Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fired for an Academic Freedom Conference?

At the University of California at San Diego, two graduate assistants have been dismissed from their positions after criticizing the university. The students were part of Students and Scholars Mobilizing Against Repressive Times (SMART), who organized an excellent conference on academic freedom last year at which I was the keynote speaker. More details will be forthcoming, but it should go without saying that punishing graduate assistants for criticizing their institution is a clear violation of AAUP guidelines. Here's the letter they wrote:

Dear 2006 UCSD/SMART Academic Freedom Conference

Just over a year ago students, professors and
educators from around the state and across the country
gathered at UCSD for a national conference called
“Defending Academic Freedom, Promoting Equitable
Universities.” At the conference we attempted to
think about relationships between attacks on academic
freedom after 9/11 and questions of corporatization,
racial equity and social justice within the
university. Since the conference many members of the
UCSD-based organization Students and Scholars
Mobilizing Against Repressive Times (SMART) have
turned our attention to addressing campus issues that
motivated us to organize last year’s conference in the
first place.

As a participant, you may recall that one of the most
popular panels of the conference, “Critical Focus:
Attacks on Campus Equity” concerned issues specific to
UCSD, such as funding cuts to the Office of Academic
Support and Instructional Services (OASIS) and, in
particular, curriculum changes in the Dimensions of
Culture undergraduate writing program (DOC) at UCSD’s
Thurgood Marshall College (TMC). DOC and TMC were once
sites of critical pedagogy that challenged the status
quo and advocated racial equity and social justice,
but in recent years, both have taken significant steps
away from those commitments. In response to these
disturbing trends, members of SMART have joined forces
with other UCSD faculty, staff, TAs, graduate students
and undergraduate students to form the Lumumba-Zapata
Coalition (LZC), named in honor of the student,
faculty and community coalition that was fundamental
to the founding of TMC in the 1960s, and which
included such notable scholars as Angela Davis,
Herbert Marcuse and Carlos Blanco. The LZC is
currently campaigning to make significant changes to
the how the DOC program operates and what is taught in
the curriculum. On April 13th, we presented the
attached list of demands to the TMC Provost and asked
for a public meeting in two weeks time to discuss
them. Two weeks later, and after further
consultation, we regret that the Provost has yet to
agree to such a meeting.

In addition, we are sad to report that just one year
after the SMART conference two of the organizers were
dismissed from their positions as TAs in the DOC
program for their critiques of the program,
specifically at the SMART conference, a recent
campus-wide symposium on diversity issues and at a TMC
student council meeting. The one-year contracts of
Benjamin Balthaser—who moderated the “Critical Focus”
panel—and Scott Boehm have not been renewed for the
coming academic year after unprecedented interviews
for current DOC TAs that we have reason to believe
were manufactured to push them out of the program.

During their interviews, they were told that they were
“undermining” the program by their involvement in the
academic and political life of UCSD, and that their
teaching performance had nothing to do with their
dismissal. In fact, both are experienced TAs with
outstanding evaluations, and Boehm received one of two
teaching awards from the program last year. This is a
clear violation of the rights of graduate students to
engage in free speech and debate on a university
campus. The DOC administration is using strong-armed
intimidation techniques to silence widely felt dissent
about the direction of the DOC program and TMC as a

In order to help achieve the goals of the LZC we are
sending you this letter hoping that you will offer us
your support.

The following organizations have already endorsed our

UCSD Office of Instructional Support and Instructional
Services (OASIS)
UCSD Cross Cultural Center
UCSD Chicano/Latino Concilio
UCSD Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanola de Aztlán
UCSD Black Student Union
UCSD Asian and Pacific Islander Student Alliance
UCSD Muslim Student Association
UCSD Raza Graduate Student Association
UCSD Kaibigang Pilipino
UCSD Native American Student Alumni Association
UCSD Students with Disabilities Coalition
UCSD Students and Scholars Mobilized Against
Repressive Times (SMART)
Project YANO (Youth and Non-Military Opportunities)

There are several ways that you can help make our
campaign a success:

1) Please read the attached list of demands and
circulate them among colleagues and fellow students
that you think would be supportive. This is not an
isolated issue specific to UCSD, but a dangerous
precedent for all college campuses. Help us spread
the word!

2) If you would like to endorse the demands as an
individual, please copy and paste the following into
an e-mail message with “LZC Endorsement” in the
subject line and send it along with any additional
personal comments to our coalition, to the TMC Provost, and to the UCSD Associate
Vice-Chancellor of Undergraduate Education

“I endorse the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition’s list of
demands, and ask that the Provost of Thurgood Marshall
College agree to their request for a public meeting
about recent changes to the Dimensions of Culture
program. I also condemn the intimidation, harassment
and dismissal of teaching assistants who raise
questions about the direction of the program, which is
antithetical to the goals of higher education, and a
serious violation of free speech rights and academic
freedom as understood in its broadest sense. On those
grounds, I also advocate for the immediate
reinstatement of Benjamin Balthaser and Scott Boehm as
teaching assistants in the DOC program.”

2) If you are part of an organization that might want
to endorse the LZC demands, please circulate them
among your members and consider drafting a statement
stating why the organization chooses to endorse them.
Please e-mail such endorsements to, to the TMC Provost, and the UCSD Associate
Vice-Chancellor of Undergraduate Education

3) Call or e-mail any or all of the following people
in order to voice your concerns:

Alan Havis, Thurgood Marshall College Provost
(858) 534-4002

Mark Appelbaum, UCSD Associate Vice-Chancellor of
Undergraduate Education
(858) 534-7959

Marye Anne Fox, UCSD Chancellor
(858) 534-3135

4) Participate in our teach-in/demonstration May 3rd
at 12:00pm in front of the TMC administration
building! Join us to learn more about the history of
TMC and the gradual dismantling of DOC, while voicing
your dissent about the current direction of the

5) Join the Lumumba-Zapata Coalition! Send us an
e-mail message with “LZC Interested” in the subject
line. In your message please include your contact
information, your campus/department/student
organization affiliation and let us know you’d like to
get involved in our campaign.

Thank you for your support of this campaign, which is
one result of last year’s SMART conference. We
appreciate your commitment to protecting academic
freedom, promoting equitable universities and working
towards social justice in higher education. The LZC
needs your support in order to ensure UCSD is a campus
where such ideals can be realized—or at the very
least—discussed without the threat of disciplinary


SMART and the LZC


Anonymous said...

Way to fight back, keep it up!

Anonymous said...

These TAs have not been "dismissed." They continue to teach and have been asked to meet with the university ombudsman to discuss their concerns. Inflammatory rhetoric about the issues obscures important questions about academic freedom being raised by faculty, TAs, and academic programs.