Campus reacts to 'heinous' incident at professor's home

As news swept through campus last week that six masked protesters had confronted a UCSC faculty member at her home, many expressed shock and dismay at the nature of the altercation.

Many echoed the sentiments of Chancellor George Blumenthal, who expressed outrage and called the incident "the most serious attack on academic freedom" in the campus's history.

"We cannot succumb to intimidation of the sort that was attempted this weekend," said Blumenthal, when he discussed the incident during his opening remarks at his winter-quarter brown-bag lunch meeting with staff. "This is unacceptable. We will not tolerate it." Blumenthal's remarks were met with sustained applause.

The confrontation was the latest in a spate of recent incidents, including four cases of residential vandalism and several intimidating telephone calls, that have targeted UCSC faculty, staff, and graduate students active in health-science research.

On Science Hill last week, several professors expressed frustration that their work is misunderstood, and others alluded to tensions among faculty over the ongoing tree sit. Among those who would work in the building planned for the site of that four-month-old protest, pockets of faculty support for that protest are viewed by some researchers as a profoundly discouraging assault on their fundamental ability to pursue research.

The sentiment that a home attack "crossed the line" was mentioned by several individuals.

"It's a heinous thing that happened," said Daniel Press, professor of environmental studies and chair of the department. "There are all kinds of ways to protest, but when you have people being attacked in their homes, you've long since crossed the line. How is that defensible?"

Many appeared disheartened by what they saw as increasing polarization between people with opposing viewpoints.

"As someone in the sciences, it's really scary to hear that people are willing to confront science with violence," said one student, who was studying in the lobby area of the Physical and Biological Sciences building. "It also makes me wonder why people had to take it to that level," added the senior, who is majoring in environmental studies and plant science.

Literature professor Tyrus Miller, co-provost of Cowell College, called the attack "reprehensible" and urged faculty to show solidarity with colleagues who have been subject to intimidation "whether it is a professor dealing with controversial political topics in his or her classroom, or the conduct of legitimate scientific research."

Another undergraduate who is majoring in mathematics and physics, called the protesters tactics "unacceptable."

"It's the same scare tactics extremists are using in other countries to support their ideas," said the student, who has been monitoring reactions to the confrontation on the web. "It's unacceptable under any circumstances to use those tactics."

One faculty member, who declined to give his name, said tersely, "It's a criminal act. It's terrorism."

"Maybe they don't understand the kind of work we do," he wondered aloud, prompting a colleague to interject. "It's coming from not knowing the science and what's being done," she said.

Psychology professor Alan Kawamoto expressed disbelief at the personal nature of the confrontation. "There have been animal-rights protests on campus before, but by going to someone's personal residence, it becomes a personal invasion and not a protest against certain kinds of activities."

Referring to earlier incidents in which protesters have targeted UCSC researchers, some scientists expressed frustration and fatigue.

"We're annoyed and somewhat angered," said Alan Zahler, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. "The research done here is of fundamental importance, and we are widely recognized for that. It's hard to grasp because it makes no rational sense to us."

Zahler's department is actively looking for colleagues who do vertebrate developmental biology and vertebrate stem cell research because "those are the questions that need to be asked," he said, emphasizing that researchers are not testing products on animals.

Nevertheless, Zahler expressed doubt that greater awareness about the types of research being conducted at UCSC would discourage protesters.

"I don't know what drives people who work in underground movements and wear masks on their faces," he said wearily. "Nobody would have any problem discussing their research--especially if those discussions took place at work. In fact, it would be hard to stop most of us from talking about our research once we got started. The research defines our careers. But to bring this argument to their home and frighten their children? Then it's not a discussion. It violates everything the university stands for."