Mark Tapson is the Shillman Fellow on Popular Culture for the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
It is a given today that our so-called institutions of higher learning are hostile to political conservatives, not only students but the minority of professors who openly lean Right. Even Progressive academics can find themselves targeted by Cancel Culture for minor or accidental transgressions against woke dogma. The punishment can range from “mere” ostracization, to a hopelessly smeared reputation, to the loss of one’s job – usually a combination thereof. It’s ugly and totalitarian, which is why any moral victory against the Left’s ideological intolerance is a blow for freedom of speech and political balance in the classroom.
Keith Fink – a successful attorney, legal commentator, academic, and author –was a Communications Studies lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles from 2008 until his forced departure in June 2017. His courses on “Race, Sex & Politics: Free Speech on Campus;” “Free Speech in the Workplace;” “Entertainment Law;” and “Arguing Contemporary Social Issues” were among the students’ most popular ones at UCLA. But Fink is politically conservative and an ardent, fair-minded advocate for truth, so a confrontation with the school’s Progressive administrators was inevitable.
In early 2017, Professor Fink found, for the first time in his experience, that his Department of Communication Studies was beginning to deny his PTEs (“permission-to-enroll” forms for students whose attendance in a class, for a variety of reasons, requires a professor’s approval). And it was clear he was being singled out. Even the school paper The Daily Bruin acknowledged that other professors in the department had no difficulties getting their PTEs approved. Fink, his TAs (teaching assistants), and even some students suspected the source of the problem was the reportedly leftist new Chair of the Department of Communication Studies, Kerri Johnson, who also arbitrarily decided to cap the size of the conservative Fink’s overflowing classes.
Austin Kaidi, a UCLA alumnus who has served as Fink’s TA, noted at the time that the room in which Fink taught “Communications Studies 167” held 292 seats, yet only 200 of the 241 students who attempted to join the class that year were able to enroll. Kaidi told The College Fix, “For the past five years, Professor Fink has been able to educate large numbers of students without any problems. However one quarter after the Communication Studies appoints a chairwoman with incredibly left-leaning ideals, Professor Fink, the only outspoken conservative in the department, is singled out, his PTE’s are revoked, and his future classes are limited.”
Andrew Litt, another of Fink’s TAs, explained to The College Fix,
Ever since this leadership change, the school has targeted Professor Fink and his classes in many ways, including by: (1) restricting his ability to enroll students at his discretion (a restriction not imposed on any other CommStudies professors), (2) reducing the size of his classes and moving them to smaller classrooms despite overwhelming student demand, (3) dishonoring ‘Permission to Enroll’ forms issued by him and failing to help students whose PTEs had been dishonored.
“Higher education is supposed to be about providing students with opportunities to learn and expand their horizons, rather than limiting them,” one senior trying to take Fink’s class told The College Fix. “I have never experienced a situation like this: the professor wants to admit more students at no cost to the school, the room FITS more students, yet the actual department housing the course is thwarting his efforts and effectively denying me an educational opportunity — one that happens to be of great importance to me.”
Fink told the Daily Bruin, “This is a violation of academic freedom, a violation of (UCLA’s) own rules and students’ rights. Students are not being treated with equity here.” He decided to push back against the bias. “This is an important issue. Most people don’t stand up to the administration when they are wronged, either out of ignorance of their rights or fear that their situation will be exacerbated if they challenge the school.”
“I am a voice of a teacher who’s not going to go away,” he added. “When I see an injustice toward students, I am going to fight.”
Fink responded to Kerri Johnson’s email denying him a larger room for one class by asserting, in part,
I do not find the reasons for your refusal to increase the class size credible and continue to believe it is based on the viewpoint of my classroom teachings. I have not the power in my role as a lecturer to increase the class size but I maintain my right to speak out for the students, other teachers and the UCLA community against what I see to be the failure of the department and the school to abide by its own rules and act in a viewpoint-discriminatory manner.
Elise Zappia, a prospective student in Fink’s “Free Speech in the Workplace” course who was unable to register before the class filled up, told Campus Reform at the time that she suspected the department’s real purpose in limiting his class size was to suppress the influence of one of the few conservative professors on campus, especially considering his enormous popularity: “They are pushing a liberal point of view on the students, so I think what the department is doing to Fink is discrimination against him as one of the few conservative professors,” she stated. “He doesn’t align with UCLA’s narrative so they are limiting his exposure to students.”
It soon became clear to Fink that his days at UCLA might be numbered. He received a critical review of one of his classes from the department’s vice-chair Greg Bryant who, ironically, disapproved that Fink purportedly “attacked UCLA as not supportive of free speech rights.”
Fink also believes the department engaged in a “bait and switch” in 2017 to lure students into enrolling in two of his highly-rated and very popular summer courses – significant sources of funding for the department – despite the fact that the school had not invited Fink to teach them that summer. “Students were coming from all over the world to UCLA specifically to take classes with me as well as from other universities,” Fink told Campus Reform. “These students would be stuck in the class once a teacher was changed if not notified until the last minute for several reasons.”
When Fink came up for a routine “excellence review” in May 2017 to consider his promotion to “Continuing Lecturer,” he objected that at least two members of the faculty committee conducting it had previously shown bias against him, including the new Department Chair Johnson. The committee went forward and deadlocked at 3-3, with the tie-breaking vote to be cast by Social Sciences Dean Laura Gomez – one of those Fink had identified as biased. Offering no explanation at all, Gomez voted weeks later not to renew his contract, suggesting that Fink’s teaching failed to meet UCLA’s standard of excellence.
This was a demonstrably false judgment. End-of-term student evaluations consistently described Fink in such glowing terms as “one of the best instructors,” the “epitome of a role model,” and “inspiring and life-changing.” Furthermore, he had earned an average Instructor Rating of 8.17 and an average Course Rating of 8.14 (on a nine-point scale), both of which were described by colleagues as “very high.”
In addition, Fink noted that “the department omitted the single strongest department-solicited letter from my dossier.” He argued, “I find it hard to believe that the omitted letter was accidentally left out of my file—the letter is simply too strong for it to be a mere coincidence.”
Fink’s TA Andrew Litt told Campus Reform that “there are no credible arguments to be made that support the conclusion that Keith is not excellent.” Litt concluded that “no reason makes sense other than the fact that this review has been conducted in a politically-motivated, viewpoint-discriminatory manner from the outset.”
Litt added, “His termination is an injustice to the students and the taxpayers of the state, a threat to all teachers and academic freedom, and a slap in the face to the notion of due process and fundamental fairness.”
“[Kerri] Johnson would stop at nothing to try and get rid of me,” Fink wrote me in recent email correspondence:
She violated any notion of fundamental fairness and due process by secretly writing Gomez a letter then trying to enlist to tell Gomez that I should not continue teaching. None of this was I told about. These actions violated the procedure for my review where I was entitled to see everything in my file and had the opportunity to respond. UCLA tried to hide this evidence. It took me two years in discovery to get it. Then UCLA refused to acknowledge that my rights were violated at every step of the sham internal grievance process they have.
“When you’re a conservative and they want to silence you they will surreptitiously derail your review – fairness be damned,” Fink asserted. “There is just nothing UCLA won’t do or say no matter how false it may be.”
In November of 2017, Fink exposed some of those “dirty tricks” in a presentation to the Bruin Republicans Club posted to YouTube (“Keith Fink Reveals UCLA’s Dirty Tricks to Quash Intellectual Pluralism on Campus”). Afterward grad student Cynthia Truhan wrote to the Daily Bruin demanding to know why there was no Bruin coverage about the “well-publicized event”:
Prof. Fink spoke to a packed room and not one person left before his entire presentation was done. In fact, many people stayed to speak to him afterwards and shared their own experiences within UCLA’s liberal-dominate environment.
Prof. Fink’s story is still unfolding and is shockingly representative of UCLA’s currently well-documented, aggressive, strategic practice of silencing intellectual diversity. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Daily Bruin has not continued to actively track this situation.
Why? No doubt because Fink’s righteous cause and refusal to slink away in defeat was an embarrassment to the school. The Bruin tried to ignore Fink, but the Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson found his situation so concerning and controversial that he brought Fink on as a guest on more than one occasion to present his case. There Fink held nothing back, telling Carlson that UCLA continually trampled on the free speech of conservative students and punished them for deviating from the school’s Progressive perspective.
In a recent email, Fink noted that “in the five years since I have been away from teaching at UCLA they cancelled all the classes – all! – that I taught. Now, these were some of the most popular classes on campus where I would pack halls of 300. So you could say they were not able to find someone who the knowledge to teach these classes.” While that may have been part of it, Fink continued,
the real reason they did not replace two of the classes – the Free Speech courses – is that UCLA’s administration will brook no interference with its attempts at ideological indoctrination of their progressive agenda. Teachers like me who eschew trigger warnings and developing “a safe space” in the classroom because they are anathema to the First Amendment and the belief that students’ beliefs should be vigorously challenged are now relics. Unless higher education makes a sea change and the era of indoctrination comes to an end the public university game will not be worth the candle.
Fink kept up the fight through five years of resistance, denial, and lies from UCLA. In a recent email to the Freedom Center’s David Horowitz, he shared the verdict of an arbitration between himself and UCLA over the 2017 non-renewal of his contract. The arbitrator sided with Fink, noting bluntly in the decision that, in “a metaphorical way, [Department Chair Kerri] Johnson stabbed Fink in the back” [emphasis added]:
Fink expressed concerns about her neutrality. When Johnson abstained at the time of the vote and simply summarized the review committee’s position, Fink thought his concerns had been recognized and respected. Instead, Johnson took advantage of an opportunity to sabotage Fink’s candidacy without Fink’s knowing about it or being able to respond to it. As a result, the grievance must be sustained. [emphasis added]
The arbitration hearing resulted in vindication for Fink. But personal vindication was never his motive. “I fought this all these years,” he wrote to Horowitz, “because like you, I am fighter and here we are dealing with the most important American values – due process, fundamental fairness, free speech – all principles anathema to the progressive politics at UCLA.”