even hand out leaflets anywhere else. As the Stanford Daily, the student newspaper, has pointed out, that’s even a violation of California law, enacted after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, that if something is legal out on the street, it’s legal for students and faculty on a campus.
    You say this is a free speech issue. It doesn’t appear that it’s the Haverford students and faculty members who are the ones obstructing it.

    • Mark, your reply illustrates the narrow minded approach taken by many in these matters.

      You bring up “free speech zones” as a critique while implicitly supporting those who didn’t want Birgeneau’s speech unless he met certain demands.

      It’s time for you to put on your big boy pants and live with the reality that two wrongs don’t make a right.

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