UC regents debate stricter control of views on Israel and other topics on campus websites

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For the second consecutive meeting, University of California regents delayed action Wednesday on a controversial proposal to tighten controls of political expression on campus websites, such as criticism of Israel, amid sharp disagreement about moving forward when myriad questions over how it would be rolled out and enforced remained unanswered.

Fallout from the Israel-Gaza war was evident throughout the Board of Regents meeting Wednesday at UCLA. UC President Michael V. Drake and board Chair Rich Leib, in prepared statements, decried rising acts of antisemitism on campuses. Drake said UC had begun to work with Hillel International on training senior campus leaders to address antisemitism and other forms of bigotry and hatred.

During public comments, several Jewish speakers condemned growing harassment against faculty and students who support Israel, including a “barrage” of unjustified negative student evaluations of faculty, classes disrupted by protests, swastikas painted on buildings and signs calling Jews “the new Nazis.”

On the other side, one student urged regents to divest UC funds from firms that support the “ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians. Several others called for Palestinian freedom and later temporarily shut down discussion of the website proposal, chanting, “Shame on you!” as Regent Jay Sures tried to present it.

Tensions have spiraled on campuses since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants unleashed the worst attack in Israel’s history, killing about 1,200 people and kidnapping more than 240 others. Israel has retaliated with massive military bombardment that Gaza health officials say have killed more than 31,800 Palestinians.

The proposal would ban commentaries from an academic unit’s main homepage and require them to be placed on a separate opinion page with a disclaimer that the comments don’t represent the university’s position.

Before publishing statements, campus departments must put them to an anonymous vote of their members and explain on behalf of whom the opinions speak. Departments also will be required to develop standards to govern the process.

Sures, vice chairman at United Talent Agency, has pushed for such action for the last few years, previously saying he has been troubled by “abuse” and “misuse” of departmental websites featuring anti-Israel sentiment and other opinions that do not reflect official university views.

The UC San Diego ethnic studies department, for instance, posted a statement grieving the loss of lives on both sides during the Israel-Hamas War and supporting calls to end Israel’s occupation and dismantle “the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.”

The department also has posted statements opposing racism against Black people, Asian Americans and Muslims, along with caste-based discrimination. It now displays the comments on a section of its website marked “statements and commentaries” and includes the disclaimer that they “do not necessarily represent the views of all faculty and graduate students at the Department of Ethnic Studies, the Regents of the University of California, or the University of California, San Diego.”

Sures has said he supports free expression on UC website spaces clearly marked as “opinion pages,” but not on landing pages, which should display official information such as course offerings and campus activities. He reiterated his commitment to free speech Wednesday.

“We have made it crystal clear that preserving academic freedom and freedom of speech are absolutely imperative … if we put a policy in place and in fact it is core to the mission of the University of California,” he said.

But his remarks were repeatedly disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters. One accused him of trying to silence those who speak out against an “apartheid state carrying out a genocide.”

UC Academic Senate Chair James Steintrager told regents that faculty leaders had rejected an earlier iteration of the policy over concerns that it was too ambiguous, lacked clear measures for implementation and enforcement and still potentially threatened to limit academic freedom.

He said he was pleased that the latest proposal incorporated more content from a systemwide faculty committee review of the issue in 2021, triggered by a controversy over anti-Israel statements on a UCLA website.

The review concluded, in consultation with university attorneys, that departments had the right to weigh in on political and social issues, although they cannot endorse candidates. The Senate provided guidelines, such as making clear statements represented faculty members or groups and not the university and ensuring that minority or dissenting views are not squelched.

But Steintrager noted that the current proposal, which has been revised at least twice since the initial draft was presented in January, had been posted just two days earlier and urged regents to delay action to give Senate members time to review it.

“I felt today it was still underbaked,” he said later.

Several regents concurred, including Drake, who said the policy was not yet “ready.”

Regent John A. Pérez, without mentioning Israel, said the timing of the proposal has led to the perception that the policy is not “content-neutral,” which undermined efforts to create rules seen as fair rather than a reaction to specific issues. “We have a trust and a distrust problem,” he said, adding that UC needed to invite broad-based engagement with stakeholders to solicit ideas “on what can make a rule less offensive, less problematic.”

Leib, however, said the intent of the policy was “not about any single topic.”

“The time to act is now because we aim to be responsive to concerns expressed by our university community about the increasingly common practice of posting opinions that may be offensive to some and which might inaccurately represent the views of the University and the views of some students and faculty within the department,” he told The Times in a statement.

Ultimately, regents serving on a joint committee voted to delay action until its next meeting in May.

Math admission requirement

Regents also discussed an Academic Senate working group’s recent report that found three popular data science courses would no longer substitute for Algebra 2 because they lacked enough advanced math content required for admission by UC and California State University.

The decision overturned a practice that had been in place since 2013, when UC first approved a data science course submitted by Los Angeles Unified School District as a move to expand math options for students.

UC’s faculty admission board reviewed the courses and revoked approval for them last summer amid questions about the proliferation of data science classes and attempts to give the field more prominence in California’s new state framework for math instruction adopted last year.

After the working group affirmed that decision last month, UC notified high school counselors and other educators.

Although the issue has stirred widespread controversy, regents did not challenge the findings on the data science courses. UC officials told regents the decision would not have a significant impact on admissions. Only 387 of about 130,000 California first-year applicants last fall had taken data science without an Algebra 2 or equivalent integrated math class. Among them, 169 were admitted and 63 enrolled.

Regent Joel Raznick asked whether the data science courses could be revised to include enough Algebra 2 content to count for admission. Ani Adhikari, a UC Berkeley teaching professor of statistics who chaired the working group, told him the three courses in question would need to be “very significantly modified” to do so but in general it was not out of the question.

“It’s possible,” she said. “Is it easy? Will it happen quickly? I’m not sure.”

Regent Lark Park raised the broader question of how to make math more meaningful and relevant to students.

“If we’re trying to instill a love of math, we’re not succeeding,” she said. She called on all sides to work together because the issue “appears to be more of a war than it should be.”

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