Saturday, November 19, 2011

Not non-violence

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said Santayana. Seems that might be true of the chancellors of UC Berkeley and UC Davis, both of whom invited the cops on campus with horrendous results. Did they forget Kent State and Jackson State? Have they heard of the Strawberry Statement? Were they around for the campus protests of the 1960's and 1970's?

I looked up the biography of Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and found that he is a Canadian, who worked at Bell Labs in the United States during those earlier campus protests. Then he spent 25 years as a physics professor at MIT. Maybe that explains it. He could have been so immersed in the laboratory that he was only dimly aware of what was going on outside. Now Berkeley students and faculty cannot understand his recent actions. This man actually said that linking arms and forming a human chain is not non-violent. That grammatically inelegant and absurd statement seems destined to be remembered by those who, unlike Birgeneau, make a practice of remembering history. Birgeneau's remark dishonors the history of non-violent protest. It is a slap in the face of history.

Then I looked up the biography of Linda Katehi, Chancellor of UC Davis, and found out she is Greek, and graduated from the National Technical University of Athens in 1977, with degrees in electrical engineering. So maybe she also missed some lessons from US campus protests of earlier decades. After looking at the footage in the video below, Katehi herself seems appalled by the forces she set in motion. She should be. Now the Davis faculty is calling for her head. 

Is the moral of the story that scientists and technocrats might not make the best university chancellors in these troubled times? Perhaps. But we really ought to concern ourselves more with how to handle these kinds of confrontations in a smarter and more positive way. These students were engaged in a peaceful, if somewhat messy demonstrations. Their causes--protesting tuition hikes and solidarity with the occupy movement--are not threatening to the university community; those causes are supportive of that community. Why was there such urgency to remove them? Why did their removal have to be so violent? That kind of response can only cause the sense of confrontation to escalate, and public opinion to polarize. None of that should have been necessary.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more! We see it all around us. Classroom educated people do not necessarily translate to smart, let alone exceptional leaders.

    In fact, a career without deep leadership experience and a feel for real life is a liability in most cases.

    Look no further than the career of current failure of Steven Chu. A physicist, known for research at Bell Labs and a career on college campuses. He trapped atoms with a laser and received the Nobel Prize (ironic).

    He was a professor at Berkley and Stanford. Life long academic. He has never started or run a business. Completely in over his head at the DOE.

    Similar to Obama and Chu, Birheneau and Katehi are miscast in their current jobs when the nation needs successful, proven experience more than anythinbg else.

    I am sure all four are wonderful people. However, the fact that you love your family and got fantastic grades and are judged to have a high IQ in one area doesn't translate to other areas of human interaction or judgement. Classic post.

  2. Thanks for your comment about the value of experience. My point, however, was more about an appreciation of history rather than about the value of experience. And one thing I would say about President Obama, possibly unlike these UC chancellors, is that he has a deep appreciation of history, particularly the history of the civil rights movement and other protests of the 1960's. There is no way that Obama would say anything as ridiculous as Birgeneau saying that linking arms is not non-violent. No way.

    As for Chu, I have no idea if he is a student of history as well as physics. But I heard that he killed in his Congressional testimony last week on the Solyndra affair.

    So I'm not sure where you are getting the idea that he is in over his head.

  3. You do not have to have experience to have an appreciation of history. But experience gives you history. As well, you can have a high IQ and be an inept leader. The four people listed above are examples.

    JFK was not an huge intellect; nor was Truman or Roosevelt; but those men were leaders. Lack of leadership is how you will be judged if you are in a position that requires it. Being well read, familiar with history or being a history major does not replace the essential skill (leadership) in certain job descriptions.

  4. I wouldn't say any of the four people you mention are inept or inexperienced leaders.
    The only thing I can say is that it appears that the two UC chancellors each made at least one bad decision. Which could have been based on a failure to remember history. I emphasize could have. I really have no idea how conscious these people were of the history of non-violent protest.

    The issue of the value of experience and intellect is a different topic. You could be carrying my point further than I would venture to go.

    But regarding JFK, at least one supposedly reputable study has ranked him near the top in intellect among all US Presidents. I am not vouching for it, because I have no idea how you can measure these things, but I do happen to thing that JFK was extremely smart and thoughtful.

  5. I should refer you to this link regarding this:

  6. Thanks for the link, Harrison. I would suggest reserving judgment on exactly what happened until the investigation is completed. Bill Bratton is on the case now, and he can be trusted to come up with a fair report.

    But I watched the tape, and it sounded to me like the guy said, "you're shooting us for sitting here," not "you're shooting us specifically." What did he mean then by saying, "that's fine." Does that mean he is asking to be pepper sprayed, or does that mean they are refusing to move, and they understand they are going to be pepper sprayed? Meanwhile, everyone else is chanting, "don't shoot students!" So where do the cops get the idea that it is ok?