Who Will Support You in a Crisis?
It’s been instructive to see which colleagues from the University of California have (or have not) reached out to support or encourage me since I was fired. Some old friends have disappointed while others have surprised me—including some new friends I had not previously known while at the University.
Recently, a professor of English at UCLA sent this unsolicited letter to the UCI Chancellor. I am publishing his extraordinary letter here with his permission:
Dear Chancellor Gillman:
I am reaching out to you as a member of the academic community of which you are a leader. I am sure you have already received letters on behalf of Dr. Aaron Kheriaty from those who knew him in person or worked with him at the University of California, Irvine.
Although I have neither worked nor met with Dr. Kheriaty, I have profited tremendously not only from his academic work on bioethics but also from his current public-facing writings on informed consent and bio-surveillance (and will be teaching one of his essays in the Fall). But I am not writing to defend Dr. Kheriaty’s scholarship or the challenges that it offers to my own thinking about matters of life and death and, more generally, about the intersection of theory and practice. Rather, I am writing to speak for the public intellectual who quite literally practiced the bioethics that he had been teaching his students at our University for over 14 years until one Friday when he was fired. I can hardly overstate the fact that Dr. Kheriaty has impacted my own pedagogy in ways that few other teachers have. Like the legendary Socrates (whose philosophy I teach) or the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (whose “pedagogy of the oppressed” informs my own), Dr. Kheriaty is the rare teacher who dared to exhibit the courage of informed conviction outside the classroom. Despite his firing, he continues to represent and inspire many others at our University who found themselves to be passive objects of communication rather than active subjects in communication on matters related to Covid protocols.
Dr. Kheriaty not merely raised questions about vaccine-induced immunity and informed consent but also went so far as to challenge the University’s sweeping Covid-19 vaccine mandate that he among other academics had grave concerns about for both medical and ethical reasons. I am not claiming that we should all agree with his position. Far from it. I have followed the townhall talk that you hosted on May 19, 2021 on the question of the Covid vaccines and do understand the basis of your stated own positions on the matter. My point is less about embracing the rationale for a particular ethically and medically informed critique of the University’s Covid-19 policies than about engaging such a critique and allowing him a fair hearing, especially given that more and more scientists are now raising questions similar to those that he raised almost a year ago.
In my experience as an academic at UCLA and at my former universities (Yale and Fordham), scholars and students alike are not just allowed but also actively encouraged to discuss institutional policies and even challenge the administration about the ideas that inform them. (For the record, I continue to support and speak up for LGBTQ students as they all too often face institutional discrimination.) As I am sure you know, challenging official positions and policies (no matter how well-intentioned) is integral to the process of mutual learning and understanding – a view that UCI states far more eloquently on its own website (“true progress is made when different perspectives come together to advance our understanding of the world around us”).
The summary firing of Dr. Kheriaty, a full professor in the School of Medicine, has shaken me to the very core: not just me but also those who care deeply for our University’s commitment to academic freedom and the spirit of inquiry. I could not have imagined that any fellow faculty member, let alone one who has won several awards for excellence in teaching, could suddenly lose his job after years of outstanding service to our University.
Since his dismissal, I have felt the loss acutely in a manner not unlike grief but a grief that refuses to abate and that, in some ineffable way, has led to a deeper reflection on our University’s claims to due process and intellectual dissent. As a recently tenured professor of English at UCLA, I have had the honor to serve on executive and personnel committees. I have had the privilege to encounter sharp differences in judgment on matters that reasonable people can indeed disagree about. But no matter what difficult decisions we reached, those whom we judged and found wanting always had the opportunity to question our conclusions and, at the very least, receive a hearing. In short, dialogue and discussion were the means by which differences – even irreconcilable ones – were addressed and negotiated, not dismissed and suppressed.
I regret to say that Dr. Kheriaty’s firing strikes me as stemming from swift retaliation rather than calm reflection. While this is my personal view, it does impact our profession and undermines the collective vision of our University as a place where we can come together as a community of scholars willing to engage rather than expel dissent and, just as significantly, willing to debate rather than dismiss dissenting academics.
With both sadness and hope, I write to add my voice to appeal Dr. Kheriaty’s termination. I do so not just for the ways in which his scholarship continues to challenge my own thinking but also for the far-reaching implications it will have for our academic profession and indeed for teachers and scholars in a large public university system such as ours.
Please do not hesitate to contact me, if you have any questions.
Arvind Thomas, PhD.
Associate-Professor of English (Medieval Studies)
Department of English, 149 Kaplan Hall UCLA
However far the institutional corruption at our universities has progressed, I am nevertheless so grateful that there are still many good people like Professor Thomas in academia. Our students deserve no less. I do miss working with colleagues like him who are still dedicated to the highest ideals of the university.
Republished from the author’s Substack