By Harry Mok
Jewish, Muslim and Arab students find the University of California a safe and welcoming place. But their experiences are less positive when disputes over geopolitics in the Middle East and anti-Islamic sentiment fueled by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spill onto campus.
That's the conclusion of fact-finding teams from UC President Mark G. Yudof's Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. Teams visited UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego over the past year and met with students to identify challenges and take steps to make campuses more welcoming and inclusive, while upholding free speech and academic freedom.
"For the most part, the reports indicate that students on our campuses feel safe, but there is much still to do to help students feel they belong," said Jesse Bernal, UC's interim diversity coordinator.
The full council and President Yudof were presented the reports at a July 9 meeting. They now are reviewing the findings and a series of recommendations for ways campuses can improve campus climate and cultural and religious accommodations for both groups.
Yudof created the advisory council in June 2010 in response to incidents of racial intolerance and homophobia on several UC campuses. The council's goals are to identify, evaluate and share best practices for fostering open and inclusive campus environments for all students, faculty and staff.
Jewish students and Muslim and Arab students reported many parallels to the fact-finding teams, though the opinions expressed were by no means universal.
Both groups of students said UC could provide more and better accommodations for religious and cultural practices on campuses. These include having space available for meditation or prayer, more halal and kosher food options in dining halls, and appropriate gender-specific living space for Muslim women.
Students in both groups also said that while there is a great diversity of culture and political views within their communities, they often feel unfairly stereotyped.
The report noted that UC campuses are not immune to post-Sept. 11 Islamophobia, which Muslim or Arab students said clouds their daily interactions. Students reported that they routinely experience verbal slurs or other harassment, especially if their outward appearance suggested that they were Muslim or Arab.
Jewish students said they often felt dragged into acrimonious debate over Middle East politics and pigeonholed as anti-Palestinian despite the diversity of opinion within the community on the subject.
The report found that negative experiences for both groups of students were most common when outside speakers — known for their provocative stances toward Israel and Jews or for their fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric — participated in campus events.
Jewish students said that they experienced more hate speech or intimidation during pro-Palestine events and protests, which are held each spring at many UC campuses. At times, the rhetoric around those events seemed to cross the line into hate speech, students said.
Both groups said they thought that UC administrators were biased against them in how they responded to or enforced campus regulations during some of these incidents.
Jewish students said they felt alienated when activities they believed crossed into hate speech were allowed on campus, though they also expressed an understanding of the constraints on prohibiting speech.
Muslim student organizations felt that campus administrators selectively enforced regulations on when, where and how their events could be held when compared to other groups.
The perception of bias makes it vital that UC address campus climate, said Sabreen Shalabi, a UC Irvine student who spoke during the advisory council meeting.
"I think it's really important that some sort of action come out of this report," Shalabi said.