Academic Freedom Should Not Excuse Woody Allen’s Pedophilia

In theory, “UC San Diego is dedicated to creating a safe and respectful community through awareness, education, and prevention of sexual assault and violence.”

When the administration’s commitment to free speech is questioned, however, it neglects all responsibility to build a safe community in favor of building a community that unequivocally respects so-called “academic freedom.” Instead of engaging in critical dialogue with students about how to build an institution where safety and freedom coexist, our administration has employed the catch-all “free speech” argument to entirely quell students’ concerns and excuse situations that have posed serious safety concerns to the student population.

Just two weeks ago, every UCSD student received an email announcing that the Academic Senate has deemed that the controversial theater class studying the films of Woody Allen (TDGE 122) will continue to be taught based on considerations of academic freedom, “independent of any specifics pertaining to allegations about Woody Allen”—referring to the sexual assault allegations brought against him by his daughter.

According to the course syllabus, “This class will introduce students to the complex, often hilarious, sometimes profound, and always provocative world of writer, actor, and director Woody Allen. We will view 10 of his films in class and explore the development of this quintessential New York film auteur.”

The email authored by the Academic Senate was written in response to undergraduate student Savanah Lyon’s petition urging UCSD to cancel the course. After having taken her issue to the theater department, the professor teaching the course, and the Provost of each college, Lyon’s petition garnered more than 21,000 signatures from people around the globe who shared her concerns. But despite substantial support, the Academic Senate continued to herald academic freedom above any and all concerns about sexual assault allegations against Woody Allen.

The debate regarding the course has sparked a much larger discussion about freedom of speech in academia and the question of whether a creator’s morality—or lack thereof—should be considered when deciding whether or not to study their work.

The curt response issued by UCSD makes their stance on this glaringly apparent: “We conclude that cancelling or removing this or any other course for the reason that it contains the study of controversial material, or even material widely regarded as morally problematic, would undermine both the value of free inquiry and the associated rights of faculty to engage in such inquiry by choosing their course content.”

This brusque and patronizing tone was not limited to the official statement, but was also apparent in Chancellor Pradeep Khosla’s statement regarding the case when asked what he would have done if a student had asked him to cancel one of his own classes under the same circumstance: “I would have told her to move on and get out of my classroom. I get to teach in my class.”

In concurrence with Khosla, UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky suggested that this course is no different than many of the other “horrific people who get studied in college,” and asked if this means that courses should not be taught on the writings of Adolf Hitler.

The shortsighted reasoning trumpeted by Chemerinsky, and mimicked by our Chancellor, strays so far from the context of the Woody Allen course that it is surprising to believe that these administrators are listening at all. We do not teach a class that venerates Hitler, because that would be appalling. Instead, we teach courses critiquing the systemic horrific violence of the Third Reich, as we should. The norms we establish, and the academic rigor we seek, are subjective to what the university thinks is permissible and set the tone for how we teach as an institution. So why does the university think a class on Woody Allen, mostly without critique of his character and his actions, is worth teaching?

TDGE 122 is the only course dedicated to the works of a single filmmaker. It is one of only three courses offered by the Theater Department that highlights a single artist. The university’s choice to retain this course, augmented by its failure to offer courses that highlight diversity in filmmaking, speaks to UCSD’s utter disregard for the prevention of a safe and inclusive culture.

You cannot study Allen’s work “independently” of the allegations his daughter has brought against him. You cannot study Allen’s work without considering the message he is sending to his viewers.

Of course universities should offer courses about people who may be considered morally questionable at best (atrocious at worst), but if a focus of those courses isn’t the controversy surrounding those figures and how it impacts the study of their work, then what are students supposed to take away from these classes?  This is not a question of whether or not the class should be taught, but a question of how rigorous the course actually is and whether or not the department cares enough to have a dialogue about it.

Art is not history or science. Art is a medium of expression designed for the express purpose of conveying an idea from creator to audience, and to suggest that academics can examine the creation without taking the creator into account is not only impossible, but defeats the purpose of studying art in the first place.

In continuing to venerate the films of Woody Allen, UCSD as an institution contributes to the pedestal on which Allen stands and keeps him in a position of power and influence, shielding him from any responsibility for his actions. Like many other institutions that have collectively hindered progress towards equity, UCSD’s actions perpetuate a cycle of sexual assault and violence.

It’s time for UCSD faculty—and all academics—to stop adding bricks to assailants’ and racists’ incredibly tall platform by cowering behind its one-dimensional definition of free speech. We as students are and have always been ready to have a conversation. Why aren’t the faculty and Academic Senate ready to have it?

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