What is the role of universities in promoting a civic identity? For years, the academy has been held up as an important vessel of democratic ideas and practices, inspiring and instructing generations of young minds about the virtues of engagement and the participatory process. For students involved in government at university, the opportunity to participate in a deliberative governance process is more than a ceremonial exercise; it’s a chance to wrestle with questions of community, identity, and diversity. But it’s hard to build trust in that process when university leadership bypasses good governance.
In March, members of the U.C. Irvine student government legislative council passed a resolution banning the display of any flags in the lounge area of the student government center, igniting a backlash from the university community and the national media. It even prompted political posturing from republican state legislative leaders. Led by state Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Santa Ana), several legislators proposed a constitutional amendment be placed on the November 2016 state ballot that would protect the American flag from being removed from state-funded colleges and universities in California.
While the proposed ban on all flags in the lounge area was designed to build a “culturally inclusive space” for students at Irvine, ASUCI President Reza Zomorrodian called it “an attack on American values,” part of a heated debate on the meaning of the American flag. Later, the executive cabinet of the Irvine student government vetoed the resolution, leaving the issue back in the hands of the student government’s legislative council about whether or not to push forward with the ban.
— KPFK (@KPFK) March 13, 2015
However, fruitful discussions about the flag and the democratic process were squelched by Chancellor Howard Gillman. In a campus-wide statement, Gilman was quick to lambaste the vote as “outrageous and indefensible.” Rather than establishing Irvine as a place of civil and constructive discourse about citizenship, Gilman seemed to demonize his students and the voting process. His bombastic vow to erect more flags on campus (“Before too long, we will see even more Stars and Stripes at UCI”) seemed to stoke adversarial tensions at campus and beyond.
In responding to what he described as “viable threats,” Gilman shut down further student government discussions about the issue the following Tuesday. Days later, he authored an opinion piece decrying the way the flag kerfuffle had been exacerbated by hateful and threatening comments in the “Internet rage machine,” giving no consideration to the way his awkward handling of the flag fracas had aggravated matters. The freighted situation has clearly stirred up strong opinions on both sides of the issue, but if Gilman and his administration are truly striving to encourage “diversity, equity and inclusion” at Irvine, they are responsible for creating an atmosphere where the democratic process can thrive.