Photo UC Berkeley

With an email sent to the entire campus this week, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau plunged head first into the painful and by now highly politicized debate over factors that contributed to Jared Loughner’s murderous act in Tucson.

Dear members of our campus community:

This weekend’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths and injuries of many others in the horrific event at Tucson, Arizona have shocked our nation. We here at UC Berkeley offer our sincere condolences to everyone who has been personally affected by this tragedy.

Such a brutal and violent attack on an individual who has devoted herself to public service is deeply regrettable. It calls upon us as an academic community to stop and ponder the climate in which such an act can be contemplated, even by a mind that is profoundly disturbed. A climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy. I believe that it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons. This same mean-spirited xenophobia played a major role in the defeat of the Dream Act by legislators in Washington, leaving many exceptionally talented and deserving young people, including our own undocumented students, painfully in limbo with regard to their futures in this country.

On our own campus, and throughout all the campuses of the University of California, we must continue to work toward a climate of equity and inclusion for all. We must be vigilant to condemn hate speech and acts of vandalism on our campuses by those wanting to promote enmity. We must work to support dialogue about our differences and eschew expressions of demonization of others, including virulent attacks on Israel, anti-Muslim graffiti, racism towards African-Americans, Chicano/Latinos and other underrepresented minority groups, and homophobic acts. Continuing to support our principles of community will ensure a better and safer campus. We must do this now so that our students, as future leaders of this great country, will continue to set the standard for a better and safer nation.

Robert J. Birgeneau
Chancellor, UC Berkeley

Well, no words minced there. Reaction from the right, as one might expect, has been swift and not so complimentary. Fox News has picked up on the story, and the right-leaning blogosphere is having a field day. Some examples:

From Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

Chancellor Birgeneau’s e-mail is very ill-considered for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there is so far no evidence that a “climate of demonization,” “mean-spririted xenophobia,” or “hateful speech” had anything to do with alleged killer Jared Loughner’s apparent decision to try to assassinate Giffords and kill or injure many others. The supposition that political expression created a climate that led Loughner to his choice is an idea that seems to have sprung from whole cloth out of the minds of people who likely were upset beforehand about “rhetoric” and “hateful” speech, including, apparently, Chancellor Birgeneau. Nevertheless, it has quickly become the driving force in the national discussion about the shooting…

Birgeneau’s e-mail, if taken to its logical conclusion, seems to imply that minority groups and undocumented students at UC Berkeley might become violent if people in the campus community do not support the DREAM Act and if other examples of “hateful speech” go unchallenged on campus. While he avoids an outright call for censorship of certain opinions–such as opposition to the DREAM Act–he makes it clear that he would not be surprised if the voicing of these opinions led to another incident like that in Arizona. Birgenau thus implies that such expression is therefore both morally wrong and likely to endanger people’s lives through its very utterance.

From the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s NewsReal Blog:

Genius California Educator Explains the Arizona Shooting

Another alleged educator, on the payroll of the beleaguered California taxpayer, has weighed in with Solomon-like wisdom on the matter of the Arizona shooting. Although why the chancellor of the University of California, one Robert J. Birgeneau, feels the need to pontificate on the issue remains a mystery. Perhaps his taxpayer-funded use of office time could have been better spent considering how to extricate his campus from the clutches of union-represented professors who are angry at having to wait until age 55 to retire, instead of 50… or the myriad of other problems facing the UC system.

But no, he used his time, office, and taxpayer money to produce this letter, addressed to all members of the campus community at Berkeley, in which he goes on a nasty political rant even while condemning – you guessed it – nasty political rants! Of course, he doesn’t quote any Right-wing “rants” – he just snidely condemns anyone who disagrees with him…

What even makes this worth commenting upon is the fact that it is not a partisan politician, a media pundit, or even a so-called objective journalist spewing this nonsense. It is a paid government employee, using his power and position to make statements to those under his authority (employees and students) that are (a) vile in their own hatefulness [IRONY ALERT!] and (b) politically exclusive – in other words, conservatives (or those who disagree with him in any way) are not really welcome at the UC. Oh, and (c): He butts in to another state’s business, which is particularly rich, since California’s in a far bigger craphole than Arizona in just about every way.

From The Daily Plunge:

Why is it that whenever something goes awry the first instinct of “progressives” is to look for ways to infringe on our liberties? The tragic shooting in Arizona perpetrated by a lunatic has become the opportunity du jour for a raft of leftists to call for a clamp-down on free speech.

One of my favorites comes from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in his statement on the Arizona shooting…

Where to begin? Well, let’s start with the climate in which the “demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated.” That “climate” is called “free speech,” protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s the law of the land and I’m sorry that Mr. Birgeneau doesn’t appreciate the fact that citizens have every right to demonize and offend.

My simple message to Mr. Birgeneau and others of his ilk who would love to, by force of law, tell me what I can and cannot say or believe.

Ironic, isn’t it, that Mr. Birgeneau bemoans the climate of demonization in America, and then demonizes those who believe that illegal immigration is illegal, even though illegal immigration is, in fact, illegal. The law abiders, for lack of a better term, are mean-spirited xenophobes! According to Mr. Birgeneau, open and rigorous debate equals hateful speech.

So let me get this straight… We’re supposed to be tolerant, but there are certain things we shouldn’t tolerate (a.k.a., any political position with which Mr. Birgeneau disagrees). I get it. It reminds me of a childhood friend who used to make up the rules as we went along to whatever game we were playing to ensure his victory. “Okay, that’s HORSE,” I’d say as the ball swished through the net. “That’s great,” he’d reply. “But we’re playing that the first person to HORSE loses.” Okay then.

It’s not hard to imagine many denizens of this part of the blogosphere having the same reaction as one commenter on Weasel Zippers:

“UC at Berkeley. That’s where I quit reading.”

On the other hand, reaction closer to home isn’t necessarily glowing either. NBC Bay Area put it this way today:

UC Berkeley Chancellor Interjects Politics Into Arizona Tragedy

Leave it to a city known nationally more for protesting Marines and debating whether to honor a WikiLeaks’ leaker than being home to a world class public university to turn the tragedy in Arizona into a political issue.

The UC watchdog site Cloudminder, written by university alumni, also criticized the missive:

Cal Chancellor Birgeneau’s recent press release tying the Arizona shootings to the Dream Act made us cringe a little, here’s why:
It felt like he was attempting to exploit a national tragedy for the sake of political posturing about the Dream Act for popularity/publicity sake- and it was not necessary. ..

Birgeneau also would be more credible on the Dream Act issue and his statements like: “we must continue to work toward a climate of equity and inclusion for all” if he also directly addressed current demographics on faculty and staff in light of recent and upcoming lay offs, terminations. Where are the numbers on that right now, what is the current state of diversity for faculty and staff at Cal? Why isn’t he addressing it directly as Operation Exodus rolls along? Why hasn’t this page or this page been updated with current numbers on all race and gender demographics related to workforce diversity? That is the press release he should be distributing regularly and widely. If that info exists – one has to dig pretty hard to find it.

A Cal press release tying the Arizona shooting with the Dream Act today seems ill timed as victims are still in hospital fighting for their lives and the dead have yet to be memorialized or buried.

Make the case – but not in this way.

Much more about this, I’m fairly certain, to come…


Criticizing “Mean Spirited Xenophobia,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Plunges Into Shooting Debate 12 January,2011Jon Brooks

  • fred dodsworth

    Thank you Chancellor Birgeneau for plainly and honestly addressing this very real problem. Even Berkeley is not immune from the psychosis that is plaguing America. We are one people with a Constitution, a Bill of Rights and the right to vote for the representatives we chose. Violent threats, hate-speech, and racism do not have a role in our great country’s political discourse. Thank you for stating the obvious.

    • Paul

      You are truly an idiot. And so is the Chancellor.

  • Chuck

    So, to attirbute this in the personage of “hate speech” propaganda would be liken justification of rape because a woman wears “revealing clothing!”
    My point:
    If I’m a “rapist” my arguement would be if she had not worn that two piece bikini showing all that skin, then I would not have been incited to rape her!”
    Or “if his skin color were not so dark, I would not have been incited to beat him up!”
    Ludicrous? Yes! Just as ludicrous as assiging fault on the right-wing media and pundits!
    Only in Cali…
    My twins were born in Monterrey, got to Texas as soon as possible!!!!

  • Mark

    You can send a request for the Chancellor’s resignation to:

    Office of the Chancellor
    200 California Hall # 1500
    University of California
    Berkeley, CA 94720-1500

    Phone (510) 642-7464
    Fax (510) 643-5499

  • University of California (UC) adamantly rejects Calif. Gov. Brown’s Budget. Deeds speak louder than words.Gov inauguration $100,000.UC Chancellor Birgeneau $3,000,000 for consultants to do WORK of his job & of his MANY vice-chancellors
    Take that Gov!…says UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s action
    University of California

  • More examples of Chancellor Birgeneau’s inept decision making. When UC Berkeley announced its elimination of student sports including baseball, men’s, women’s gymnastics, women’s lacrosse teams and its defunding of the national-champion men’s rugby team, the chancellor sighed, “Sorry, but this was necessary!”
    But was it? Yes, the university is in dire financial straits. Yet $3 million was somehow found by Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau to pay the Bain consulting firm to uncover waste, inefficiencies in UC Berkeley (Cal), despite the fact that a prominent East Coast university was accomplishing the same thing without expensive consultants.
    Essentially, the process requires collecting, analyzing information from faculty, staff. Apparently, Cal senior management believe that the faculty, staff of their world-class university lacks the cognitive ability, integrity, energy to identify millions in savings. If consultants are necessary, the reason is clear: the chancellor has lost credibility with the people who provided the information to the consultants. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau has reigned for eight years, during which time the inefficiencies proliferated to $150 million. Even as Bain’s recommendations are implemented (‘They told me to do it’, Birgeneau), credibility, trust, problems remain.
    Bain is interviewing faculty, staff, senior management and academic senate leaders to identify $150 million in inefficiencies, most of which could have been found internally. One easy-to-identify problem, for example, was wasteful procurement practices such as failing to secure bulk discounts on printers. But Birgeneau apparently has no concept of savings: even in procuring a consulting firm he failed to receive proposals from other firms.

    Students, staff, faculty, California Legislators are the victims of his incompetent decisions. Now that sports teams are feeling the pinch, perhaps the California Alumni, benefactors, donors, will demand to know why Birgeneau is raking in $500,000 a year while abdicating his work responsibilities.

    Let there be light.

    The author, who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way the senior management operates.
    PS University of California Berkeley (Cal) ranking drops. In 2004, for example, the London-based Times Higher Education ranked Cal the 2nd leading research university in the world, just behind Harvard; in 2009 that ranking had tumbled to 39th place.
    University of California, Berkeley.

  • Bettybb

    Did anyone notice how strange the Chancellor’s argument is?
    Congresswoman Giffors opposed the Dream Act and supports AZ immigration law, so basically he is calling her a racist and xenophobe who caused the violence! Then,if it is political rhetoric that motivated Loughner, as he is far left politically, isn’t it the left wing hate mongering, like the Chancellor’s rant, that would have motiviated him>?

  • Pingback: Notes from the Field » Chancellor Birgeneau’s E-mail Met with Criticism()


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor