UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks took the rare action Tuesday of suspending a course after civil rights groups and others complained that its purpose was to indoctrinate students into a single political viewpoint.
Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis, a one-credit class taught on Tuesday evenings by undergraduate Paul Hadweh, examines the history of Palestine "from the 1880s to the present, through the lens of settler colonialism," according to its syllabus. "Settler colonialism" is generally described as the takeover of a region by outsiders.
"The course has been suspended pending completion of the mandated review and approval process," according to a campus statement that expressed concern about a course that "espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing."
On Tuesday, 43 Jewish and civil rights groups complained in a letter to Dirks that the course is designed to encourage students to think "about ways to 'decolonize' — that is, eliminate — Israel," and that "all the course readings ... have a blatantly anti-Israel bias." The letter says the course, its books and its speakers are so one-sided as to constitute "political indoctrination" in violation of the UC Board of Regents' policy on course content.
The policy prohibits using courses "as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest."
The groups questioned whether the vetting procedure for the nearly 200 student-taught courses at UC Berkeley ever checks for compliance with the regents' policy.
Within hours of receiving the letter, Dirks' office told the groups that the course "did not receive a sufficient degree of scrutiny to ensure that the syllabus met Berkeley's academic standards."
Without naming Hadweh, the campus letter says the student teaching the course "did not comply with policies and procedures that govern the normal academic review." A spokesman for Dirks said the student did not show his course proposal to the dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, Carla Hesse, as required.
Hadweh did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did his faculty adviser, Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in the College of Ethnic Studies and founder of the group Students for Justice in Palestine, which urges campuses across the country to boycott and divest from Israel.
However, the College of Ethnic Studies, which sponsored the course, did give the proposal to the Academic Senate's Committee on Courses and Instruction, which evaluated and approved it, said Bob Powell, the Academic Senate chairman, who was not involved in evaluating the course.
"It met the standards. It looked like a legitimate course," he said, adding that the committee understands it is bound by the regents' policy on course content. "Is there a box where you check it off? I don't think so. But everyone involved in course approval is aware of regents policies — including this one."
The Palestine course was among 194 student-taught classes this semester at Berkeley. Subjects run from serious subjects like cancer, sustainability and genetic disorders, to lighthearted topics: Pokémon, songwriting and UC Hogwarts: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, lead author of the letter to Dirks and director of the Amcha Initiative, which tries to identify anti-Semitism on college campuses, exulted in the suspension of the course.
"This is a great day for students at Berkeley," she said in a statement. "We applaud UC Berkeley's Chancellor Dirks and his staff for their swift and appropriate response regarding this course. However, there is still work to be done to ensure that all new courses at UC Berkeley are adequately reviewed for compliance with university policies prohibiting misuse of the classroom for political indoctrination."