Cal Officials Reverse Course, Reinstate Controversial Class on Palestine - NBC Bay Area
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Cal Officials Reverse Course, Reinstate Controversial Class on Palestine

Some accuse UC administrators of imposing on academic freedoms

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    BERKELEY, CA - MAY 22: Pedestrians walk through the UC Berkeley campus on May 22, 2014 in Berkeley, California. According to the Academic Ranking of World Universities by China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Stanford University ranked second behind Harvard University as the top universities in the world. UC Berkeley ranked third. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

    Amid concerns about academic freedom, UC Berkeley has reinstated a student-led course on Palestine a week after administrators cancelled the class. Jewish activists had argued the 1-credit "DeCal" class promotes anti-Semitism and had a political agenda.

    Administrators said the course didn't get the proper faculty approvals when they suspended the class after only one session last week.

    In a letter released Monday, Carla Hesse, executive dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, wrote that the Ethnic Studies department reviewed and revised the syllabus, so she would reverse her decision and rescind her suspension of the course.

    Following a meeting of the faculty committee that approves courses, the Academic Senate strongly refuted the administration's action in a statement released Tuesday.

    "The administration's attempts to suspend the course reflect a disturbing lack of transparency and disregard for the fundamental principles that underlie the faculty's curricular oversight," it read.

    Under the UC Regents policy on course content, the faculty has final say over academic content of courses, with the Academic Senate's Committee on Courses of Instruction deferring to experts in each individual department who alone can determine the standards of their respective fields.

    The administration's action undermined the Senate’s authority over courses and curricula, the faculty wrote.

    The changes made to the syllabus mostly rephrase statements in the first version to make them questions in the second. DeCal stands for Democratic Education at Cal.

    Paul Hadweh, 22, a senior who never thought he'd find himself in the middle of an international academic controversy, said he made "minimal" changes to the syllabus. He was represented by Palestine Legal.

    Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the director of a non-profit that calls out anti-Semitic activity on college campuses, said the modifications were "dismissive" and demonstrated that ethnic studies faculty didn't take the dean's concerns seriously.

    "It's outrageous for an academic department at a university known for high standards of excellence like Berkeley to say they don't care about whether a course is full of political proselytizing and is completely one-sided," she said.

    Her group, Amcha, and dozens of other Jewish organizations wrote to the Chancellor's office to complain that the class indoctrinates students with anti-Israel bias.

    Hadweh, a peace and conflict studies major who was born in Sacramento and moved to Bethlehem at age 10, said he was encouraged that many Berkeley faculty and students came to his defense but disappointed that administrators caved to outside interests.

    "Just look what happened to a 1-unit, student-led course. That's why there are so few spaces to critically engage in the question of Palestine," at Berkeley, Hadweh said.

    When Hadweh, faculty advisor Hatem Bazian and the Ethnic Studies chair met with Dean Hesse, Hadweh said he asked if anyone in the class actually complained.

    "She said that she couldn't respond. It was clear that no one complained," he said. Instead, the 26 students enrolled in the class wrote a letter in support of his class. Hundreds of students and teachers from universities around the country signed an online petition authored by Jewish Voice for Peace.

    "This course was meant for everyone. Anyone interested in the topic was welcome to enroll. At first I didn't even know if anyone would. I had convinced myself that if two people showed up, we'd have a good discussion," he said.

    During the first session, he focused on writing a community agreement that would ensure that his students would feel safe and comfortable.

    "Call me biased if you like, but I have the conviction that we can all live together. This is a campus of 37,000 people with almost no courses on Palestine. Instead of complaining I decided to do something about that," he said.

    Since the class was reinstated on Monday, more than 30 people have contacted him asking to join the class.

    The syllabus says the class aims to explore Palestinian history "through the lens of settler colonialism."

    Some Jewish students hear that terminology and assume Hadweh's instruction won't consider Israel’s right to exist, or feel welcome to express their perspectives in class, Rossman-Benjamin said.

    "It's disingenuous for people to yell and scream academic freedom," she said. "The Regents’ policies are there to maintain the public's confidence in the university."

    Rossman-Benjamin also pointed to the Regents Policy on Course Content to argue that the class is in violation because it takes a slanted approach to a controversial topic.

    "When the faculty aren't doing their job, then the administration has to step in and say, 'Wait, let's take a pause.' It's about process,” she said.

    Last year, a working group appointed by the Regents published a report that condemned anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and called on instructors to challenge bias and fight intolerance while protecting free speech.

    Hadweh said he just wants to teach his class. He’s indignant that his attempt to foster a discussion was interpreted as propaganda.

    "It's offensive to students to claim that this was indoctrination, as if students can't decide what to think themselves," he said. "I think it's shameful that the administration would so publicly throw me, one of its students, under the bus in such a public manner," he said.