Volume 10, No. 4 - May 2000
On a bright morning last June, Chris Brown stepped into the cool of the UC-Santa Barbara library clutching his master's thesis: seventy-three pages on the growth of abalone shells. His thesis committee had signed off on his work, and it was now bound for the silent grave of the archives. Brown would not continue into the doctoral program. It was the last day of his graduate careeror so it seemed.
There was only one problem: Brown had appended an unusual two-page statement to his thesis, a dramatic j'accuse! both profane and hilarious, and aggressively specific in its grievances. "I would like to offer special Disacknowledgments to the following degenerates," Brown railed, "for being an ever-present hindrance during my graduate career." The dean and the staff of the Graduate Division, he wrote, were "fascists ... the largest argument against higher education there has ever been." All dealings with the administration, he complained, "have ended in sheer frustration. I'd rather take a hot stick in the eye than deal with your bureaucratic nonsense."
The Davidson Library was a morass of "incomprehensible fines, unwillingness to help and general poor attitude"; Professor Fred Wudl was cited for "arrogance and proclivity at being an ass"; former California governor Pete Wilson was lambasted as "a supreme government jerk who has personally overseen the demise of the university." The University of California regents panel was cursed for "continued suppression of graduate students, your most loyal employees... May your continually biased and corrupt practices be fraught with continued controversies brought upon by the students who you offer a fatuous disservice."
As a final flourish, Brown denounced science itself "for being a hollow specter of what you should be": "Your vapid conceits have rendered those in your pursuit lifeless, unfeeling zombies. If I can forever escape you, the better I will be."
Famous last words. Not only has Brown failed to escape the gravitational tug of UCSB's material-science department, he remains in the orbit of the very administration he despises. Soon after he deposited his thesis, a library assistant spotted the two pages of disacknowledgments and sent them to the dean, who called Brown's thesis committee to check that everything was aboveboard. It wasn't. The committee members were incensed that Brown had added his angry words to the thesis after they had signed off on it; only if he removed the pages would they approve the work so he could receive his degree. Brown refused, eventually allying with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and mounting an elaborate Web site, www.disacknowledged.org.
Legal threats have blossomed on both sides. High-profile civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, a director of FIRE and the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, argued in a letter to the university that it had a constitutional duty to grant Brown his degree: "These are sacred obligations that transcend your dislike of Mr. Brown's political opinions and criticisms." Thor Halvorssen, executive director of FIRE, terms Brown's situation "a slam-dunk First Amendment case."
Is Brown tilting at windmills, fighting the good fight, or engaging in some bizarre amalgam of both? "There are two different issues here," argues Brown. "There's what I wrote, my complaints. And then there's the whole concept of academic freedom." His initial impulse, he concedes, was a desire for catharsis: "I'm certain it was written with a great deal of frustration," he notes with an odd detachment. But in Brown's eyes, the administration's response converted his prank into a crusade for freedom of expression. "They were like, 'Let's silence him! Let's discipline him!'" he says. "'Write a letter of apology and remove these pages, or you don't get the degree!' That has nothing to do with my science."
"I've told Chris many times that I really want him to get his degree," responds Charles Li, the dean of UCSB's Graduate Division. "But this is not a free-speech issue." Brown, he argues, can print anything he likes in the newspaper or on his Web site, but he cannot force the university to "collaborate" with him. A master's thesis, Li maintains, is a form of publication and publishing Brown's accusations could potentially expose the university to claims of libel. Moreover, he argues, a thesis committee has the absolute right to approve a student's work from cover to cover, up to and including the acknowledgments page.
Nonsense, says Brown. However dramatic their rhetoric, the disacknowledgments are merely his opinions. What's more, he points out, students regularly put personal notes into such documentsówithout administrative repercussions. He cites one thesis in the UCSB archives in which the author singled out "the inept facilities management monkey who raised the cooling water pressure" and "the dumb ass who left his cooling water on for a laser that was off for 2 years and subsequently flooded my lab, desk, and my most important files" and then suggested that their "lifeless, bloated, limb-less bodies" should wash to shore and "be picked clean by seabirds and maggots."
Brown believes the administration is refusing to grant his degree in a fit of pique. But why bother pressing the matter? Why not just remove the pages and move on? "There's a serious issue here!" Brown insists. "I can't just walk away. A former Austin, Texas, scenester (he worked with Slacker director Richard Linklater and befriended Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge), Brown claims he went back to school to "bring my knowledge to the next level." Instead, he says, he found himself learning more from co-workers than professors. The administration blocked him from dropping a biology class after the deadline, despite his professor's assurances that he could do so. And in classic graduate student fashion, he began to bubble over with rancorous disillusionmentóworking sixteen-hour days, never leaving the lab, hashing away at a seemingly endless project. The disacknowledgments may have started as a nasty joke, but in the wake of their exposure, Brown appears to have attempted an act of alchemy: transforming bile into chicken soup for the constitutional soul.
He's not finding allies where he might have expected them, however. UCSB Academic Freedom Committee member Constance Penley a film scholar who teaches a popular course in pornography says that in her view, Brown's case "trivializes" the cause of academic freedom. "I think it's very unfair to try to deceive people into endorsing your speech," she notes, adding that Brown "lost all credibility" by trying to sneak the disacknowledgments into the library behind his committee's back.
Are there any professors who take a more favorable view of Brown's maneuver? Well, there's at least one Fred Wudl, the very man vilified in the disacknowledgments as an "ass." Brown never studied with Wudl, but his ex-girlfriend and several friends did. According to Brown, the professor regularly reduced students to tears. When reached by Lingua Franca, Wudl claimed to be unfamiliar with the controversy. But upon hearing Brown's characterization, he was nonplussed: "I've survived other evaluations of my character," he noted dryly, adding that, "occasionally, graduate students do cry." As for Brown's academic status? "I'd give him the damn master's, get him out of there!" he exclaimed. "It's his document, it's his creation, he can use it for anything. So what?" Wudl wouldn't be surprised, he added, if other students had quoted from the Kama Sutra. "The acknowledgment section," he pointed out, "is a very personal thing."
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