Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Letter in response to Blum Center protests

One of the sources of funding for my research is the Blum Center, an organization devoted to helping the quality of life in some of the world's poorest places.  Blum Hall, where the Center is based on campus, had its grand opening last week, and the point was to show the rest of campus all the good things that research funded by the Blum Center is doing.  But a bunch of asshats showed up to protest, because apparently that's what you do for an organization that's trying to bring cooking stoves to Darfur and clean water to the slums of Mumbai.  Here's my letter to the editor of the Daily Cal that expresses that same sentiment but much more professionally.

This letter is in response to the protests that occurred during the grand opening of Richard C. Blum Hall, the campus home of the Blum Center for Developing Economies.  The grand opening, last Friday, October 8, showcased some of the research that is supported by the Blum Center and featured remarks from Chancellor Birgenau, Richard Blum, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and former Secretary of State George Shultz.  It took place amidst several protests that bore messages such as "Blum, don't privatize UC" and "end poverty here first."  These protests were factually inaccurate on some grounds and logically misguided on others.

First, accepting research grants from private entities (whether corporations, individuals, or charitable organizations) in no way constitutes "privatization" of the University.  In 2008, the University accepted $120 million in research funding from private-sector or non-profit sources.  That funding has allowed the University to investigate topics as diverse as stem cells, robotics, and economic policy.  And it has enabled the University to become a world leader in biofuels and other renewable energy research.  Yet, Cal has remained a public institution and has consistently been recognized as the best public university in the country.

Second, the Blum Center's mission is to fight poverty in the developing world; construing this mission as a lack of concern for domestic poverty is a straw man fallacy. Roughly 40 million Americans live in poverty, and their situation is a serious one.  But this poverty is a fundamentally different challenge from the one that the Blum Center aims to address.  For example, among the eight million people living in the slums of Mumbai, many have no access to sanitary water; the Blum Center is funding research to develop viable and efficient solutions for ensuring a clean water supply.  As problems that require both scientific excellence and a commitment to global engagement, these are problems that the University of California is uniquely poised to solve.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Blum explained the goals of the Center to its researchers, staff, and students, he was interrupted by a loud protest.  To paraphrase Mr. Blum, apparently those involved with the protest would rather us not work toward improving the quality of life in the developing world.

In addition to interrupting Mr. Blum's speech, the protests closed an afternoon poster session to the public.  The poster session was originally intended to be an open house.  Ironically, the actions of the protesters did more to "privatize" the University's mission than did any donation from Mr. Blum.  By preventing UC students, faculty, and staff from attending this event, the protesters denied the entire UC community a chance to engage the Blum Center-supported researchers and support their creativity and social consciousness.

Berkeley has a strong tradition of free speech, often including protests, and that tradition ought to be maintained.  Protest injustices, protest unethical behavior, protest barriers that stand in the way of the University's goals.  Do not protest those of us who are trying to use our talents and our resources to make a positive change in the world.

Currently listening: "Your Hands (Together)", the New Pornographers

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