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Submission: USAC members’ apology insufficient

By Yoram Cohen, Joseph Manson, and Judea Pearl

Feb. 27, 2015 12:33 p.m.

Faculty members are rightfully reluctant to weigh in on issues discussed by the student government, and even more reluctant to directly criticize members of that government. But a recent action by UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association Council is so threatening to basic principles of justice that we feel compelled to speak out. What is at stake is both UCLA’s reputation, which affects all faculty as well as all students, and the well-being of the University’s Jewish minority.

The facts of the case are by now well-known. At a USAC meeting on Feb. 10, several council members objected to the proposed appointment of Rachel Beyda to the Judicial Board on the grounds that her involvement in the Jewish community would undermine her ability to judge cases impartially. After an initial 4-4-1 vote, “a faculty member in attendance eventually stepped in to point out the problems” with the decision and, in the end, Beyda’s appointment was approved unanimously. On Feb. 20, the four council members who initially voted against Beyda’s appointment published, in the Daily Bruin, an apology for their “remarks.”

Here’s why their apology is woefully inadequate: the problem with USAC’s deliberations regarding Beyda’s appointment isn’t the council members’ “remarks” which, in their apology, they denied were meant to “attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people.” (Indeed, the incessant barrage of demands for apologies for speech deemed to be offensive is among the dreariest and most unattractive features of the contemporary American scene.) No, what requires an apology (at least) in this case is discriminatory government action. Were USAC a federal, state or local government body, its discussion and initial vote concerning Beyda’s appointment would violate Article VI of the U.S. Constitution (“no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”). A close analog would be if the U.S. Senate voted against confirming a Supreme Court nominee because of her religion. And let’s be honest about it: Does anyone imagine that a similar discussion and vote could possibly occur concerning a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Wiccan nominee to the Judicial Board?

Now, it’s true that USAC is best considered a training ground for future government officials and therefore, possibly, not bound by all the restrictions that apply to the U.S. federal, state and local governments. But for it to fulfill that training mission, it must adhere to the same basic standards and principles.

Moreover, for many of UCLA’s Jewish students, the Beyda incident constitutes another data point on a disturbing trend line. Only the very naïve can still believe that last fall’s USAC vote to demand divestment from companies doing business with Israel was advocacy for “human rights” rather than an attack on those students and faculty who identify with Israel. Three years ago, USAC’s discussion and initial vote on the Beyda appointment would have been unthinkable. What will become thinkable in the years to come? Will the 2018 USAC discuss whether to emulate the student government of South Africa’s Durban University of Technology, which recently demanded the expulsion of all Jewish students who refuse to embrace the Palestinian cause?

We call on the four council members who initially voted against Beyda’s appointment to apologize again, this time not for saying something hurtful, but for doing something unjust and for abusing the power with which their constituents have entrusted them. And we call on them to apologize, not just to the Jewish community, but to the entire UCLA community, for bringing disgrace on this institution. If they won’t do so, then they’re unfit for the offices they hold, and they should resign.

Cohen is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Manson is a professor of anthropology. Pearl is a professor of computer science and statistics.

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