The April 11 and 12 issues of the Daily Sundial contained letters expressing various points of view related to a campus visit by Mel Gibson on March 22, 2007. As is appropriate in academic matters, I am responding on behalf of President Jolene Koester and Academic Affairs, including Dean Elizabeth Say and Dean David Moon.
Rather than responding in turn to each of these letters, I share with you the letter I sent on March 29 to all parties directly involved, including faculty members in the Departments of Central American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, and Cinema and Television Arts, and to the authors of a letter received by the President’s Office on March 28 and reprinted as an “Open Letter to President Koester” in the April 11 Daily Sundial.
The University believes that the issues raised are important and compelling. Panel discussions are being planned by the College of Humanities. In addition, on behalf of the President, Deans Say and Moon, and myself, I continue to extend invitations to engage in face-to-face civil dialogue on important issues illuminated by the event.
Harry Hellenbrand Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
We are at a crossroad. We can fork left, accusing one another of offensive behavior and treating a few individuals as scapegoats for all of our errors.
Or we can fork right. We can learn from this episode; we can admit that there is right and wrong on many sides. We can sit at the table together. We can construct a civil way to exchange clashing views. Movies rarely will show such civil behavior; that is all the more reason why we should show civil exchange-publicly.
Since I have heard all the accounts second hand, imagine a large, “it appears” before all that follows. I apologize for the qualification. The haste with which people want a judgment and action, my distance from the events themselves, and the faded, confusing trail of evidence compel me to signal inconclusiveness. Where I am wrong, where you believe I am wrong, do respond. Let’s talk.
In the case of the movie last Thursday night, CTVA and CAS faculty represented two different ways-excuse the gross simplification-of viewing film: the technical and ideological. Did CTVA notify CAS ahead of time that the movie/star would be here, discussing this ideologically charged film? Did CAS notify CTVA of their concerns-concerns that, to be frank, I share, about the star’s appropriation of history? Answers, I think: no, no. Did I stop to think of this last week? No. Should I have? Yes. So from the start, we lost collegiality and dialogue that really could engage students. As a result, things could only go down hill; they did.
The event clearly had a Q and A protocol. Did the CAS professor observe that protocol? Did s/he have the authority to pass the mic to the guest? Is it true that the guest with the professor would not return the mic to the CTVA representative? If indeed the professor’s intent was to educate students in the room, was the approach effective? When the guest read a declamation in Spanish, was this a pedagogically sound approach? Granted, these were very effective symbolic acts. Should we go there as a first resort? Some in the audience responded very crudely. Do we now shoot them? Expel them? Lecture them? Educate them? Who would do that? Us? How?
The movie star/director, from all reports, behaved angrily, inappropriately, in public when the star’s views were challenged. Is this shocking? Living in bubbles of sycophancy on a sea of criticism, many celebrities become intolerant of disagreement. And experience has shown that such stars can be props for their own and others’ ideologies. Should it be shocking to cinema people that, in the San Fernando Valley, at a University with our rich history, passionate and knowledgeable people might revile this film? On the other hand, is it obsequious or is it polite to forewarn a guest-star or not-about the format of the program? While we all hope to be adept and civil when confronted with the unexpected-even if we should expect the unexpected-can we not understand why the star might “lose it” in this context? Have not I “lost it” sometimes, have not you? Some say the star apologized publicly for what s/he said; others deny that. The Sundial, I think, implied that he did. Would it matter, and to whom, if s/he did so there?
Let’s focus on the “disruption.” Was the scrum for the mic appropriate behavior by adult scholars, on all sides? In fact, was there a scrum? There are conflicting accounts about whether there was any physical contact and/or physical intimidation. The Sundial implies that there was-by security; Chicano Studies affirms that there was “physical intimidation.” Others, including campus police, vigorously deny these charges. Did the star seek to close the questioning? Or did he actually request the mic to remain open? When did he curse? How often? Why are there no consistent accounts? Should CSUN have had security in plain clothes there? In uniform? Immediately after the event, did anyone make an effort to gather the parties to reconcile accounts-to plan for a discussion of the film and the discourse about it?
We now have a fading trail on whether some participants and witnesses intentionally or inadvertently construed the person who escorted the CAS professor and guest out as the star’s bodyguard. (We seem to know, I believe, that the escort was not a bodyguard. Indeed, there is testimony that CTVA staff, not security, escorted CAS faculty and guest up the aisle.) The CAS professor alleges in interviews, I believe, that security at the event showed his gun. The implication is that the security escort threatened harm; or is that the implication? Something less? Why do other witnesses report the event differently? Is it legitimate to discount their views entirely? The police officer and faculty person tell opposing versions about showing/not showing the gun. Is one wrong? Both? Neither? Are you sure that you know? All these interpretations-dire threat, threat, bodyguard, no threat-are now out there. Why? Need such dispersion and amplification have occurred? How do we clear this media fog? How many people who have attested in email to accounts of what happened there, were there? Would that matter?
Stories got into the press quickly; how so? Is it true that a Sundial photographer released-no, sold- the photos, violating the ethics of the paper?? Did anyone cover this aspect of the story in the Sundial? How do we react when a representative from one department subverts the objectives of another? When s/he, in fact, “goes public or commercial” without consultation? We must be misinformed about this. Right?
Further, did CAS inform the University that faculty would be on TV and radio Friday? If we were told, why was I not informed? The University spokesperson referred in interviews to the episode in the Q and A as a “disruption,” it seems to me, from CTVA’s point of view. From CAS’s point of view, what was it? Should the University spokesperson have told the press that s/he only had the views of CTVA? The spokesperson could not represent the view of CAS because no one from CAS returned his messages all day Friday, until late in the day, according to this official. The CSUN spokesperson’s conversation with one CAS member at approximately 4pm on Friday ended quickly when the faculty received another call. The faculty did not call back, say some; others say the CAS faculty did. Should I summon the faculty to produce phone records? Should I so summon the University spokesperson? That would prove . . . what?
But do we doubt that better internal communication at this stage could have helped to portray the event more evenly? The spokesperson says “disruption” referred to the back-and-forth among the professor, star, audience, and security; others say it referred to what the CAS professor and guest said. How much are we hinging our responses on what “disruption” means? Does all this reflect orchestrated intent-
by anyone? Or does it show the amplifying effects of accident and miscommunication?
CAS members, I believe, broadcast that a faculty person and the department office received hate email. The emails that I have seen were received, I believe, subsequent to CAS media interviews. That does not mean there are no others; it does mean that these are the emails that CAS faculty focused on. Did CAS professors alert the University that their public statements might anger some people-was this not foreseeable, based on audience reaction the night before? Did they alert the University, at all, about the interviews? While this is not required, is it not a courtesy? Is not such notification a pre-condition of receiving protection? If CAS faculty could not foresee the need for protection, why do we think the University could-especially if not asked? Did CAS request a technical University reading of the emails to determine whether they were accurately classified as “hate” before claiming so publicly? The emails are vile in some instances, I believe that, I really do. But are they “hate” messages? Does it matter that a University official has reviewed the email, finding them distasteful but not messages of “hate”? Those from students do not violate the student conduct code, we have learned. Do we each reserve the right to determine what amounts to “hate”? Did the University fail to respond when it finally learned of allegedly threatening calls to the CAS office and a professor’s home?
So, here we are. We are in our corners. Each of us is right; we know that. And we have told our spheres of influence so. The spectacle is ugly, I am sorry to say. We have shown students in the film class and on campus that we exchange opposing views through monologue and possibly wrestling, not dialogue. We have shown them that we then become litigious, looking for ways to entrap one another. We have shown them that we reserve the right to break contracts; we have shown them that we believe that we are each judge and jury ready to command the University to execute. Then we blame the system-CSUN– because it fails to act as we each want it to, before it can learn accurately what happened, in ways that would chill free speech and traduce fair process. We also have-film at 11-displayed this ambiguous drama as black-and-white melodramas in the national media. Are we all starry-eyed? Is media-ification validation? Is it the case that we must go there because we cannot reason here?
I am disheartened by this. Why? It exemplifies why political discourse in this country is a charade, why the knowing public mocks universities, and why the media circus revels in our displays which, inadvertently, legitimize their sensationalist discourse. There is no public discourse in universities; there are separate pronouncements and denouncements. And the root problems-prejudice, ignorance, media appropriation-remain because we do not engage them. And we need to engage them, in CSUN, LA, California, our country, and on our globe.
My rushed judgment is flawed, I am sure; many facts are off, too, because I have no purchase on truth or wisdom. But don’t we all owe the students-all of them at CSUN-an apology for failing to teach together, to respect ourselves as a community? I am willing to work with you on this; but that supposes that we first can reach some agreement about our shared fallibility, not the other person’s culpability.