On June 27, University of California at Los Angeles Professor Keith Fink was told that his 10-year teaching career in the Department of Communication Studies was over. No substantive reason was given; Interim Dean of Social Sciences Laura Gómez simply stated "your teaching does not meet the standard of excellence." The decision attracted national attention in large part because Fink teaches courses on the First Amendment, including a course on Free Speech on Campus — a hot-button topic that has become politically-charged in recent years (inversely and ironically so, because the Free Speech Movement was born within the liberal mecca of UC Berkeley in the 1960s).
Today, for reasons worthy of a Ph.D. thesis, Free Speech purism has shifted from a "liberal" cause to a "conservative" cause. The First Amendment (especially with respect to its first clause: speech) should be apolitical. Accordingly, I (and Fink, too) view it simply as a non-partisan constitutional law issue — one where the past 10 years of campus speech codes, mandatory "diversity training," "hate speech," so-called "safe spaces," and "trigger warnings" all fly in the face of dozens of Supreme Court opinions, none of which lend any credence to the legality of the aforementioned "ideals."
The facts of Fink's case alone are intriguing, especially insofar as they highlight UCLA's lack of commitment to academic freedom, due process, and fundamental fairness. His case also illustrates the growing intolerance on campuses toward ideas that do not conform with their traditional progressive agendas, especially among faculty.
While American research universities have historically dominated international rankings, largely due to their willingness to support a wide range of intellectual beliefs, academic freedom is under siege. Administrators, who rarely are zealous defenders of academic freedom and instead are typically trained in problem mitigation, are undermining the very purpose of the modern research university: to promote the free exchange of ideas. This, in turn, leads to them targeting students, faculty, and ideas that are at odds with their own.
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Indeed, Fink, a rare conservative on a campus largely comprised of left-leaning faculty and ideologues, is not the first victim of viewpoint and/or political discrimination at UCLA: there are striking parallels between Fink's story and those of Political Economist Tim Grosecloseand Epidemiologist James Enstrom. The nexus between these three cases is UCLA's cultural intolerance towards "conservative" views, or more precisely, views that contradict those of the faculty majority.
Particularly galling, however, are the stark differences between Fink's treatment and that of Gabriel Piterberg, the disgraced Professor of History and sexual predator.
By all outward measures, Fink is an excellent teacher.
His qualifications to teach the subjects of free speech on campus, free speech in the workplace, entertainment law, and contemporary social issues are unparalleled. He's a renowned attorney who specializes in these fields, and won the National Collegiate Debate Championship for UCLA for three consecutive years — a record unmatched to this day. His students (liberal and conservative alike) universally love his teaching and describe his classes as among the most influential and developmentally-important classes they've taken at UCLA, some going as far to say that his classes "teach tolerance without imposing tolerance." Students characterize his lectures as dynamic and engaging; he's garnered widespread admiration for the attention he gives to students' individual academic and professional pursuits.
His instructor ratings and course ratings are significantly higher than those of his peers — a point that his department chair, Kerri L. Johnson, even concedes — which has propelled his classes to the top of students' lists of favorites. Fink can easily fill classrooms with hundreds of eager students; there are always students that are turned away due to lack of space (or more recently, arbitrary and dishonestly-justified caps on his courses' enrollment).
In short, he's an excellent teacher with a virtually impeccable teaching record.
Piterberg's case is a totally different story.
Piterberg has been sanctioned by the UC Regents as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct with two graduate students. His settlement includes a minor reduction in pay along with a conveniently-timed quarter away from UCLA where he could instead pursue a prestigious fellowship, thereby boosting his (and UCLA's) academic credentials. As Cassia Roth notes, "Piterberg's 'quarter off' may have cost him financially, but it actually boosted his real academic capital, his research status. And it also enhanced UCLA's own academic standing."
Even before his sexual assault fiasco, he was not particularly popular in the classroom. Students characterize his lectures as monotone and unorganized; he's not known for his concern for students, and students generally note that success in his courses requires mere regurgitation of facts and that he is "not so great a lecturer."
That's no way to teach a subject as important as history. Many students are skeptical of taking his courses, with some even protesting his mere presence on campus. His classes this past year have failed to attract even 50 students. "[I]ts not a good learning environment," says one student who recently took his course.
Although the disgraced Piterberg may be tenured, sexual assault is absolutely "for cause" grounds sufficient enough to justify early dismissal — yet he remains on campus. Fink, a lecturer up for promotion to Continuing Lecturer (effectively granting job security), who boasts an objectively excellent teaching record and well-documented influence on thousands of students easily exceeds the criteria set forth for his advancement — yet he was shown the door.
These cases have diametrically different outcomes, but why?
This dissonance sheds light into some of the less-glorious aspects of UCLA's inner workings. It exposes a system where department chairs like Kerri L. Johnson can make up rules to suit their interests; it highlights UCLA's flagrant disregard for their very own rules; and perhaps most shockingly, it shows a top-down culture whereby deans and vice chancellors (such as Laura Gómez and Jerry Kang) don't simply administrate, but rather dictate their campus' intellectual climate in complete derogation of academic freedom (a principle they pay lip service to but rarely match it with their actions).
It's no surprise that Jerry Kang (Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) dislikes Fink's presence on campus. Fink regularly takes Kang to task about issues related to student speech, conduct, and academic freedom — typically using Kang's in terrorem email missives as springboards to highlight how the abstractions of First Amendment jurisprudence commonly pan out in public universities.
After all, what better way to teach free speech on campus than to use examples from students' own university?
But when Kang and his peers took issue with this, they should have addressed their concerns directly, expediently, and professionally — rather than waiting until Fink's eighteenth quarter where they could sheepishly assemble a star chamber review process rigged against Fink from the outset.
For now, Johnson, Gómez, Kang, and the other administrator-bureaucrats who orchestrated Fink's Kafkaesque review may be rejoicing in the fact that they successfully eliminated Fink's outspoken, popular, and intellectually-competing voice from their campus.
But their rejoice will be short-lived: UCLA is already suffering as a result. Fink will not put this battle to rest, not because it involves him, but because it threatens all lecturers' academic freedom and belies the very tenets upon the modern research university are predicated.