The University of California, Los Angeles ranked No. 4 overall in the recently released 2020 College Free Speech Rankings. It is also “one of the most intolerant universities on the planet,” accounting lecturer Gordon Klein told RealClearEducation in a phone interview last month. “They have stifled not just my speech, but that of many other colleagues.”
After nearly four decades at the taxpayer-funded institution, Klein’s experience markedly shifted last spring when he became embroiled in a racial controversy. The administration put him on leave and opened an investigation when Klein refused to alter his grading practices in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. In an email to RealClearEducation, he said “litigation is contemplated.”
Klein’s experience at UCLA is not unique — among professors or students. According to the survey, “Race is the topic most frequently identified by students as difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus.”
Yet both on paper and in the perception of some students, UCLA appears to be an ardent defender of First Amendment rights. Beyond its fourth-place ranking out of 55 colleges and universities across the nation, it’s No. 2 among public universities. The rankings are composed of 38 public and 17 private universities. The findings are predicated on each school’s written policies on free speech as well as a student survey about free expression on campus.
The 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, conducted by RealClearEducation, College Pulse, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), offer a comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on campuses. The rankings are based on a survey of approximately 20,000 students and are designed “to help parents and prospective students choose the right college.”
According to FIRE, the University of California, Los Angeles receives a “green light” rating, connoting institutions whose policies nominally protect free speech. Despite this rating and its overall score of 55.8 out of 100, just two points lower than Kansas State University — the top-ranked public university — the open-ended response section of the survey suggests that students are still wary of sharing views or opinions that may be deemed unpopular.
When the “extremely liberal” university “openly supports groups such as the LGBTQ communities and legislation such as affirmative action, they take a position and trail off from being neutral,” wrote one anonymous student who recently graduated. “If you oppose gay marriage or the selection of applicants based on race to support diversity, you’ll be met with the army of faculty and young indoctrinated students who oppose you.”
“I love UCLA,” the respondent concluded, “but the school needs to switch to being neutral and concentrate on education and not advocating.”
A student from the class of 2021 wrote: “Anytime politics comes up in conversation, whether in class, at work or among friends, I feel that my opinions could alienate me as opposed to engaging discussion, so usually I prefer to listen and ask questions instead.”
RealClearEducation reached out to several dozen UCLA students for their thoughts on survey results, but none responded. UCLA media relations declined to comment on its ranking.
Although George Floyd died roughly 2,000 miles from UCLA’s campus, amid widespread controversy over Floyd’s death a student of Asian descent wrote to Klein asking that he give preferential grading treatment to black students and do his “part and prioritize equity in our learning environment.” The student implored Klein and other faculty to offer a “no-harm” final exam that could only improve students’ existing course grade, as well as “shortened exams” and “extended deadlines” for final assignments.
“Thanks for your suggestion … that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota,” responded Klein. But he asked how he was supposed to identify black students “since we’ve been having online classes only,” and how he should treat “students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian.” Klein suggested that white students from Minneapolis also might need an even bigger accommodation, under this proposal, “because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not.” He also reminded the student that Martin Luther King Jr. “famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the ‘color of their skin.’ Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition?”
The student then shared Klein’s response with UCLA administration. Klein then became the subject of a discrimination investigation.
A petition with over 21,000 signatures called for Klein’s termination, but a separate petition garnered over 75,000 signatures urging the university to reinstate Klein after he was placed on leave. He told Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingraham that higher-ups gave faculty a “directive … that we should absolutely continue the traditional policy of the university” with respect to examination accommodations.
UCLA reinstated Klein on June 21, according to the Daily Bruin. He told The College Fix in September that he had re-signed a contract for the academic year. Klein told RealClearEducation on Dec. 7 he doesn’t fear losing his untenured lecturer position under the pretext of COVID-19 budget cuts, because his classes are “quite essential in the curriculum, so the University realistically can’t eliminate them.”
As for subtler forms of retaliation from UCLA, Klein declined to comment as he mulls potential legal action. Klein’s lawyer filed a grievance letter with the university on July 6 alleging several violations of its own policies, such as punishing Klein for “exercising academic freedom,” and seeking compensation for “serious emotional distress and trauma,” “damage to his reputation” and attorney’s fees.
The lecturer requested that UCLA “publicly apologize” to him. UCLA has not yet done so.
Offensive Language in the Classroom
Klein was not the only faculty member to face a UCLA investigation over racial issues in the classroom. Political science lecturer Ajax Peris, an Air Force veteran, read aloud the N-word from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and played clips from a documentary that used the racial slur.
Despite Peris issuing an apology for behaving in an “offensive and hurtful” manner, cancelling classes, and making the course final exam completely optional, the university opened an investigation, according to Fox News.
“There is, of course, value in reading literature as it was written, including potentially offensive language,” Peris told RealClearEducation when asked why he used the word in class. “Doing so allows us to explore the reason the language was used by the author and what impact the author intended by using it,” he wrote in an email. “It also allows us to consider why the language is offensive and how the impact of the words may or may not have changed since the writing.”
The 11-year veteran of UCLA declined to comment on his view of the university’s high ranking on the new survey, answer whether he regrets his decision to apologize, or speculate on how secure he feels in his teaching position. He also did not want to discuss how his experience in a military environment compared to UCLA regarding freedom of expression. Despite his run-in with school officials, Peris said he is “proud” to continue to teach at the university.
UCLA law professor and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh defends the use of racial slurs in a pedagogical context, and defends colleagues who have come under fire for similar transgressions. He defended the academic freedom and free speech rights of Peris and Klein on his blog. (Klein cited an excerpt from Volokh’s blog post in his grievance to the university.)
“Thankfully, I have only rarely had to defend UCLA untenured professors, because they have only rarely needed defending,” Volokh told RealClearEducation. (He also defended a University of Southern California professor for using a Chinese word that can sound like a racial slur.)
Volokh himself experienced minor backlash for using the N-word while discussing the prosecution of University of Connecticut students for shouting racial slurs in a parking lot. That prompted UCLA Law to issue a public apology and criticize Volokh’s pedagogical practices.
According to Volokh, quoting source material accurately is important in all disciplines — not just the study of law. “The university should be a place where people can accurately and fully discuss all facts, with no word being taboo,” Volokh wrote in an email.
This article originally appeared in RealClearInvestigations.