Academic unfreedom and states of repression: On the case of Leloy Claudio

By ROBYN MAGALIT RODRIGUEZ*

Recently, Philippine scholars, Walden Bello and Patricio Abinales, have published editorials dismissing 467 signatories on a petition opposing the consideration of Dr. Lisandro Claudio for a tenure-track position in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Both have come to Claudio’s defense claiming that the petition is based on speculation and goes against academic freedom. Their op-eds exonerate Claudio, an historian by training who has repeatedly expressed opinions about activists, scholars and even students sympathetic with the Philippine left and critical of the Duterte administration. Claudio’s commentary invites harm and violence by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration which has engaged in extra-judicial killings numbering in the thousands. Many of those killed include its critics. Human rights advocates across the globe have raised concerns about the Duterte administration’s rabid impunity.

Academics wield tremendous power. Indeed, academic freedom as a concept was introduced precisely to protect academics from threats to their work particularly from the state. Critical academics’ work–whether it is their research and scholarship or their publicly articulated opinions–in exposing the excesses of state power have led not only to their loss of livelihood and employment but threats to their very lives. At the same time, academics who espouse views–scholarly or personal–that align with the state, can be deployed against those who would critique it. Dr. Claudio’s commentary, accusing his colleagues as well as students and activists of being “commies” are hardly statements to be glibly made or easily dismissed. Within the context of increasing state repression and concomitantly the erosion of academic freedom on both sides of the Pacific, the targets of Dr. Claudio’s work are put directly into the crosshairs of the Duterte and even the Trump regime. Dr. Claudio produces conditions of academic unfreedom for those he attacks. Students of Filipino American history are too familiar with the long-arm of the repressive Philippine state–one bankrolled and enabled in many ways by the US state. Filipinos in America, scholars and activists alike, have been subject to surveillance, threats and in some cases death at the hands of Philippine state agents. Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, for example, Filipino immigrants and labor leaders with the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union in Seattle, were killed because they were organizing against the Marcos dictatorship in 1981. Meanwhile, scholars, students and activists of color alike, have long contended with surveillance, threats and death at the hands of US state agents.“Red-tagging” or “red-baiting” (the attribution of communist membership, affiliation, or sympathy to people for the purpose of harrassing and persecuting them) and communist witch-hunts have led to the murder of Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver, leaders of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1968. Carlos Bulosan, a canonical Filipino American author, was tagged as a communist and subject to FBI surveillance for his radical writing and activism, rendering him unemployable and forcing him to a life of poverty. He died in his early 40s. Hutton, Cleaver, Bulosan, Domingo and Viernes are real people whose lives were ended prematurely because of careless fear-mongering. Claudio’s actions can have the same fatal and chilling consequences.

There are both professional and ethical modes of intellectual critique that Claudio fails to engage. He resorts instead in libelous and threatening name-calling that can have deleterious effects on scholars and others critical of Duterte. Claudio’s opinions are neither academic nor are they evidence-based. His tweets and status updates are not part of an academic project: they do not begin with research objectives emerging from scientific literature; they are not formulated as research questions; there are no methodological designs or data collection to back his opinions; they are not scientifically rigorous; they are not vetted blindly by peers for publication. They are simply opinions sounded off on media platforms. “Don’t be dumb, commies are morons” is not an academic intervention to be protected by academic freedom. Indeed, even in academic spaces, I have directly observed how Claudio resorts to the same kinds of tactics and attempts to make interventions that are both theoretically and methodologically ill-informed. Nevertheless, regardless of how poorly informed his opinions and academic interventions may be, his prospective affiliation with UC Berkeley will lend him the veneer of legitimacy that can prove dangerous. I am joined by 467 scholars, academics, faculty members, and professors, in academic institutions all over the Philippines, across the United States have signed on in protest of Claudio’s candidacy because we all recognize that the words of academics like Claudio have become weaponized against anyone who criticizes the status quo and they will be further weaponized if he is given the privilege of an academic position at such a prestigious institution. As the bastion of the free speech movement aimed at protecting the speech of those who would speak truth to power as well as the flagship University of California campus and my alma mater, I am deeply disappointed in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies’ failure to properly vet Claudio’s candidacy.

At a time of great polarization in the US and the Philippines, rising authoritarianism and repression, words by academics aligned with the state wield great power and have potentially lethal consequences. This is not speculation. Opposing Claudio’s hiring at Cal is a refusal to support conditions that produce academic unfreedom at a time we need genuine academic freedom the most. <a href=”https://www.bulatlat.com”><img title=”This story is from Bulatlat.com” src=”https://www.bulatlat.com/main/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/bulatlat_tagline.jpg” alt=”(https://www.bulatlat.com)” height=”16″ /></a>

* The author is chairperson and professor at the Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Davis and director of Bulosan Center for Filipinx Studies.

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