Open Letter in Response to the Message from a Socially Unconscious Berkeley Professor

Open letter in response to this message from a socially unconscious Berkeley Professor as well as part of the reason why I went on strike as a GSI last Wednesday:

By Michal Olszewski, Graduate Student Instructor in Molecular and Cell Biology

Dear anonymous UCB Professor,

In your recent letter, you mentioned that you have been on the wrong side of political judgments before, unfortunately I am afraid that this might be the case again. Education is a process that also happens outside of classrooms. It is communal, it is complicated and it is impossible to achieve when we isolate ourselves and ignore what is going on with the rest of our society.

Your letter though extensive in length, does not contain any logic. From what I can gather, your argument is that we live in a world of developing technology and as students at UCB are part of an elite and exceptional group; therefore we don’t have to worry about the society we live in. I cannot condone this argument. In fact, I find it extremely disturbing that as a professor you are encouraging your students to embrace egoism and to focus on their own education and merit rather than be socially conscious human beings. Education and social justice are not mutually exclusive. Disturbingly, throughout the entirety of your long and disjointed tirade, you do not once mention any of the reasons behind Wednesday’s strike, which makes me believe that you have already made a choice to focus purely on what you refer to as the “technological life”.

I too believe that the education of young people is important, which is exactly why I went on strike yesterday. Unfortunately, I doubt if you are aware that your students have a right to a public education because others were fighting and striking for it in the past. I wonder if you or your students know that the AFSCME workers including custodians, cafeteria workers, gardeners etc. were striking with the GSIs to prevent the 81% tuition fee hikes on undergrads back in 2011. The same people standing in the pouring rain Wednesday protesting the University’s unfair labor practices are part of the reason why students, including your particular math class, are able to “be *obsessed* with [their] education”.

It is sad that many UC Berkeley students and professors have forgotten what has happened at the steps of Sproul Plaza decades ago. Yes, social issues are complicated, but that does not mean they should be ignored! In the not so distant past, students were arrested and beaten by police because they wanted to make their voices heard. Our right to engage in political discourse on campus has literally been paid for with the blood UCB alumni.

I am a graduate student in the Sciences, however unlike so many others in our field, I refuse to solely focus on just my own career and education. Students and universities are not isolated entities outside of the realm of society. The fact that we have had a chance to access higher education does not make us better or more deserving than those who have been deprived of this opportunity. We are the lucky ones. Our success doesn’t mean that we can turn our back on those who are less fortunate. We have a duty to pull others up alongside us.

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11 Responses to Open Letter in Response to the Message from a Socially Unconscious Berkeley Professor

  1. Reblogged this on Your Fellow Worker and commented:
    In solidarity with our fellow workers of the UC Berkeley Student-Workers Union we repost a brief but insightful response to a letter posted by a professor of UCB who crossed picket lines and attempted undermine the efforts of the student-worker struggle.

  2. m2343fsf says:

    The contrast between Prof. Coward’s thoughtful message and the collection of unthinking slogans presented here is “striking” indeed. I would suggest to Michal Olszewski to learn to think independently rather than regurgitating meaningless phrases.

  3. Aaron says:

    To me, this isn’t a letter about labor disputes, pickets lines or workers rights. That is the context in which the letter was written. It is the backdrop to a much more important message. To that end, based on the tone of the letter I have no doubt that this professor would support a student who decided NOT to attend class because they felt passionately about the issue at hand.

    The greater point of this letter, and the take-away I believe many of the detractors are missing, is framing the idea that such things are indeed very complicated, and should be taken very seriously and that individuals must accept that they play a role in human events. Particularly individuals who are empowered to change things.

  4. Steve says:

    No, this response is spot on and I thank Michael for writing it. The fantasy that education somehow transcends social relations is being used by Coward to justify the very thing he decries. His crude idealism harms the integrity of the labor movements. It is completely illogical, which this response does an excellent job of pointing out. SOLIDARITY NOW!

  5. I think you read his message incorrectly. He’s not saying that “…students at UCB are part of an elite and exceptional group; therefore we don’t have to worry about the society we live in,” but rather his point is that you are lucky enough to be leaders, the people who can change things and solve the big problems, and with that ability comes great responsibility.

    Solidarity has long been the call of almost any uprising. I understand that. However by missing class, the students would be missing an educational opportunity while being pawns in a fight that they really have no part in.

    I’m not claiming that you shouldn’t strike or that your cause is unjust. And Professor Coward makes no judgement in his letter either. But rather, you are asking people to give up something very important not just to themselves but to all of society for your own purposes. Yes there might be social benefits to students staying at home as well and there might be benefits to the students actually picketing, but these must be weighed against the harm done by canceling class. You are on one side of the picket line and therefore are hyper focusing on one side of the balance. The professor, due to his life experiences, has a different point of view, one that leads him to value a day rigorous education over some minor support for your cause.

    That’s all that’s going on here. He’s not tone deaf. He merely has a different view as to what’s important.

    • KenB says:

      I really disagree with you. 1) You call it “minor” support the cause. I don’t think it’s minor. The basis of virtually all ethical systems is that one should act in such a way that you would want everyone one to act that way. Participation in mass action is never minor. 2) You call the students pawns, which is really charged and condescending – why do you say that? 3) You say what the students would be giving up is “very important.” Yes, education is very important, but the professor himself says the class is ahead on the syllabus. Obviously there is a choice to be made, that’s what all the discussion is about. 4) “You are on one side of the picket line and therefore are hyper focusing on one side of the balance.” I find this extremely ironic in deference of a letter implore students to be “*obsessive*” about their education. The sentiment is, the class is ahead, we will have time for extra lectures, but do not miss even one day to support a strike – and yet you are saying it is this student, not the professor, who lacks balance?? 5) “Solidarity has long been the call of almost any uprising.” “Uprising” is hyperbole. Most strikes are about things like contract negotiations, not revolutions.
      The one thing I agree with you on is that I, too, don’t think the professor is saying “we don’t have to worry about the society we live in.” That’s because he’s implying that the society will benefit more from the students’ dedication to their education than by dedication to popular struggle and strikes. I think this is where the rub is. But I also think he is dead wrong in saying that. I think that notion comes along with a hero/entrepreneur/technology -worship culture that is very much part of the problem.

  6. Anon says:

    “Your letter though extensive in length, does not contain any logic.”
    LOL. You claim that the professor’s e-mail had no logic, yet you make large assumptions about the professor’s points–a huge leap in logic.

  7. Stephen Carr says:

    Even though I agree with the substance of this response, the letter was abusive from the title on. When Mr. Olszewski refers to the professor’s email as a “tirade” in his second paragraph, he seriously undercuts the credibility of everything that follows. Which is too bad, because there were a couple of very relevant and important social justice points that he pretty much had nailed down, only to lose them on style. If he felt that Dr. Coward’s measured and thoughtful message was missing some crucial perspective (as I certainly did), he could have offered that corrective in the same spirit of sincerity as the piece he’s reacting to. The exaggeration, the insults and the contempt only serve to alienate anyone not already invested in his position. Nobody likes a bully, no matter how profound his social consciousness is claimed to be. Gratuitous ridicule is rationally unpersuasive, and permeates everything it accompanies with its ad hominem cloud. Consequently, even the author’s valid points are still waiting to be cogently made.

    • KenB says:

      So the young man perhaps over-reacted. Honstly, no offense intended, your description of this response letter seems itself like somewhat of an exaggeration. If you think the poiints are valid, why would you not want to try to bring them out despite his over-shooting, rather than underline the style problem?

      • Alan says:

        I agree with Ken here. If his points are valid, but style is flawed, why don’t you as a rational human being help him make those points instead of criticizing his style? His message is a necessary message, despite the way he presented it, so we should focus on the points that the Professor does not have a good idea about what the strike was about; and yet, he chose to empower individual education over collective solidarity for an (obviously) not minor cause–do I really need to point out why it’s not minor?
        In my opinion, the Professors views are effective short-term, but fail to regard the long-term benefits of the strike.

  8. Sergio Jaar says:

    Leaving apart the messages, I think here you are losing a lot of your strengths.
    You are not considering the force of that Social Change called Communication (and claimed on the same letter as the main cause Shaping Our Future) But you have felt it…

    If you see, you could be able to give back a ten times powerful response, just by using the same rules of this discipline that is turning more about Strategy.
    For doing that it is necessary to leave apart passion, to be objective, analyst and creative.

    Then to be obsessed to do things wright and to make an effort to learn, more than ever now from errors, can be a good, simple and easy message to give to That population, because surely it can become then on the Competitive Advantage.

    So in this case, it is possible you are telling him that he was right.
    That could be a high price for your cause.

    Please do not be offended, I am an external reader not caring on the message. I’m here just because it was viral and the system permitted me to take part ;)

    The good news are you have time to react.

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