The California Assembly Select Committee On Campus Climate visited UCLA on May 6 to conduct a special hearing examining the role of freedom of expression on increasingly diverse college and university campuses.
This was the committee’s third hearing this legislative session. The first two hearings focused on sexual violence on college campuses and student homelessness. The intention of the hearings were to not only broach difficult subjects, but for the committee to visit a number of campuses throughout the state.
Testimony was given by top university officials, students, and representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, Council of American-Islamic Relations, American Civil Liberties Union and National conflict Resolution Center.
(photos by Jonathan Van Dyke)
UCLA Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Jerry Kang agreed that universities “should grapple” with these difficult issues. “I care about the fact that speech can have an impact on students and whether they can flourish in a learning environment. And what I want above all, is to build equity for all. That is what I am for,” he said.
Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who is the committee’s chair and also a UCLA alumnus, said it was important for the committee to go out into the public and receive testimony on these important campus climate issues, including freedom of expression. “This is really about uncovering issues and concerns to allow the legislature to hear what is happening on our campuses, and also to find out good things that are happening. We want to make sure campuses have an environment that welcomes students,” she said, later adding, “Our campuses are becoming increasingly diverse, and thus diverse in opinion. The university has a responsibility to provide a safe space where students can come from different points of view … and to challenge those ideas. I cherish those moments battling with my professors.”
Dr. Debra Geller, Associate Dean & Deputy Title IX Coordinator at UCLA, said the university is responding to issues through various published policies and more to address freedom of expression concerns. “We do so in order to ensure that university activities are not obstructed and to maintain the condition under which we can effectively carry out our mission of research, teaching and public service. At UCLA, in particular, we take harassment and discrimination very seriously. We are actively developing procedures which we hope to implement at the start of the next academic year for responding to student behavior that could negatively impact campus climate,” she said.
UCLA students Tahira Kazmi, Ian Cocroft, Eitan Peled and Liat Menna, along with Los Angeles Southwest College student Shronda Davis-Maxie, provided testimony from the on-campus level.
“The issue of campus climate and the issues of inclusiveness have been a passion of mine,” said Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside), adding that the legislature is not ignoring these issues.
“I think principals of respect and inclusion are common themes that we hear throughout these hearings, and it is always good to keep those principals in mind as we move forward,” Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) added.
“We respect the right to free speech as a cornerstone of our work and we do everything possible to impress this upon our students,” said Dr. Maria Blandizzi, Dean of Student Affairs at UCLA. “Our collective desire at UCLA is to completely support a healthy, diverse, learning community.” She added that the university is focused on training and development for Student Affairs staff, ongoing professional development, and building engagement with student groups and community organizations. “The tensions and conflicts that arise in broader society inevitably get played out on our campus day-in and day-out. Our work is never done and we are perpetually committed to these issues,” she concluded.
Assemblymember Matthew Dababneh (D-Encino) said at the end of the hearing that he wants people from anywhere to be able to express opinions in civil debate at California’s universities, and that students shouldn’t feel like they are being targeted or discriminated against when they do speak up. “My goal in the state legislature is to make sure we continue to make our campuses a place for free speech, not hate speech,” he added.