An investigation report completed by UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office has leaked to the Daily Bruin and was today produced under a public records request. It’s about a hot button issue: divestment from Israel. For multiple reasons, I’m wary about commenting on a report that we did not publicly release. But misunderstandings are spreading. And if this past year as Vice Chancellor has taught me anything, it is to embrace transparency and to meet challenges head-on.

The importance of being neutral.

Suppose a student government collects mandatory fees from all enrolled students. That student government then distributes those fees to various student organizations, to host speakers, panels, and conferences. How much discretion should the student government have in doling out funds?

If the Bruin Republicans seek funding for a Trump surrogate, can the student government say: “We still feel the Bern. Go Socialist, or go away.” If a student group wants speakers that support the current Israeli government, can the student government say: “Nope. Find your money elsewhere.” I’d be very concerned if an elected student government, at a public institution, using mandatory fees, could discriminate on the basis of political viewpoint. A tyranny of the majority, silencing unpopular views, could result.

Look, certain viewpoints are unpopular for good reason. And nine times out of ten, I might agree with the majority. But I’m worried about that tenth time. Appreciating diversity means appreciating, and permitting, political diversity. Lest we forget, history reveals plenty of examples where leaving speech up to popular vote produced sad consequences. Think about Hollywood blacklists that froze out some of our most creative minds based on suspected Communist ties.

PACAOS: Rules of the Game.

For these reasons, the First Amendment frowns upon viewpoint discrimination when public actors distribute public monies. Moreover, there’s clear UC Policy on point. The “Policies Applying to Campus Activities, Organizations and Students” (a.k.a. PACAOS) mandate that student governments “employ solely viewpoint-neutral criteria” (PACAOS 70.82) and make “allocation decisions . . . without regard to the viewpoint.” (PACAOS 86.20).

These mandates are entirely consistent with the recently adopted Regents’ Principles Against Intolerance: “Freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry are paramount in a public research university and form the bedrock on which our mission of discovery is founded. The University will vigorously defend the principles of the First Amendment and academic freedom against any efforts to subvert or bridge them.” (Principle d.)

This doesn’t mean that the University is powerless to stop discrimination (Principle b) or harassment (Principle i), or unable to denounce hateful viewpoints, such as Anti-Semitism (Principle c) or Islamophobia. But when it comes to doling out money, the rules of the game are clear: student governments must allocate mandatory student fees in a viewpoint-neutral manner.

Calling a Fair Game.

So, what should UCLA do when someone complains that the rules of the game have been violated?

Do we dodge the issue because it’s controversial and hope it goes away? Do we just rule for the side we like more? Or do we activate professional referees who know the rules of the game and are trained to be impartial?

I am reminded of a classic 1954 study about an especially rough Princeton-Dartmouth football game that injured the star Princeton quarterback and broke a Dartmouth player’s leg. As Albert Hastorf (Dartmouth Professor) and Hadley Cantril (Princeton Professor) put it, “[t]he game immediately became a matter of concern to players, students, coaches and the administrative officials of the two institutions, as well as to alumni and the general public who had not seen the game….”* When the professors showed a full video of the game to students and asked for their reactions, they got shockingly different results depending on which school they attended. “The Princeton fans saw a continuing saga of Dartmouth atrocities and occasional Princeton retaliations. The Dartmouth fans saw brutal Princeton provocations and occasional measured Dartmouth responses.”**

Given this very human tendency to perceive the world in partial ways, what should UCLA do? Thankfully, the parties can often work it out for themselves. But what happens when they can’t, and it becomes a slugfest that starts to undermine campus climate? Do we dodge the issue because it’s controversial and hope it goes away? Do we just rule for the side we like more? Or do we activate professional referees who know the rules of the game and are trained to be impartial?

The Discrimination Prevention Office was created to provide just such referees. UCLA realized the importance of clarifying the rules and having professional refs make the call. So, when the complaint came in, the DPO refs put on their uniforms, went on to the field, and made their call.

Trust, but verify.

In heated games, one side or another will always be angry at a ref’s call. I also know that refs are human and can make mistakes.[¹]  But before jumping to any conclusions about a particular investigation, it behooves us to consider the evidence.  Here, that means reviewing the investigation report itself. Although not initially released by the University, it’s now publicly circulating on the internet. This means that right now, you can read every word of the report—25 single-spaced pages—and judge it for yourself.

Of course, this may not settle things. In the Princeton-Dartmouth study, the complete videotape of the game was sent to a Dartmouth alum group in the Midwest.  Eager to see what they had read about in alumni newspapers, they reviewed the tape and wired back in distress:

“Preview of Princeton movies indicates considerable cutting of important part please wire explanation and possibly airmail missing part before showing scheduled for January 25 we have splicing equipment.”

Their preconceptions were so strong and heartfelt that they assumed the videotape had been doctored.

Conflict is the New Normal.

This summer has produced awful bloodshed. More reminders that #BlackLivesMatter. Heartbreaking assassinations of police officers. Terror in France, Iraq, Turkey, Israel. And a presidential election that will likely exacerbate all that divides us. Conflict is the new normal. What are we to do, especially at a University committed to building equity for all?

“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions . . . .” -G.W. Bush

There’s no perfect answer, especially when investigations tap into ancient histories of conflict, distrust, and pain. But we can and should, at a minimum, give each other the benefit of the doubt.  At the recent Dallas Memorial, President George W. Bush spoke words that unexpectedly moved me. “Too often,” he said, “we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions . . . .”  Let’s take this to heart, regardless of our politics.  Even as we all play the game hard, and root for our cherished teams, we must play fair. We must treat each other with dignity, own up to our imperfections, and ask for understanding and forgiveness. Because at bottom, we all belong to the same team: Bruins.

References

[¹] For example, quantitative economists mining big data have uncovered intriguing evidence of racial ingroup bias in professional baseball and basketball. Even recognizing that humans are never perfect, the operative question should always be: “as compared to what?”