UC delays vote on much-debated proposal to restrict some faculty speech


Public speakers took the chance to address UC leaders during Wednesday’s UC regents meeting on the UCLA campus.

Credit: Julie Leopo / EdSource

The University of California’s board of regents has delayed voting until May on a controversial policy proposal that would restrict faculty from using some university websites to make opinionated and political statements, such as opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza.

The proposal would ban faculty departments and other academic units from using the homepages of their department websites to make “discretionary statements,” which the proposal defines as comments on “local, regional, global or national” events or issues and not related to daily departmental operations.

In the days leading up to the meeting, the UC system’s Academic Senate had asked the regents to reject or at least delay a vote and expressed concerns that the proposal would limit freedom of speech.

The policy was scheduled for a vote Wednesday during a joint meeting of the regents’ academic affairs and compliance and audit committees. But regents voted to delay a final decision until their next meeting in May. Before that meeting, they plan to collect additional comments from the Academic Senate and other regents.

“People will submit their issues that they have. The Academic Senate will do their thing. We’ll hear everyone’s point of view. We’ll modify if we need to modify. And maybe we could just personally commit that we’ll vote in the next meeting,” said regent Jay Sures, one of the regents responsible for bringing the proposal forward. Sures is vice-chairman of United Talent Agency, a powerful entertainment and sports-related firm.

Jay Sures
Regent Jay Sures, seen during Wednesday’s board meeting, backs a proposal to curb opinionated comments on academic department homepages.
Credit: Julie Leopo / EdSource

UC systemwide President Michael Drake also supported delaying the vote, saying he doesn’t think the policy is finished and that the university “needs to get it right” before moving forward.

The policy doesn’t mention a specific issue, but many faculty see it as an attempt to limit what they can say about Israel’s war in Gaza. The consideration of the policy, which has been in the works for months, comes after UC’s Ethnic Studies Faculty Council and several faculty departments have criticized Israel over the war. In addition, when the policy was first discussed at January’s regents meeting, regent Hadi Makarechian said the board was considering the policy because “some people were making political statements related to Hamas and Palestinians.”

UC leaders who support the policy have said it is needed to ensure that the opinions of faculty departments aren’t misinterpreted as representing the university as a whole. 

It’s unclear whether the policy will get enough support among the board when it does go to a vote. Some regents voiced concern Wednesday about the proposal’s possible impacts.

Merhawi Tesfai, a graduate student at UCLA and a student regent, said during the meeting that he doesn’t think the regents should be setting a systemwide policy.

“I think each campus should be free to decide on what policies they’re going to be doing, what guidelines they’re going to set around this issue,” he added.

Another regent, Keith Ellis, said he was concerned that the policy could be used “as a weapon” against faculty.

If faculty departments or other academic units, such as research centers, do want to make opinionated statements, the proposal still would allow them to publish those elsewhere on UC web pages, just not on the homepages. Those statements would also need to include a disclaimer explaining that the opinions don’t represent the university as a whole. The policy also allows faculty and groups of faculty to publish their opinions on private websites. 

Last week, the Academic Senate formally requested that the regents reject the proposal or at least delay a vote. The Senate’s Academic Council voted unanimously, 19-0, in making that request to the regents. In a letter to the regents, Academic Senate leaders said the policy has the potential to “limit free speech and impinge on academic freedom,” among other concerns. 

An overflow crowd waits outside of Wednesday’s meeting of the UC board of regents at UCLA.
Credit: Julie Leopo / EdSource

The policy was updated after the Senate submitted its comments, and did include some changes addressing the concerns raised. The latest draft of the policy, for example, includes a definition of the types of statements that would be banned, whereas the previous version did not.

In remarks to the regents, Academic Senate Chair James Steintrager said the latest version was a step in the right direction but lamented that the Senate had only two days to review the latest version before the meeting. He urged the regents to delay a vote and send the draft policy out for further review by the Senate.

Trevor Griffey, a lecturer at UCLA and a vice president for the union representing UC’s non-tenure track faculty, wrote on social media on Wednesday that the union is worried about how the policy would be enforced. The union “believes that enforcement of this vague standard cannot be done consistently, and is likely to increase interest group pressure” on faculty departments, Griffey wrote.

Griffey also said the regents were trying to bypass the Senate on this issue. Rather than approving a new policy, Senate leaders have asked the regents to adopt recommendations made by the Senate in 2022. 

The Senate determined at that time that UC faculty departments have the right to “make statements on University-owned websites” as long as the statements don’t take positions on elections. The Senate, like the regents, also recommended that those statements include disclaimers that the departments don’t speak for the university as a whole. But the Senate didn’t discourage statements from appearing on departmental homepages. 

“These recommendations were based on comprehensive consultation with faculty on the ten campuses, as well as with UC Legal consultants. They are intended to guide departments whose members opt to post statements to do so in ways that minimize downsides and that do not infringe on academic freedom,” the Senate leaders wrote in their letter to the regents last week.

Since last fall, some faculty departments have included statements on their websites criticizing Israel. The homepage for UC Santa Cruz’s critical race and ethnic studies department websit has a statement calling on “scholars, researchers, organizers, and administrators worldwide” to take action “to end Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza.” 

In a letter last fall, the systemwide UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council also criticized UC leaders for their public statements following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. The council said UC’s statements lacked context because they didn’t acknowledge Israeli violence against Palestine, including “75 years of settler colonialism and globally acknowledged apartheid.” The faculty also said UC’s statements “irresponsibly wield charges of terrorism.” 

Sures, the regent who supports the proposal, responded with a letter of his own, saying the council’s letter was “rife with falsehoods about Israel and seeks to legitimize and defend the horrific savagery of the Hamas massacre.” He also pledged to do “everything in my power” to protect “everyone in our extended community from your inflammatory and out of touch rhetoric.” The faculty responded by criticizing Sures for not condemning Israeli violence and calling on him to resign. 

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