After the violence that shut down the speech of the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, the University has come under substantial criticism – including from President Trump, who tweeted a threat to defund it. Many have trotted out the old yarn that the University is nothing more than a hotbed of liberalism and political correctness and not a serious academic place. One article in particular, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, by Heather Mac Donald, a Stanford Law School graduate now employed by the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, attacks the University, asserting it has declined “from a place of learning to a victimology hothouse” and is a “cultural reeducation camp.” These attacks on the University are unwarranted and tarnish the many attributes of this most important institution – and tarnish other colleges and universities across the country and undermine their mission. In a time when it is particularly important to speak about phony facts and other libels, the record needs to be set straight.
To begin, most of the attacks overlook the fact that the violence was perpetrated not by the University as an institution and not by the student body. The University approved Yiannopoulos’ appearance. As has been widely reported on the news pages, the violence was the act of a group of anarchists, not students. To assert that this bears on the University as an institution or its students is factually wrong.
Mac Donald and the other attackers appear to know nothing about Berkeley – or have chosen to ignore the facts. There isn’t space to list all the attributes of this academic powerhouse, but here are some examples. The University is the number one public university in the world, the number three university in the world, public or private. There are 1,600 faculty members – seven of whom have received Nobel Prizes – 35,000 students, and over 350 degree programs in 130 academic departments and 80 interdisciplinary research units. Some of the subjects include such politically correct subjects as aerospace studies, bioengineering, computational and genomic biology, molecular toxicology, infectious diseases and immunity, nuclear engineering, astrophysics, particle physics, and condensed matter physics.
One of the great things about Berkeley is the wide array of areas in which it excels. 41 students (and 9 coaches) from Berkeley competed in the Rio Olympics, and Cal students won 21 medals. If Berkeley were a country, it would have tied Korea for eleventh place in the medal count.
Mac Donald would be surprised to learn that there is plenty of teaching by those 1,600 faculty members. Likewise there is plenty of learning in those classes, and the 35,000 students – presumably none of whom were interviewed by Mac Donald and none were quoted – do more than discuss how they are victims or victimizers. Perhaps they discuss how certain cancerous cells victimize other cells.
In Mac Donald’s piece, she bases her argument that the University is no longer a place of learning and is a “victimology hothouse” and “cultural reeducation camp” on two “emblems” – the first a quotation from Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo on the side of Berkeley’s Law School. She argues the message would no longer be selected by a typical law school – too masculine, it uses the word mankind, it is not identity obsessed, it doesn’t bemoan past discrimination. This argument is bizarre for the simple reason that the quotation remains on the side of Berkeley’s Law School. Shouldn’t she be lauding Berkeley’s law school for this lofty quotation? Instead she complains about it. I attended the law school, and not once did I hear any criticism of the quotation or suggestion it should be removed. Mac Donald attacks the University because of a laudable message.
Then Mac Donald attacks the University because of another “emblem” – a series of banners – that she finds less than laudable. She finds offensive the following statements: “I will acknowledge how power and privilege intersect in our daily lives;” “create an environment where people other than yourself can exist;” “I will be a brave and sympathetic ally;” “Respect the full humanity of others.” I’m trying to understand what is objectionable about them. They are positive messages.
One of the banners Mac Donald finds offensive reads “I will think before I speak and act.” She contends it really means “I will mentally scan the University of California’s official list of microaggressions before I open my mouth.” Really? Is that what it says? Somehow I missed that.
In a fuller version of her article, she writes “Students arrive at Berkeley shockingly ignorant of the most basic rudiments of history and Western culture.” Where in the world does this come from? This year the University had over 85,000 applicants and its acceptance rate will be in the neighborhood of 16%. The grade point average of its entering class was 4.45. While the acceptance rate at Yale, where Mac Donald did her undergraduate work, is even lower, Berkeley’s acceptance rate is comparable to what was required at Yale when Mac Donald was admitted there. And unlike Yale and Stanford and other like private colleges, there are no special admissions based on legacy and big donations. At Berkeley there are no intentional caps designed to limit the number of particular ethnic groups as there are at the private schools where Mac Donald studied. There is no evidence in her writing that this incredibly qualified group of students arrive shockingly ignorant of anything. And if it were true, the issue is not how they arrive at Berkeley – that would be the fault of the high schools – but how they emerge.
Thinking before speaking and acting remains good advice. Mac Donald and the others should have thought before they wrote about the state of affairs at Berkeley. It would be a far more productive use of their time if they reminded our President to think before he tweets than to criticize Berkeley for urging its students to think before they speak and act.