Sunday, October 31, 2021

Munger Hall or Munger Hell?

Our scary story for Halloween:

From the Santa Barbara Independent: A consulting architect on UCSB’s Design Review Committee has quit his post in protest over the university’s proposed Munger Hall project, calling the massive, mostly-windowless dormitory plan “unsupportable from my perspective as an architect, a parent, and a human being.”

In his October 25 resignation letter to UCSB Campus Architect Julie Hendricks, Dennis McFadden ― a well-respected Southern California architect with 15 years on the committee ― goes scorched earth on the radical new building concept, which calls for an 11-story, 1.68-million-square-foot structure that would house up to 4,500 students, 94 percent of whom would not have windows in their small, single-occupancy bedrooms.

The idea was conceived by 97-year-old billionaire-investor turned amateur-architect Charles Munger, who donated $200 million toward the project with the condition that his blueprints be followed exactly.* Munger maintains the small living quarters would coax residents out of their rooms and into larger common areas, where they could interact and collaborate. He also argues the off-site prefabrication of standardized building elements ― the nine residential levels feature identical floor plans ― would save on construction costs. The entire proposal, which comes as UCSB desperately attempts to add to its overstretched housing stock, is budgeted somewhere in the range of $1.5 billion. Chancellor Henry Yang has hailed it as “inspired and revolutionary.”

McFadden disagreed sharply with what the university has described as “Charlie’s Vision” for the benefits of a “close-knit” living experience. “An ample body of documented evidence shows that interior environments with access to natural light, air, and views to nature improve both the physical and mental wellbeing of occupants,” he wrote. “The Munger Hall design ignores this evidence and seems to take the position that it doesn’t matter.”

So far, McFadden continued, the university has not offered any research or data to justify the unprecedented departure from normal student housing standards, historical trends, and basic sustainability principles. “Rather,” he said, “as the ‘vision’ of a single donor, the building is a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves.” ...

McFadden draws striking comparisons between Munger Hall and other large structures to illustrate its colossal footprint. Currently, he said, the largest single dormitory in the world is Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, which houses 4,000 students and is composed of multiple wings wrapped around numerous courtyards with over 25 entrances. 

“Munger Hall, in comparison, is a single block housing 4,500 students with two entrances,” McFadden said, and would qualify as the eighth densest neighborhood on the planet, falling just short of Dhaka, Bangladesh. It would be able to house Princeton University’s entire undergraduate population, or all five Claremont Colleges. “The project is essentially the student life portion of a mid-sized university campus in a box,” he said...

Full story at:



Saturday, October 30, 2021

Another Week of Being Stuck

We now have California new weekly claims for unemployment insurance through the week ending October 23. And has been the case for many weeks, we remain stuck around 60,000+ when normal would be around 40,000. Other data for the entire U.S. economy suggest slow growth through the summer. California shared in that slow growth which apparently has spilled over into the fall.

As always, the latest data are at

Eleven and Fifty

Kelly and Cronin has a list of the 50 top paid public employees in the U.S. All are coaches at public universities. Among them:

50. Mick Cronin, University of California, Los Angeles basketball coach, $3.6 million

11. Chip Kelly - University of California, Los Angeles football coach, $5.6 million 

Full list at

Friday, October 29, 2021

Interim Adjustments

Levine and Komar
From an email circulated yesterday:

Office of the Vice Chancellor for Academic Personnel

To: Administrative Officers, Deans, Department Chairs, Directors, Faculty, Staff in the Academic Personnel Office, Vice Chancellors and Vice Provosts

Dear Colleagues:

As part of my transition to the role of interim executive vice chancellor and provost, I am pleased to announce that Kathleen L. Komar will take over my former duties in the Academic Personnel Office (APO) with the title of interim vice provost, effective November 1, 2021. She will remain in the position through the 2021–22 academic year.

Professor Komar has been a faculty member at UCLA for more than four decades and is currently distinguished professor of comparative literature and special assistant to the vice chancellor for academic personnel. She is well positioned to provide stability and continuity within the APO during a period of broader change: As my special assistant since 2016, Professor Komar has advised on academic personnel matters including merit equity reviews, promotions and advancements, and changes to personnel processes and regulations. She has also reviewed personnel dossiers that require additional comment, have received mixed reviews by the various reviewing bodies or are particular to her area of expertise. As necessary, Professor Komar has served in various departments as co-chair or external advisor, and she regularly meets with faculty who have questions about processes or regulations related to academic personnel. Additionally, she serves on the oversight committee for our ongoing transformation of personnel dossiers to digital systems.

During her time at UCLA, Professor Komar has also served as chair of comparative literature, associate dean of the Graduate Division, chair of UCLA’s Academic Senate, member and chair of the Council on Academic Personnel, and chair or co-chair of departments in three different schools on campus. 

A prolific researcher, Professor Komar has published more than 120 articles and books on a variety of comparative topics from Romanticism to the present and focused on American and German literature. She is the recipient of numerous university honors, including UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Award, UCLA Staff Assembly’s Faculty/Staff Partnership Award and the University of California’s Oliver Johnson Award for lifetime service to the Academic Senate.

Given her extensive experience as a successful leader in roles across UCLA — and in particular her deep knowledge of academic personnel matters — I am confident that Professor Komar will be a great asset to the university during this transition period. I look forward to working closely with her in this new capacity.

Please join me in congratulating and thanking Kathleen for taking on this important role.


Michael S. Levine

Vice Chancellor for Academic Personnel


Thursday, October 28, 2021

What will "fully" be?

As of now, the UCLA requirement to be "fully vaccinated" means two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or one shot of Johnson and Johnson. But with boosters now available and the advice on who should get them widening, will that definition stay in effect? Or will "fully vaccinated" eventually mean a requirement for the booster as well as the initial shots? Presumably, by winter quarter, someone is going to have to decide.

From Business Insider:

Individuals who are fully vaccinated now might not be considered so in the future without a COVID-19 booster shot, CDC says

-As booster shots rollout, the definition of fully vaccinated might change, the CDC says.

-Currently, being fully vaccinated in the US means an individual has both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the J&J vaccine.

-About 6% of the total US population has so far received a booster dose, according to CDC data.

The definition of fully vaccinated might be subject to change in the future now that COVID-19 booster shots are out, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday. "We have not yet changed the definition of 'fully vaccinated.' We will continue to look at this. We may need to update our definition of 'fully vaccinated' in the future," CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters at a news conference. Currently, being fully vaccinated in the United States means that an individual has either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine...

Full story at

Hastings or Not Hastings

Serranus Hastings

Hastings College of the Law - the independent law school administered by the UC Regents - is facing a name issue somewhat similar to UC Berkeley's law school, formerly named Boalt Hall. John Henry Boalt advocated for Chinese exclusion in the 19th century.* 

The NY Times item below has the Hastings story. It might be noted that VP Kamala Harris attended Hastings. Apparently, unlike the Berkeley situation, changing the name of Hastings is a decision for the legislature and governor.

He Unleashed a California Massacre. Should This School Be Named for Him?

The founder of the Hastings College of the Law masterminded the killings of hundreds of Native Americans. The school, tribal members and alumni disagree about what should be done now.

Thomas Fuller, Oct. 27, 2021, NY Times

ROUND VALLEY RESERVATION, Calif. — They said they were chasing down horse and cattle thieves, an armed pursuit through fertile valleys and evergreen forests north of San Francisco. But under questioning in 1860 a cattle rancher let slip a more gruesome picture, one of indiscriminate killings of Yuki Indians. A 10-year-old girl killed for “stubbornness.” Infants “put out of their misery.”

Documented in letters and depositions held in California’s state archives, the Gold Rush-era massacres are today at the heart of a dispute at one of the country’s most prominent law schools, whose graduates include generations of California politicians and lawyers like Vice President Kamala Harris.

For the past four years, the University of California, Hastings College of the Law has been investigating the role of its founder, Serranus Hastings, in one of the darkest, yet least discussed, chapters of the state’s history. Mr. Hastings, one of the wealthiest men in California in that era and the state’s first chief justice, masterminded one set of massacres.

An illustration included in an 1861 issue
of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
depicted settlers killing Native Americans
 in California
For those involved, including a descendant of Mr. Hastings who sits on the school’s board, the journey into the past has revealed a very different version of the early years of the state than the one taught in classrooms and etched into the popular imagination of intrepid pioneers trekking into the hills to strike it rich.

Across Northern California — north of Napa’s vineyards, along the banks of the Russian River and in numerous other places from deserts to redwood groves — as many as 5,617 Native people, and perhaps more whose deaths were not recorded, were massacred by officially sanctioned militias and U.S. troops from the 1840s to the 1870s, campaigns often initiated by white settlers like Mr. Hastings who wanted to use the land for their own purposes. 

Thousands more Indians were killed by vigilantes during the same period. But what sets apart the organized campaigns is that the killers’ travel and ammunition expenses were reimbursed by the state of California and the federal government. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that California state legislators established a state-sponsored killing machine,” Benjamin Madley, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. By Dr. Madley’s calculation, expeditions carried out at Mr. Hastings’s behest killed at least 283 men, women and children, the most deadly of 24 known California state militia campaigns.

In 1878, Mr. Hastings donated $100,000 in gold coins to found the school that carries his name, California’s first law school. It was “to be forever known and designated as ‘Hastings’ College of the Law,” according to the school’s enactment. Now, both the law school and its critics agree that Mr. Hastings “bears significant responsibility” for the massacres, in the words of the Hastings inquiry, but they disagree on what to do about it, including the question of whether the school should retain its name. 

At a time when institutions across the country are re-examining their history, Native leaders in California say a broad reckoning over the treatment of American Indians is overdue. The longstanding notion that they died as an accidental consequence of Western settlement, of disease and displacement, they argue, needs to be revised with acknowledgment of the purposeful killing campaigns.

The debate over what to do at Hastings comes during renewed attention on the period of Spanish missions, when tens of thousands of Indians were forced to give up local customs and died of disease, and the legacy of Native enslavement — historians estimate that 20,000 Native Americans were enslaved in the first decades after California became a state in 1850, even though it officially barred slavery.

Two years ago Gov. Gavin Newsom described the state’s treatment of Native populations as genocide, issued an official apology and created a Truth and Healing Council tasked with producing a report on relations between the state and Native American groups by 2024. “We have to speak truth,” said Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court and, in 1974, the first Native woman admitted to the California Bar. “We have not figured out as a country at this point how do we reconcile our behavior. How do we make this right?”

The investigation into the Hastings massacres began in 2017 after a Bay Area lawyer, John Briscoe, published an opinion essay in The San Francisco Chronicle under the headline, “The Moral Case for Renaming Hastings College of the Law.”

Last year the law school announced a number of measures that it described as restorative justice: It agreed to allocate space for a memorial in the main lobby of its administrative building in San Francisco; provide members of all tribes in Round Valley pro bono legal help; maintain a program focused on Indigenous law; and assist in the establishment of a charitable foundation, an initiative currently on hold because of disagreement among tribal members on how to carry it out.

But David Faigman, the chancellor and dean of Hastings Law, has led a campaign to keep the school’s name. “What would removing the Hastings name accomplish?” Mr. Faigman wrote when the results of the school’s investigation into the Hastings legacy were made public in September of last year. A committee formed to investigate the massacres said changing the college’s name might lead to a “decline in applications and perhaps a loss of philanthropic and alumni support.”

A number of prominent Hastings alumni, including senior retired judges, disagree and have called for a renaming. They say that like the fortune of the Sackler family, derived from the opioids that ultimately killed multitudes of Americans, the gold Mr. Hastings donated to found the school is tainted.

Ultimately, Mr. Faigman said in an interview, the question of whether Hastings keeps its name rests with the Legislature and the governor. His critics say Hastings should proactively demand the change. A spokeswoman for Mr. Newsom, Erin Mellon, said the governor hoped Californians would “think critically about the harmful legacies of our forebears.” The governor will review any legislative proposals that land on his desk, Ms. Mellon said.

The site of the massacres, Round Valley, is a four-hour drive from Silicon Valley. But the halo of wealth of the Bay Area has never reached the tumbledown homes, trailer park and ranches of Round Valley. The main sustaining business in Covelo, the valley’s unincorporated town, is backyard marijuana plots.

James Russ, the president of the Round Valley Indian Tribal Council, which governs the Round Valley Reservation, emphasizes that the leadership is happy to accept the college’s offer of legal assistance for the tribe’s activities. “We have a window of opportunity and we don’t want to screw it up,” Mr. Russ said.

Still, the controversy over the name is further complicated by the question of which tribal members should receive reparations. The Yuki people were decimated and, after decades of intermarriage among members and white settlers, were subsumed into the Round Valley Indian Tribes, which was created after a coerced 19th-century relocation by the U.S. government of seven distinct tribes.

Mona Oandasan, one of the leaders of a group of Yuki tribespeople in Round Valley, said the law school was negotiating with the wrong people. The Yuki were the ones targeted in the Hastings massacres, not the other tribes on the reservation, she said. “We are the direct descendants, and they should be talking to us,” Ms. Oandasan said.

Native leaders say they hope the Hastings controversy could be a possible catalyst to bring awareness to a terrible legacy that few Californians know about. Greg Sarris, the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a Northern California confederation of tribes, is donating proceeds from his tribe’s casino to fund efforts at the Smithsonian to produce curriculums about Native history, including an Indian perspective on the Gold Rush era. That period was a particularly treacherous and murderous time in California — “a catalog of slit throats, gunshot wounds and crushed skulls,” wrote Kevin Starr, a California historian.

But even back then, the massacres of Indians carried out by Mr. Hastings’s militias shocked contemporaries and prompted an investigation in the Legislature. Brendan Lindsay, author of the 2012 book “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873,” says ranchers hunted Indians in the way they might track down a fox that ventured into a henhouse.

According to the chronology by Dr. Lindsay, one set of killings was carried out by H.L. Hall, who was hired to look after Mr. Hastings’s cattle and horse ranches in 1858. When four or six — accounts differ — of the nearly 400 horses on the ranch were killed, Mr. Hall and three other men raided a Yuki village and killed nine or 11 tribespeople. During subsequent massacres, he rode into Yuki villages and killed women and children, including the girl he said he killed for “stubbornness.” A second killing spree was led by a group that called themselves the Eel River Rangers. Mr. Hastings, who died in 1893, is buried in a cemetery in Napa Valley, where he had extensive landholdings. His grave is marked not so much by a headstone as a small monument, a granite obelisk that stands out amid the evergreens of the St. Helena Public Cemetery.

Not taught in California schools, the history of the Round Valley massacres came as a surprise to many of those at the law school. Mr. Faigman, the dean and a history major, said he had never heard of Mr. Hastings’s role before Mr. Briscoe’s article was published. Col. Claes Lewenhaupt, the great-great-grandson of Serranus Hastings who sits on the law school’s board of directors, a seat that has been held by descendants since the school’s founding, said he first learned about Mr. Hastings’s role a decade ago when he read some of the scholarship that emerged. “It’s awful,” said Colonel Lewenhaupt, a lawyer who grew up in the Bay Area and spent a career prosecuting and defending U.S. Army soldiers. But he said he agreed with Mr. Faigman that the Hastings name should be maintained. “I do not think the renaming will benefit the institution,” he said.

In Round Valley, Deb Hutt, a Yuki tribeswoman and the sister of Ms. Oandasan, says she wonders why descendants of the Hastings family have never apologized. While sitting at a picnic table across from a tribal gas station, Ms. Hutt said she sometimes tried to imagine what Round Valley would be like had Mr. Hastings and other white settlers not taken over the valley. Buffered by mountains, the Yuki were relatively undisturbed by Spanish or Mexican conquerors. It took the huge and sudden migration of the Gold Rush for the tribe to be confronted by unmerciful invaders.

“We were their hunt,” Ms. Hutt said of the men who led the Hastings massacres. “And what we lost was more than lives.”




Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Enforcement (or non-enforcement) of campus coronavirus rules

A recent study of the impact of "March Madness" last spring in JAMA Network found an upsurge in contagion, but at a time when many students were not vaccinated.* It concludes, "This study identifies an urgent gap in evidence on the risk of COVID-19 spread at social gatherings among university students, although the increase in transmission was brief. This increase in transmission may have been brief because of increases in the vaccination rate of university students during this time or because some students may have completed their semester before the end of the study period."

And there is this item (below), closer to home:

Student anxiety continues regarding enforcement of health and safety guidelines

By Sydney Kovach, Daily Bruin, Updated Oct. 24, 2021

Students raised concerns about the lack of enforcement of COVID-19 protocols on campus and on the Hill after traces of COVID-19 were found in the wastewater of numerous residential halls. UCLA found traces of COVID-19 in early October in samples from De Neve Fir and Holly, as well as Delta Terrace houses three through eight, said UCLA spokesperson Katherine Alvarado in an emailed statement. She added that students’ test results did not show an increase in positive cases or an outbreak.

Angelique Rubio, a second-year applied mathematics student who lives in Sproul Hall, said she was concerned to hear about the traces of COVID-19 on the Hill, but is glad the university can identify potential positive cases of COVID-19 and address the issue quickly. “It’s concerning to hear, but also kind of expected,” Rubio said. “I guess I’m just hopeful that it’s being handled quickly.”

Alvin Nguyen, a second-year economics student who lives in Dykstra Hall, said he feels safe on campus because of the university’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements but is concerned about the enforcement of public health measures. Nguyen said he thinks the university is not enforcing public health measures such as social distancing or the symptom monitoring survey. He added that UCLA largely enforces mask mandates, but not entirely.

During the Undergraduate Students Association Council meeting Oct. 19, Megan McEvoy, co-chair of the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Task Force, said students have not been submitting the symptom monitoring survey at high enough rates. Starting Nov. 4, the university will increase access restrictions for on-campus dining and recreational facilities for students who do not fill out the survey, McEvoy said.

Satchi Metaxas, a first-year undeclared student who lives in Dykstra Hall, said his professors have not required students to fill out the survey, but other facilities on campus such as gyms have checked for the survey’s completion. Jada Dawson, a first-year biochemistry student, said her professors and teaching assistants have recently sent more emails reminding students to complete the survey before attending in-person classes. However, she added that she is concerned about whether the survey is effective. “I think the problem lies where people need to be truthful on the symptom survey, especially if they have symptoms and they think it’s a cold,” Dawson said.

Rubio said her professors are not enforcing the mandate that requires students to fill out the symptom monitoring survey before attending in-person classes. “UCLA is doing a really great job all things considered,” said Brenna Connell, a first-year English student who lives in De Neve Birch. “It’s kind of frustrating because I don’t so much blame safety protocols themselves so much as students maybe ignoring certain safety protocols.” Rubio added that she is unsure whether students are honest when filling out the survey. “I feel like even if people did take it, why would anyone be truthful?” Rubio said. “It’s not hard to just say, ‘Oh nope I’m fine.’”




Tuesday, October 26, 2021

New Med at Merced? Hard to be sure what the governor said

From the Fresno Bee: Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the campus of UC Merced on Monday, throwing his support behind an effort to build a $210 million medical education building on the campus. According to UC Merced, its proposed Health, Behavioral Sciences and Medical Education Building will house the Departments of Psychological Sciences and Public Health, a medical education program, and Health Sciences Research Institute. The announcement Monday by Newsom is the most significant backing by a governor to support UC Merced’s quest for a medical school — a goal that’s been on the wish list for Valley leaders since the early years of the university, which opened in 2005.

Newsom highlighted the importance of educating medical students in Merced County and the Valley. “They will come here in the Valley and they will stay in the Valley. They will contribute and they will serve the residents and the people that made their education possible,” Newsom said...

Full story at:

However, the governor has a habit of endorsing ideas that sound more complete than they are. Example: COVID vax mandates - BUT with exceptions for prison guards and loose exemptions. At present, UC-Merced has a cooperative arrangement with UC-San Francisco and it's not clear the governor was endorsing more than that arrangement.

Monday, October 25, 2021

New Protocol

From the BruinUCLA will require students to show a COVID-19 symptom monitoring clearance certificate to enter large dining halls beginning Oct. 25.

Bruin Plate, Epicuria at Covel, De Neve and The Spice Kitchen at Feast are among the dining halls that will require individuals to show their symptom monitoring clearance certificate, according to a UCLA Housing announcement Sunday. The policy will not affect grab-and-go facilities, including Bruin Bowl, Bruin Café, The Drey, Rendezvous and The Study at Hedrick.

The COVID-19 Symptom Monitoring and Vaccination Verification System sends students a clearance certificate once they fill out the survey that requires them to report vaccination status, symptoms of COVID-19 and potential exposure.

According to the announcement, the university created the new guidelines because the city of Los Angeles released a new ordinance regarding COVID-19 protocols. The ordinance will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination or proof of negative test for unvaccinated individuals before entering indoor facilities that allow for higher-risk interactions starting Nov. 4...

Full story at

Watch the Regents' Special Committee on Innovation Transfer & Entrepreneurship: Oct. 21, 2021

Following the Regents' Health Services Committee off-cycle meeting of Oct. 20, the Special Committee on Innovation Transfer & Entrepreneurship met the next day. The plan is to continue having the two committees meet in that sequence on an off-cycle basis.

An interesting question about this special committee is whether anyone other than the Regents is keen on it - or even knows about it. One interesting point is that there were no public comments, suggesting that information about the committee's existence or its agenda is not widely known. 

There was some concern expressed about little faculty presence. Yet, presumably, it is the faculty - particularly in medicine, the sciences, and engineering - that is supposed to produce the innovations. Or, is the emphasis on entrepreneurship? In that case, shouldn't deans of the various UC business schools have been invited? For that matter, since the transferring and entrepreneurship that seemed to be at issue occurs mainly at the campus level, it isn't clear why the focus was at the systemwide level. Of course, the three Dept. of Energy labs, especially the Los Alamos Lawrence Livermore, might be seen as systemwide concerns. But they were not on the agenda. 

There was lots of discussion about things going on at UCOP and changing the "culture." For example, chief investment officer Jagdeep Bachhler was invited, not to talk about financial returns, etc., but rather to talk about how he had changed the culture of his office when he was appointed. 

In short, at this point, the impression gained from this committee is that it consists of Regents talking to themselves. But you can use your own judgment. The link to the session can be found at:

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Watch the Regents' Health Services Committee Meeting of Oct. 20, 2021

It might be noted that Regent Blum did not attend. He also was not at the previous full board meeting when he was due to be censured for activities related to student admissions and was reported to be ill at the time. (The action on censure was removed from the agenda of that meeting.) He may still be ill.

Public comments covered bicycling for health, nurse staffing, nurse layoffs, and physician labor negotiations. A report followed by UC Health VP Carrie Byington on affiliation with Catholic hospitals. She then went on to discuss the coronavirus situation. That report was followed by discussion of the UC-Riverside School of Medicine.

Prof. David Hayes-Bautista of UCLA discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Latino population. He noted that by various measures, the Latino population has better health-related outcomes than the general population despite economic disadvantage. He attributed these outcomes to lifestyle effects. However, the Latino population was disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

At the end of the meeting, there was a brief presentation on clinical quality.

As always, we preserve the recordings of the meetings indefinitely since the Regents preserve their meetings for only one year. You can see the meeting at the links below:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Full meeting:

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Margo Leavin

From UCLA Newsroom: Margo Leavin, renowned art dealer and influential contemporary art world figure, has died at the age of 85. A graduate of UCLA, she was a longtime champion of artists in Los Angeles, and was the lead donor in the renovation of UCLA’s graduate art studios. Leavin was born in New York, but spent her adult life in Los Angeles. She earned her diploma from UCLA with a psychology degree in 1958 and became a private dealer in 1967, selling art out of her home until she opened the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood in 1970. She took on former employee Wendy Brandow as her partner in 1989.

The gallery was renowned for showing cutting-edge contemporary art by emerging and established artists — including John Baldessari, Claes Oldenburg, Lynda Benglis, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin and Donald Judd. By the time it closed in 2013, it had produced more than 500 exhibitions, including 400 solo shows. Its archives were acquired by the Getty Research Institute in 2015. In 2016, Leavin made a gift of $20 million to fund the renovation and expansion of the UCLA Graduate Art Studios. The complex, a former wallpaper factory, had been located in the Hayden Tract in Culver City since 1985. Leavin’s gift is the largest ever made by an alumna to the arts at UCLA. In honor of her contribution, the complex was renamed the UCLA Margo Leavin Graduate Art Studios.

“I’m grateful that my career in the Los Angeles art world has afforded me the opportunity to support those at the very heart of this community: artists,” Leavin had said in a statement. “The students, alumni and faculty from the art department at UCLA shape the future of the arts in Los Angeles and beyond.”

The major restoration and expansion created a new building for the nation’s top-ranked public university to support its leading graduate program. Designed by the Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee and opened in 2019, the 48,000 square foot campus was envisioned as a true artist’s neighborhood. The studios include exhibition galleries, a covered arcade that’s open to the outdoors, a garden and sculpture yards. The spaces were not overly deterministic in order to support the diverse and emerging needs of creative practice.

“Margo, a hero for and of the arts in Los Angeles, liked to say, ‘without artists, there would be no art world,’” said Brett Steele, dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. “Thanks to her commitment to nurturing the next generation of artistic talent, our students will benefit from state-of-the-art facilities, in which to dream and to create, for many years to come.”


Friday, October 22, 2021


New weekly California claims for unemployment insurance benefits have been stuck in the 60,000-to-80,000 range when "normal" would be something like 40,000. Thus, by this measure, the state's economy is not "roaring back," as the governor liked to put it a few months ago. As noted in a prior post, we seem likely to be heading for another year in which the budget and the underlying economy seem divorced. The governor is signaling a Good Times/election year budget - made possible by still large reserves - even if the times are not so good.*

As always, the latest claims data are at



Abbot controversy spills over from MIT to Princeton and now to Berkeley - Part 3

We noted in our last post that the Abbot-MIT-Princeton-Berkeley controversy has made its way from predominantly conservative news media to mainstream popular sources.* It has now moved also into the general academic discussion area with publication in Inside Higher Ed:

A Berkeley Resignation Over Canceled MIT Talk

By Colleen Flaherty - October 21, 2021

 David Romps, professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, says he’s resigning as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center over an internal disagreement about extending an invitation to a fellow climate scientist. Romps made his announcement in a lengthy Twitter thread, and while he didn’t mention the fellow scientist by name, it is clearly a reference to Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago whose planned public lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was recently canceled over concerns about Abbot’s commentary on academic diversity initiatives, including his comparison of the diversity “regime” to Nazism.

Abbot will give his climate science address today instead at Princeton University, which offered to host him when MIT canceled. Romps said he also wanted to reach out to Abbot, to ask him to deliver his MIT talk at Berkeley, and that he was disappointed by the reactions of his immediate colleagues (Romps did not share details about who disagreed, or why). Romps said, “I was hoping we could agree that BASC does not consider an individual’s political or social opinions when selecting speakers for its events, except for cases in which the opinions give a reasonable expectation that members of our community would be treated with disrespect,” but that it’s “unclear when or if we might reach agreement on this point.”

Berkeley said in a statement, “Prof. Romps’s resignation is unfortunate, but it is his decision to make.” Abbot will visit MIT to address fellow scientists, not the general public, in May.


With (now) general awareness, this would be a good time for the UC and campus-level Academic Senate institutions to take a good look at free speech issues and not leave it in the hands of university administrators. It appears that when controversy developed at MIT, the academic in charge went to the MIT central administration for guidance. Something similar appears to have happened at a somewhat-related controversy at UCLA. The advice received from that quarter seems in the end to have been unhelpful at best. There is no need, when an academic speaker is invited to give a lecture for elaborate statements as to why the speaker's views don't represent the university on this or that issue. No speaker, whether an invited guest or a faculty member, represents anyone's view other than that of the speaker. The administration can simply point to whatever policy makes that clear if anyone asks. Elaborate statements by university presidents, chancellors, or other officials simply lead to situations such as what has now developed in the Abbot-MIT-Princeton-Berkeley case.



Thursday, October 21, 2021

Lecturers' Labor Negotiation News - Part 3

Various members of the state legislature have written to UC prez Drake concerning the current labor negotiations regarding lecturers. The letter says, in part:

We urge you to prioritize labor peace and job stability for lecturers by coming to an agreement with the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) that recognizes the contributions of UC lecturers with reemployment preferences. UC-AFT members have sought to address these issues in collective bargaining and have proposed solutions that are consistent with existing industry standards for public higher education in California. For years now, reemployment preferences for contingent faculty at all California community colleges and all California State Universities have helped balance labor and management interests and ensure that great teachers can continue teaching. It’s time that these same practices are adopted across the UC system. 

After two years of bargaining the University of California and UC-AFT have reached an impasse for a successor contract for lecturers. These teaching faculty members, who teach onethird of undergraduate credit hours, have been working without a contract since February 1, 2020. In May 2021, they voted by 96% to authorize their colleagues on the UC-AFT bargaining team to call a strike... 

Full letter at

Just a reminder about "surplus"

The screengrab from the Sacramento Bee shown here tells you something, but - as your truly hopes blog readers will know - we are in fact this year pulling down reserves (running a deficit). Words such as surplus and deficit in the mouths of California political figures mean whatever those figures want. The simple idea that surplus = revenue > spending and deficit means the opposite goes out the window in California budget-speak. (Based on the governor's own figures, the deficit this year in the general fund is about $14-15 billion, i.e., we are pulling down reserves by that magnitude.) We are able to run such deficits partly because Jerry Brown accumulated a big reserve earlier and partly because at the start of the pandemic, it was assumed that revenues would fall dramatically and so spending was initially cut. 

Revenue didn't fall, mainly because higher earners who were least affected by the pandemic, pay much of state revenue through the income tax. And the federal government provided various payments to the state. As a result, reserves will be higher than they were before the pandemic, even with this year's deficit.

What you can say from the headline is that the governor is not going to be harsh regarding the budget for next year, which happens to be a gubernatorial election year. 

Abbot controversy spills over from MIT to Princeton and now to Berkeley - Part 2

Our previous post noted the controversy concerning the Abbot lecture cancellation at MIT and its spillover to Princeton and now to UC-Berkeley via the Romps resignation.* Up until now, i.e., before it arrived at Berkeley, the controversy, although it did show up in some mainstream publications (we provided a link to The Atlantic), mainly circulated in conservative news source. The Berkeley addition has apparently taken it mainstream:

From NBC News: After lecture is canceled, free speech debate roils science academia

Some academics are pushing back against what they see as personal politics that overshadows scientific work. Others stress that actions have consequences.

By Denise Chow

A prominent climate physicist has resigned from one of his roles at the University of California, Berkeley, after he said faculty members would not agree to invite a guest lecturer to the school who had come under fire for his political views.

The lecturer, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist, has been criticized for opposing affirmative action programs and other initiatives to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at colleges and universities. He has been the subject of boycotts and opposition from left-leaning students and at academic faculty meetings.

In a statement on Twitter, the physicist, David Romps, said Monday that he is stepping down as director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, or BASC, “at the end of this calendar year or when a replacement is ready, whichever is sooner.” Romps will remain a professor in the school’s department of earth and planetary sciences, a university spokesperson said.

The incident has added to the debate about when, if ever, it is appropriate to suppress speech on college campuses.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology this month rescinded a lecture invitation to Abbot, a geophysicist and associate professor at the University of Chicago, amid public backlash over an op-ed he co-wrote in Newsweek that argued in favor of a “Merit, Fairness, and Equality” framework on campuses as an alternative to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, which he said sought “to increase the representation of some groups through discrimination against members of other groups.” Last year, Abbot also denounced the riots that erupted in Chicago after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. He addressed those comments in a post published Oct. 5 on Substack.

Abbot was scheduled to deliver the prestigious Carlson Lecture at MIT’s department of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences about his research on climate science and the potential for alien planets to support life.

Romps, who did not respond to a request for comment, said his request to the faculty followed the MIT cancellation.

Romps said he asked faculty members whether the school could invite Abbot “to speak to us in the coming months to hear the science talk he had prepared and, by extending the invitation now, reaffirm that BASC is a purely scientific organization, not a political one,” he wrote on Twitter.

He said that discussions remained unresolved and that his colleagues’ unwillingness to include guest lecturers who have divergent political beliefs goes against the school’s mission.

“Excluding people because of their political and social views diminishes the pool of scientists with which members of BASC can interact and reduces the opportunities for learning and collaboration,” he wrote, adding that such actions signal that “some opinions — even well-intentioned ones — are forbidden, thereby increasing self-censorship, degrading public discourse, and contributing to our nation’s political balkanization.”


We'll see where the story goes from here. However, as we noted yesterday, such controversies are not a Good Thing for academia. We have already seen political interventions in some states, particularly in regard to public universities. Perhaps UC seems immune since it resides in a "blue" state. Congressional elections in 2022 and the presidential election in 2024 could change things, even in California. Don't think so? Ask your grandparents about "1950s' loyalty oath controversy" at UC. Ask your parents about what happened to Clark Kerr in the 1960s. Or Google these events.



Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Abbot controversy spills over from MIT to Princeton and now to Berkeley

The Dorian Abbot controversy has spilled over from MIT to Princeton and now to Berkeley. If you don't know what that controversy is, I have provided a key document below and links to several others. 

In essence, Prof. Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago was invited to give a public lecture at MIT concerning climate science and life on other planets. Apparently, some students got wind of remarks he had made about diversity issues in academia, protested, and the lecture was cancelled, causing an outcry about free speech in the news media.* 


*Example from the Atlantic:


Abbot was then extended an invitation to give a non-public lecture within the inviting department. (It's unclear if this non-public lecture will in fact take place.) MIT released an official statement (reproduced below) after the story of the cancellation of the public lecture circulated on the internet. Meanwhile, another entity at Princeton University invited Abbot to give his lecture "there" - in fact via Zoom at the date/time it was scheduled originally at MIT.**




Apparently, as a result of the brouhaha that developed, Prof. David Romps, director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center (BASC) sought to invite Abbott to speak, but he was rebuffed and then resigned over Twitter.** (See the accompanying image.) Exactly who did the rebuffing is not entirely clear from the Twitter thread. 


**See the long thread at


Needless to say, it is a Bad Thing for academia to have such occurrences repeatedly in the news. Exactly how the Berkeley powers-that-be will react is also unclear at this point. Yours truly looked at the Daily Cal early this morning and found no mention of the Romps resignation. But there is plenty about it floating around the internet.


From MIT's president:

To the members of the MIT community,

You may have heard about a situation centered on our Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) regarding an invited speaker, Professor Dorian Abbot. In a recent letter*** to the faculty, Provost Marty Schmidt lays out the facts, some of which have not come through clearly in the media and on social media. I encourage you to read his letter. You will also find thorough coverage in The Tech.**** 





The controversy around this situation has caused great distress for many members of our community, in many quarters. It has also uncovered significant differences within the Institute on several issues. I would like to reflect on what happened and set us on a path forward. But let me address the human questions first. 

To the members of the EAPS community: I am deeply disturbed that as a direct result of this situation, many of you – students, postdocs, faculty and young alumni – have suffered a tide of online targeting and hate mail from outside MIT. This conduct is reprehensible and utterly unacceptable. For members of the MIT community, where we value treating one another with decency and respect, this feels especially jarring.I encourage anyone who is subjected to harassing or threatening behavior or language to reach out for support and guidance to the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) office.

I also want to express my tremendous respect for Professor Rob van der Hilst, department head in EAPS, who faced a difficult situation. I know Rob as a person of the highest integrity and character. We are fortunate to have his leadership in EAPS. In this case, when Rob concluded, after consulting broadly, that EAPS could not host an effective public outreach event centered around Professor Abbot, he chose to extend instead an invitation for an on-campus lecture; Rob took this step deliberately to preserve the opportunity for free dialogue and open scientific exchange.

Professor Abbot is a distinguished scientist who remains welcome to speak on the MIT campus, and he has been working with EAPS to confirm the event details. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this matter has caused many people inside and outside our community to question the Institute’s commitment to free expression. Some report feeling that certain topics are now off limits at MIT. I have heard these concerns directly from faculty colleagues, alumni and others who care deeply about the Institute. Let me say clearly what I have observed through more than 40 years at MIT:

Freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the Institute.

I believe that, as an institution of higher learning, we must ensure that different points of view – even views that some or all of us may reject – are allowed to be heard and debated at MIT. Open dialogue is how we make each other wiser and smarter. This commitment to free expression can carry a human cost. The speech of those we strongly disagree with can anger us. It can disgust us. It can even make members of our own community feel unwelcome and illegitimate on our campus or in their field of study. I am convinced that, as an institution, we must be prepared to endure such painful outcomes as the price of protecting free expression – the principle is that important. I am equally certain, however, that when members of our community must bear the cost of other people’s free expression, they deserve our understanding and support. We need to ensure that they, too, have the opportunity to express their own views.

*   *   *

A path forward

The issues this situation has brought to the surface are complex. No unilateral declaration on behalf of MIT could either resolve them in the moment or prevent future controversies. So I believe it is vital now that we engage in serious, open discussion together. As the provost’s letter described, we will begin with a faculty forum, being planned for the last week of October. Discussion in this working session might address questions like these: Given our shared commitment to open inquiry and free expression, are there further steps we should take to practice it consistently? Should we develop guidelines to help groups in their own decision making? Does the concept need more prominence in our curriculum? How should we respond when members of our community bear the disproportionate cost of other people’s speech?

It will be essential in this overall process to include the perspective and experience of graduate and undergraduate students; I have asked Chancellor Melissa Nobles to work with student leaders to decide the best way to do so. I have also asked Provost Marty Schmidt, Chancellor Nobles and Chair of the Faculty Lily Tsai to begin immediately assembling a special ad hoc working group to consider the insights and lessons we should take away from this situation. I believe this extremely important topic deserves and will benefit from this kind of thoughtful, deliberative, nuanced approach, perhaps including experts from outside MIT. The themes that emerge from the initial faculty forum will help inform the working group’s charge.

*   *   *

From the comments that have come to me directly, I can attest that our community encompasses a wide spectrum of very strong views about what has transpired in these last weeks. As we cope with the aftermath of this public controversy here at home, let us hold ourselves to the same standards in our interactions with each other as in our intellectual work: To learn more, assume less and ask more – and listen as closely as we can to each other’s ideas, perspectives and experiences. I hope that, in this moment and always, we will all continue to value and respect each other as fellow members of one community, united in a single great mission.


L. Rafael Reif


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Lecturers' Labor Negotiation News - Part 2

From the Bruin, 10-18-21: The University Council-American Federation of Teachers hosted informational pickets on campus about its ongoing bargaining with the University of California on Wednesday and Thursday (of last week). The UC-AFT is a labor union that encompasses lecturers and other part-time faculty across all UC campuses, representing more than 6,800 lecturers. UC-AFT has been bargaining with the UC for more than two years to advocate for improved salaries and fairer workload standards for lecturers. On June 25, the California Public Employment Relations Board declared an impasse between UC-AFT and the UC, and the two parties entered state-sponsored mediation.

Starting at 10 a.m., UC-AFT members gathered in Meyerhoff Park to pass out pamphlets and speak to students about its ongoing negotiations with the UC. On both days, lecturers spoke about the struggles they face because of low wages and lack of job security. They also criticized UC President Michael Drake’s unresponsiveness to UC-AFT throughout contract negotiations...

On Monday, the UC presented union leaders with a formal proposal for new, multiyear contracts. However, some lecturers expressed mixed feelings about the recent offer. Ryan King, a UC Office of the President spokesperson, said under the latest offer, the majority of UC-AFT lecturers would receive 4% to 5% pay increases, while the lowest paid lecturers would receive at least an 8% increase in pay...

 UC and UC-AFT remain in mediation and if the two move on from mediation to fact-finding, a state-appointed fact-finder will issue what they think is a fair contract but neither side is obligated to accept it. If no agreement is reached, then UC-AFT is legally allowed to call a strike...

Full story at

Monday, October 18, 2021

Streisand Institute

From a UCLA News Release:
“Building upon her decades of work as an artist and activist, Barbra Streisand’s visionary act of generosity will enable UCLA scholars from many different fields to collaborate on research that will move society forward,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said.

The Barbra Streisand Institute includes 4 research centers that address her concerns:

  • the Center for Truth in the Public Sphere
  • the Center for the Impact of Climate Change
  • the Center for the Dynamics of Intimacy & Power Between Women & Men
  • the Center for the Impact of Art on the Culture

These centers will be housed in UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences.

Widely recognized as an icon in multiple entertainment fields, Streisand has attained unprecedented success as a recording artist, actor, director, producer, screenwriter, author and songwriter. She is the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a major motion picture, the first woman composer to receive an Academy Award, the only recording artist who has achieved No. 1 albums in six consecutive decades, and the first woman to receive a Golden Globe Award for Best Director.

Alongside these achievements, Streisand has long been a staunch supporter of civil rights, gender equality, and upholding democracy. She has also been a leading environmental activist, funding some of the earliest climate change research at the Environmental Defense Fund beginning in 1989.

“It is my great pleasure to be able to fund an institute at UCLA, one of the world’s premier universities,” Streisand said. “This will be a place where future scholars can discuss, engage and argue about the most important issues of the day; where innovators will speak truth to power, help save our planet, and make glass ceilings for women an anachronism; and in the process give us a chance to have a brighter, more promising future.” ...

Ahead of the formal establishment of the institute, which will occur when the full gift amount* is received, the work will be housed at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women...

Full release is at


*The release is unclear as to what the "full gift amount" is.

Continued erosion of the Master Plan - Part 2

We have previously noted the ad hoc dissipation of the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education without any comprehensive plan to replace or revise it.* Not everyone is unhappy about the ad hoc approach by the legislature, with gubernatorial blessing. From Inside Higher Ed:

California community college advocates and leaders are applauding new state legislation that allows two-year institutions to award four year-degrees. Assembly Bill 927, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on Oct. 6, makes baccalaureate programs being piloted at 15 community colleges permanent and allows other community colleges across the state to also create the programs. The law allows the California Community Colleges system to offer up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year, provided the programs fill different workforce needs than programs already available within the state’s university systems.

“We think it really allows our community colleges the flexibility and the authority to continue designing programs to meet the needs of California’s ever-changing economy and workforce,” said David O’Brien, vice chancellor for governmental relations for California Community Colleges.

Star Rivera-Lacey, president and superintendent at Palomar College, a two-year institution north of San Diego, said the legislation will give students affordable bachelor’s degree options at colleges where “they’ve already been successful” without having to encounter new hurdles transferring to a four-year university.

“For us, it’s like Christmas,” Rivera-Lacey said. “Community colleges have always been a place of accessibility. To add a bachelor’s degree to that -- I think this is a game changer, and I think California has been waiting for it for a while.”

The new legislation allows community college administrators to submit proposals for new bachelor’s degrees to the office of the chancellor of the community college system during two annual cycles. Fifteen programs per cycle will be considered and must pass a review process by the chancellor’s office, California State University and University of California systems administrators, and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. The number of baccalaureate degree programs offered by a community college district must be fewer than a quarter of the number of the district’s associate degree programs...

Full story at



Sunday, October 17, 2021

Dealing with excess

Scene from "The Chair"

Some blog readers, particularly those who subscribe to the NY Times, will be aware that the Times now has John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at Columbia, as a columnist. His function seems in part to be to comment on, and critique, on trends in academia related to excesses in identity politics of the type recently satirized by the Netflix series "The Chair." It's certainly not a Good Thing for academia when it is critiqued from the right for "cancel culture" and from the left in dramas such as "The Chair." We noted in a post a little over two weeks ago that UCLA is not immune from such attention.* (Yours truly has been asked about that UCLA case independently of the blog, so reports about it continue to circulate.)

The latest McWhorter column: At the University of Michigan recently, the music professor Bright Sheng — who’s had a superlative career as a composer, conductor and musician — wanted to share with his students how Giuseppe Verdi transformed Shakespeare’s “Othello” into the acclaimed opera “Otello.” That transformation is a rich and instructive topic in music composition. In September, Sheng showed his undergraduate composition seminar the 1965 film based on the Royal National Theatre’s stage production of “Othello,” with Laurence Olivier playing the title role in blackface makeup, in line with the custom of the era.

Some students took offense: One told The Michigan Daily that she was “shocked” and that Sheng failed to first contextualize what the class saw. Sheng apologized. Days later, the dean of Music, Theatre & Dance wrote that “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our school’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.” Sheng apologized again, and in an apparent effort to mitigate, offered examples of his professional support over the years for people of color. That drew criticism from grad students, undergrads and faculty, who, according to The Daily, called it “inflammatory” in an open letter calling for Sheng’s removal as course instructor.

In a Medium post, a writer identifying as a member of the class took Sheng’s department chair to task for, reportedly, recommending that the issue “may be something you ought to first discuss with Professor Sheng.” (The audacity.) The same post implied that Sheng’s alleged transgressions were as grave as, for instance, incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. If you want to read more, Cathy Young has provided invaluable coverage of what she correctly describes as yet another “moral panic.”

Sheng has left the class. A common response to occurrences like this is to condemn the students involved as being overly delicate — snowflakes, in today’s parlance. However, merely leveling that charge doesn’t facilitate a constructive discussion about what fuels these sadly routine events. The underlying issue isn’t the students’ fragility, it’s that their approach illustrates the difference between radicalism and progressivism. It’s an example of a strain of thought permeating campuses (our whole society, really), one that blithely elides that difference in favor of preaching only of “social justice.”

Start here: What happened to Sheng would have been much less likely a generation ago. In the late 1990s, I showed a class of white, Black and Asian American students a scene from a film with white performers in blackface. Beforehand, I mentioned that this was a very old movie and that we were going to see a practice that nobody would venture today, but that the film was instructive for other reasons. None of the students batted an eye, at least that I could see. If anything, some of the Black students (and maybe some of the non-Black students) snickered at the performers for how ridiculous they looked.

So, here’s our query: Is the response of Sheng’s students an advance on those of my students a generation ago? Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened? Before we tackle that, there are two important points to address. First, as Young notes, Olivier’s performance does involve a degree of cartoonish swagger beyond what some blackface performances of the era entailed. But it’s reasonable to assume that Sheng’s students would have had a similar response to more restrained blackface portrayals of Othello, such as Orson Welles’s. Second, Sheng should indeed have made clear that he was about to show his students something that would require them to put on their “history glasses,” as I sometimes put it. But the question involves degree: Should he now be barred from the class amid rhetoric that makes him sound like a pitiless bigot, unfit and out of step with an enlightened society? I’d say no.

Now: Let’s break down what the crux of objections to showing a blackface performance ever at all are. The typical idea is that blackface is a reminder of the reign of minstrel shows, in which white performers wore blackface makeup and engaged in clownish distortion of Black speech and dance styles. Minstrel shows were core American entertainment for most of the 19th century, and well into the 20th. It was a filmic depiction of a minstrel show, in fact, that I showed my class: Al Jolson in 1930’s “Mammy.”

Minstrel shows were disgusting, all the more so in how utterly central they were in American entertainment for so very long. But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.

The idea seems to be that we (relatively) younger Black people and our non-Black fellow travelers are nevertheless so viscerally stung by seeing any manifestation of this bygone tradition that to show dated footage of a white British actor in blackface, as part of an academic colloquy, qualifies as a grievous insult. But I like to think of Black Americans as a people of pride and forward thinking. I miss those qualities in this submission to an insult leveled by perpetrators now very, very dead. And since no one can seriously argue that Sheng’s intent was to revive or exalt the practice of blackface — and not to teach something about the operatic adaptation of a seminal literary work — to treat him as an accessory to those dead perpetrators seems more a kind of performance in itself than a spontaneously felt insult.

Another idea would be that to imitate a Black person by trying to darken the appearance of one’s skin is, inherently, to ridicule that person. But is it impossible in the logical sense that someone might costume oneself as a Black person one admires and put on makeup to darken one’s face simply as part of seeking to look like that person? Many will heatedly object: “Impossible!” But we must attend to why. If the answer is minstrel shows, then see above. These days, we’re expected to recoil, under any circumstances, at the idea of a white person attempting to make their skin look like the color of a nonwhite person’s, as if this were the automatic equivalent to using a racist slur, or worse. But context matters. A lot.

Is blackface being shown as part of a collegiate-level discussion, as in the Michigan case? College students shouldn’t need protection from an old film used to help them think about and debate the conversion of a classic over time. Sheng was using the film to stir and inform artistic consciousness. To read that situation otherwise is deeply anti-intellectual. Is blackface being deployed comedically, not to make fun of Black people, but to lampoon the absurdity of racism? For example, in one episode of the sitcom “30 Rock,” Jane Krakowski’s character is made up in blackface and wears men’s clothing; Tracy Morgan’s character is made up in whiteface, a blond wig and wears women’s clothing in a “social experiment” to see who has it harder in America — white women or Black men. In another episode, Krakowski is made up in blackface and dresses as the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, who’s not derided in any way, the bit being a clever play on the movie title “Black Swan.”

Last year, not long after George Floyd was murdered, three “30 Rock” episodes that involved blackface, including those two, were taken out of syndication. The show’s producers, including its star, Tina Fey, may have concluded they had no choice. But we might ask why the sheer matter of the makeup was an insult to Black people. It’s not self-evident that pulling those episodes was morally necessary in 2020 because of careers like Jolson’s. The shows’ flashes of wit didn’t set Black people back in any way. It’s hard to see how a lighthearted plotline about racism and sexism, even with blackface, harms Black people — or how taking it off the air helps us. My horse sense tells me that the vast majority of us get that a joke can be a joke.

These are my own observations. They are up for debate. But those condemning Sheng seem to consider their ideas not just opinions, but truths — the predicate for an inquisition. Yet, the view that blackface makeup is so uniquely revolting that a professor should be hounded from his class for showing, in a scholarly setting, decades-old scenes of an actor wearing it is a point that many find extreme. It is a position that requires some serious lifting and a vast transformation in common modes of thought, even among people with good-faith concerns about race relations, and would look odd to time travelers from just a few decades ago. A position like that is not simply “antiracist,” but radical.

This radical proposition, like so many on race of late, is being put forth as if it were scripture that no moral actor could question. It misses the point, then, to dismiss the students as fragile. Their claim entails that people were injured by such usages of blackface before, therefore must still be now, and that we should redefine the bounds of permissibility to bar such images from general experience. They think their recoil from the very sight of decades-old racist imagery is uniquely enlightened, a resistance to abuse endemic to our society’s past, present and future. To them, their response isn’t only appropriate, it’s mandatory. But that’s a proposition they must assert in the public square and assume as subject to discussion and dissent.

And let’s face it, in that discussion, this radical proposition would likely be voted down. Its adherents would deem this as racism winning out. But many others would see it as a victory for common sense, seeing the current fashion as a performance, a kind of, yes, virtue signaling. Or just maybe, the people who witch-hunted Sheng could defend their position better than I am imagining. I’d be happy to observe the attempt. But from where I sit, we’re seeing a radical agenda not proposed, but imposed. Upon what authority are they allowed such primacy of influence in how we speak, think and teach in our times?



A view from yours truly:

I attended a film showing at MIT (where I was a grad student) around 1967 which featured the 1927 movie "The Jazz Singer." As I recall, the showing was part of a series of films that were classic in the sense of having introduced technical advances, with The Jazz Singer representing the first big commercial sound "talkie." (The film used synchronized phonograph records for the musical numbers - a system called Vitaphone - rather than the later soundtrack innovation.) Nowadays, one can easily see "The Jazz Singer" on the web. But in 1967, there was no web nor even a VCR so most of the audience would likely have never seen the film and may not have known about the blackface performances.

When Al Jolson put on blackface and a wig, there was a notable gasp from the audience (that was undoubtedly close to 100% White). Obviously, an audience at MIT was not a typical sample of the US population at that time. But perhaps what happened was a prelude to more current academic sensibilities. On the other hand, no one publicly denounced whoever had planned the film series as a bigot. Even if there were individuals in the audience who wanted to do so, there wasn't the presence of social media back in 1967 that would have given them a handy public channel for such a denunciation.

You can find pre-internet examples of the young denouncing their elders for ideological non-conformance, e.g., the Chinese cultural revolution. But in the less dramatic US case, I suspect that the phenomenon has much to do with social media. Social media did not exist at the time of the example from the 1990s cited in the column above.