Education

Professor’s removal at debate brings scrutiny to CSU L.A.

Faculty members and students at California State University, Los Angeles, continue to express outrage about campus police grabbing and carrying a professor out of an on-campus mayoral debate last Sunday and are demanding answers for why she was forcibly removed from the event.

University officials released a statement Monday that seemed to place the blame for what occurred squarely on the professor, Melina Abdullah. The emailed statement noted that she did not have a ticket for the debate, which was held in the student union building, and she refused to leave after being asked twice to do so. What’s more, the statement said, the event “was not a public forum and was not promoted or advertised as an event the public could attend in person.”

As criticism of the university continued to mount on campus and on social media, however, William Covino, president of the university, seemed to do an about-face on Wednesday and conceded that the situation had been mishandled.

“I was first informed of the removal of Professor Melina Abdullah from the mayoral debate after the incident took place,” he said in emailed statement. “I do not think that activating public safety officers to remove Professor Abdullah was warranted. If I had been consulted, I would not have approved it. I apologize for the distress this incident has caused. We are and have been revising our protocols and staffing to prevent incidents such as this.”

Supporters of the professor, who is Black, say the action against her was personal—and racial. University officials insist it was not.

Lost in the recriminations over Abdullah’s ejection from the building—and the vastly different interpretations of how the dispute between her and the police unfolded—are questions about the appropriateness of holding debates or other political events on campus that are sponsored by outside groups and to which students, faculty and staff are not invited. Disputes like the one at Cal State L.A. are bound to occur at time of deep political polarization nationally, including on college campuses, where culture wars are being fought over free speech, racial and gender equity, criminal justice issues, transgender athletes, and other controversial subjects. More such occurrences can be expected in election years, such as this year, when the outcomes of political contests have national implications.

“Students were told they could show up without tickets and still be let in, and we were not let in,” Abdullah, a professor of pan-African studies, said Tuesday during a meeting of the Faculty Senate.

Faculty members, students and staff are usually welcomed at such events at Cal State L.A. and on many other college campuses. And political candidates’ debates and appearances by elected officials are generally welcomed by university administrators and faculty members and are seen as opportunities for the campus, particularly students, to engage in local, regional and national issues.

“They are the places where we want young people to be exposed to different ideas as they’re developing their own,” said Jim Douglas, a former governor of Vermont and current executive-in-residence at Middlebury College.

He noted, however, that colleges can also be sites of vocal opposition to certain political events or candidates, and that’s when it’s incumbent on college administrators to step in and resolve such situations, or to put in place procedures before the events that may prevent disputes or controversies from occurring in the first place.

“The leadership of the university is very important in situations like that, in being inclusive and open and in setting guidelines and defining policies,” he said.

Douglas recalled visits to universities by controversial figures, such as former vice president Mike Pence and former U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos, that were met with strong opposition. The most notable recent political debate that drew crowds of protesters to a college campus was the final debate of the 2020 presidential campaign, held at Belmont University in Tennessee.

Douglas, who is co-chair of a task force on campus free speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said faculty members, students, staff and alumni are usually welcomed at and invited to such events.

“They want their locals and faculty to have first dibs to events on their campus,” he said of college administrators.

Douglas said while universities may be open to even the most potentially divisive speakers or events, they generally do not invite obvious conflict or disruptions with policies that “reflect badly on the universities.”

Still, Douglas said, keeping such events open to the campus is ideal.

“I think it’s more common to give the advantage to students and faculty,” he said.

The incident at Cal State L.A. is an example of how things can get complicated when members of a campus are not invited to, or are specifically barred from, a political event being held on the campus.

Douglas recalled the University of Baltimore inviting DeVos to give its 2017 commencement address. Large numbers of students who objected to her and her policies demanded that the university rescind the invitation. University president Kurt Schmoke set up a forum with students to hear their grievances.

“He said, ‘You can come and I’ll listen to you.’ A big crowd came, he listened, and then he said, ‘She’s coming,’” Douglas said.

DeVos gave her speech as students and faculty stood with their backs turned to her. Students and faculty at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida similarly protested DeVos’s commencement speech earlier in 2017.

With campaigns for the 2022 congressional elections now in full swing, and national organizations and student groups promoting political causes and speakers on college campuses, volatile incidents like the one at Cal State L.A. are likely to grow, said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in Louisiana.

“There’s going to be more contentious debates. Election season is roaring now,” Kimbrough said. “It’s good that this is happening, and it’s good that people are talking about this. This is going to continue, and people are going to have to keep focusing their efforts and their attention on who’s responsible for what happens.”

Kimbrough was at the center of a controversy over a U.S. Senate candidates’ debate on his campus, a historically Black institution, in 2016. There was widespread outrage on campus because one of the candidates was David Duke, a white supremacist and former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Kimbrough defended his decision, then and now, to host the debate.

“We did a contract that we would host a debate for the Senate,” Kimbrough said. “I can’t tell them how to do X, Y, Z. They invited the candidates; they decided who would take part.”

He noted that Cal State L.A. was one of three co-sponsors of the mayoral debate last weekend and likely had no control over what the attendance rules were. And even if the university did have some control, anyone who wanted to attend should have sought permission or protested the process in advance of the actual debate, he said.

“It’s ugly. It looks bad—I understand the optics,” he said. “But the time to protest is when they announce there is a private event.”

He added that an on-campus venue that serves as a paid host has a right to set entry rules, and the responsibility to enforce them, “if you don’t want a lot of random people to show up.”

Abdullah’s supporters at Cal State say whether she had a ticket for the debate is beside the point, as is the fact that it was not promoted as a public event.

Leda Ramos, Abdullah’s colleague and a professor of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) studies, said the university’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, a co-sponsor of the debate, has always made efforts to accommodate faculty members and students who want to attend events it has hosted.

“It’s always kind of an open invitation,” Ramos, who did not attend the debate, said. “Why would we think we couldn’t go?”

Ramos believes Abdullah, who co-founded Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, was singled out by campus police.

“It’s misogynistic. You could feel the level of misogyny and racism. It’s palpable,” Ramos said of the incident, adding that what happened to Abdullah contradicted the university’s statement that said, “Professor Abdullah’s race and group affiliation were not factors in this incident.”

Anthony Ratcliff, also a pan-African studies professor at Cal State L.A. and president of the Los Angeles chapter of the California Faculty Association, said the treatment of Abdullah was part of “a long history of hostility toward Professor Abdullah” by president Covino.

“Over all, the university has had a terrible response,” Ratcliff added, noting that as far as he knew, nobody had apologized or spoken to Abdullah, other faculty members or students.

“I don’t think that any other professor here at CSU LA would’ve been treated that way,” he said of Abdullah being physically removed from the building.

After seeing a video of Abdullah being carried out of the room by four police officers, each holding a limb, and speaking to her in the days since, CFA chapter leaders drew up a resolution asking the university system’s Academic Senate to formally vote no confidence in Covino. The Academic Senate met Tuesday to hear Abdullah’s account of the incident. Several faculty members and students also read statements condemning the actions of university administrators and police.

Abdullah spoke near the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting and called the university’s statement about her removal “a lie.” She said she was not disruptive and “was not planning to protest” and instead was sitting quietly in the rear of the room when she was approached by debate organizers. She also said she requested a ticket for the event a week before it was held and got no response.

“Let me be clear, I was physically hurt, but I was also emotionally and spiritually hurt,” Abdullah said. She said she was also angry that Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Brown Institute for Public Affairs and a former faculty colleague, called for police to remove her. She also noted that none of the five mayoral candidates onstage spoke up for her as she was being removed; several of them told the Los Angeles Times that they could not see what was happening.

“It wasn’t isolated,” Abdullah said. “It wasn’t the first time I’ve been assailed, or that Black people have been assailed, at Cal State L.A.” She called the university “one of the most anti-Black campuses in the country, and it has been part of Covino’s legacy.”

The mayoral debate was co-sponsored by KABC-TV, which aired it live, and the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Women Voters. On its newscast Sunday night, KABC aired video of Abdullah’s ejection by police, and of students outside of the event banging on the doors and windows and yelling to be let in.

Kimbrough recalled that after the controversy over the Senate debate on his campus, which also was co-sponsored by a local television station, “Nobody criticized the TV station. Everybody criticized us. We did not make the rules.”

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