Leadership & Governance

Berkeley Chancellor's Comments on Arizona Shooting Draw Criticism

January 12, 2011

The chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley is drawing rebukes from some commentators after he linked the shooting rampage in Tucson this past weekend to the failure of the Dream Act and the passage of Arizona's immigration law—an unusually political statement from a prominent university leader.

The chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau, said in a campuswide e-mail on Monday morning that "a climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to" tragedies like the shooting in Tucson. The six people who died included a federal judge, and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was among 14 people who were wounded. "I believe that it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons," he wrote.

Arizona enacted legislation last year that stepped up enforcement of immigration laws, and state voters had previously approved a measure that bars undocumented students from receiving state financial aid.

The same "mean-spirited xenophobia played a major role in the defeat of the Dream Act," Mr. Birgeneau wrote, referring to the federal bill that would have provided a path to legal residency for many college students who are undocumented immigrants. The measure died in Congress last month.

Mr. Birgeneau's entry into the heated debate over the cause and context of the shooting was singled out by several conservative commentators, who criticized the chancellor for injecting politics into a tragedy and for being intolerant of free speech. The e-mail was also picked up by Fox News.

Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called Mr. Birgeneau's message "very ill-considered." And a frequent conservative critic of higher education, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, posted a blog entry entitled "Genius California Educator Explains the Arizona Shooting." It was a mystery why Mr. Birgeneau would weigh in on the tragedy, wrote the post's author, Diane Schrader, but "I hope the taxpayers of California kick up a stink over this blowhard's abuse of his authority."

Mr. Birgeneau's statement could be fodder for a debate in university communications classes, said Larry D. Lauer, vice chancellor for government affairs and a professor of strategic communications at Texas Christian University. He said it raises question such as: "Is it wise to make a statement in the role of the head of an institution about an issue like hate speech and tie it to a specific act of violence? What are the possible consequences for the institution?"

A Berkeley spokesman said neither the university nor Mr. Birgeneau would have any further comment on the issue. "He's got nothing to add, feels the statement speaks for itself," said the spokesman, Dan Mogulof.

Mr. Birgeneau has waded into the political fray before, notably when he said racism against minority student-athletes was behind much of the opposition from tree-sitting protesters to Berkeley's new athletics center. He also said earlier this year that he was "horrified" by Arizona's immigration law.

His comments come at a politically sensitive time for the university. California's new governor, Jerry Brown, proposed a $500-million cut in state support for the university on Monday, and lawmakers will hold hearings on the budget in the coming months.

But Mr. Birgeneau also received backing from an unlikely source on Wednesday. State Sen. Leland Yee, a Democratic lawmaker and a frequent critic of the University of California, said he agreed with the chancellor's analysis. "I think the chancellor has lived up to his reputation as being a leader of the Berkeley campus," Mr. Yee said.

Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College and an expert on the presidency, also defended Mr. Birgeneau's attempt to weigh in on a national issue.

"Although we have no evidence that the Arizona shooter was influenced by political rhetoric, we don't know to what extent the hostile atmosphere triggered his deadly behavior," she said. "Chancellor Birgeneau speaks to the need for university leaders to promote civil discourse and decry ad hominem and incendiary speech. He is exercising his own right to free speech."

Paul Fain contributed to this article.