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Starving for Attention at UC Berkeley

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When some 20 UC Berkeley students announced on May 3 that they were launching a hunger strike to protest the new Arizona immigration law, they also issued a set of "demands." They demanded that Chancellor Robert Birgeneau denounce the Arizona law, rehire laid-off janitors and drop disciplinary actions against students arrested after a violent protest.

You knew how the story would end before it ended. The administration would kowtow to student activists by agreeing to meet with them and behave as if their demands merited serious consideration. Most of the activists' impossible demands would remain unmet.

Then -- as happened after 10 days -- in order to save face, both sides would agree to act as if they had accomplished something important, and then congratulate themselves for, well, preening.

And once again, the public would see UC Berkeley less as an institution of higher learning and more as a camp for the politically correct.

Start with the student demand that Birgeneau denounce the Arizona law. Forget all that high-minded talk about the free exchange of ideas. These students hold university solons in such low regard that they felt free to demand that university leaders parrot their political beliefs.

No worries. The chancellor happily caved. "I made it widely known last week to our campus community that I was horrified by this law," Birgeneau wrote May 7.

Why push a California university toff to make a statement on an Arizona law? Hunger striker Alejandro Lara-Briseno told me, "We don't abide by these geographical divisions."

Did Lara-Briseno read Arizona Senate Bill 1070? "I've read parts of it," he answered. "I'm in the middle of my academic cycle."

It's only 17 pages long. He replied, "It may be 17 pages, but I also have many academic responsibilities."

Many have lauded Lara-Briseno for his personal sacrifice. Indeed, he says he will not eat until May 20, when he visits a sister in Arizona. (I hope he changes his mind for the sake of his health.)

I would be more impressed if he had read the bill and demonstrated an understanding of federal immigration law. But after two weeks of protest, it still hasn't occurred to him that he ought to be informed about the very law he is protesting.

There is some light in this dark tale. The university did not give in to the hunger strikers' demands on student discipline. But I don't see why Birgeneau released his Arizona statement or why he agreed to meet the students.

"We were concerned about their health and welfare," spokeswoman Claire Holmes explained, "and also, they raised some important issues for key members of our community."

And: "It was congruent with his values to take this very seriously."

Problem: This demandfest represents the sort of behavior an institution of higher learning should not take seriously -- unless the administration wants to pay to police more of the same.

Lesson learned: You can't go wrong making childish demands and flouting the rules at UC Berkeley. Intellectual rigor not required.

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