On Sept. 19, UC-Berkeley Dean Carla Hesse rescinded her Sept. 13 suspension of a student-led course on Palestine. But the controversy over her original suspension of the course remains a hotly contested debate. Known as a DeCal (short for “Democratic Education at Cal”), the class was part of a special set of for-credit classes designed and taught by students under the supervision of professors. The course on Palestine was approved by the normal process at Berkeley.
Hesse said she suspended the class because a copy of the proposal never was filed with her office. But this explanation drew scrutiny because the DeCal website specifically exempts courses in Letters & Sciences from this requirement. Instead, critics pointed to a letter from 43 pro-Israel organizations that protested a class taught from a Palestinian perspective and complained that it was biased and a violation of Berkeley policies prohibiting political indoctrination and anti-Semitism.
Dean Hesse wrote, “I did not request or require any revisions of the content of the course,” a claim questioned by some of the people at the Sept. 13 meeting with her. Hesse’s letter today states: “The Department has now responded to my questions and concerns. The Student Facilitator, the Chair and the Executive Committee of the Department of Ethnic Studies determined that revisions of the course in light of these concerns were necessary and appropriate.” If Hesse wasn’t requesting changes, why would the department be responding to her concerns by revising the course?
Paul Hadweh, the student facilitator, denied that he or anyone else determined that changes in the course were necessary and appropriate: “That’s not the case.” According to Hadweh, he made “cosmetic changes” that clarified things, but “the course itself is not changing.” He says “the substance of the course” remains exactly the same. And that seems to be the case: the readings and schedule in the new syllabus are almost exactly the same, with no new authors added. The course description and objectives have some small changes, but include virtually the same language as before, which raises the question of why a suspension was ever necessary to make minor changes, and whether those changes were really even necessary.
Shari Huhndorf, Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies, noted: “After meeting with the Dean, I understood that there were questions about whether the course complied with relevant University policies. The student facilitator, his faculty supervisor and I worked together to revise the syllabus to ensure that there is no ambiguity surrounding issues of compliance. The content remains unchanged. The revisions simply clarify that the course does indeed comply with relevant University policies.”
Huhndorf argues about what Hesse claimed, “This is true. I did understand that our department would need to address the administration’s questions with regard to compliance with University policies, that that is different from revising the content of the course.”
However, Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian reported, “The discussion in the meeting was not about procedure but rather the content of the course and claims made directly based on the letter that came from the 43 external groups.”
But a bigger question is whether Hesse required any changes. Prof. Bazian said about Hesse, “She did demand the changes and I did ask if she would be convinced with the changes once made and she actually said that it will be very hard to convince her otherwise, which was basically a statement to preclude the possibility of reinstating the course. Yes, she said changes have to be made before she would approve the course and all in the meeting had the same understanding.”
Hadweh recalled being told by Dean Hesse that if he made the all changes “only then, may I consider reinstating” the course. He said, “I thought there’s zero percent chance” of her reinstating the course.
Bazian was also pessimistic: “I left the meeting believing that it is a remote possibility that the course would be permitted to resume and that the Dean had made her political decision before we even arrived at the meeting.”
Bazian credited the change in the past week to “around the clock organizing, meeting, and contacting every person inside and outside the campus to get the pressure on the university to change its decision.” Students in the class wrote to protest the ban.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that Dean Hesse may not have had the authority to suspend the course at all. Her letter admits, “Deans review, but do not approve the academic content of DeCal courses.” If she couldn’t approve the content of the course, what gave her the authority to suspend it? The administration has not pointed to any policy giving Dean Hesse power to suspend courses, and the standing orders of the Board of Regents declare, “The Academic Senate shall authorize and supervise all courses and curricula offered…” When Hesse’s procedural grounds for suspension (that the dean must be informed about the class) proved shaky, it left her in a difficult position.
Bazian noted, “The academic senate had approved the course and not a single rejection on anything related to the course can be found institutionally.” Hadweh reported that no one in the department or the Academic Senate had ever demanded any changes for approval of the course: “The revisions were made to appease Hesse and no one else.”
Bazian argued, “The Dean’s letter adds insult to injury and attempts to continue to push this distorted narrative that the university action was merely procedural and had nothing to do with politics and course content. The reason for the suspension is the course use of the following terms: Palestine, settler colonialism analysis and approaching the subject through a de-colonial lens.”
Hadweh said, “I think everything the dean has done and said was unnecessary and inappropriate.” He believes she “responded to outside pressure to suspend the course.” Bazian added, “The cause of university action is Palestine and came about as a result of external political pressure and no one can spin-doctor this otherwise.”