UC Berkeley Chancellor says Kopp Monologue is Free Speech

Wendy Kopp, who infamously created Teach For America to temporarily place teachers in classrooms in her Princeton undergraduate thesis, has been invited to give the 2019 graduation address at UC Berkeley. I recieved the following note protesting the invitation from Jane Nylund to Carol T. Christ, UC Berkeley Chancellor.

As a public school advocate, and a product of California public schools (father and grandmother both attended UC Berkeley), I was outraged and saddened to find that UC Berkeley had extended an invitation to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, to be featured as the commencement speaker at UC Berkeley this year.

Oakland and other urban school districts have, for years, suffered under the constant threat of privatization. Teach for America is just one of many cogs in the privatization machine; there are many others, but TFA’s influence is not just felt at the school site level, but has also infiltrated higher levels of administration (such as the Oakland mayor’s office), as well as TFA acting as lobbyists for legislation favoring privately managed charter schools and ed reform groups.

TFA has a potent mixture of idealism and practicality; the concept of having the opportunity to “teach” in a high needs district such as Oakland is tantalizing for many young people eager to give something back to the community. According to TFArecruiting manager Jessica Rossoni, whose credentials included a stint at the Daily Californian, “UC Berkeley is one of the largest contributors to the organization in its number of students who join TFA, according to Rossoni. She said UC Berkeley students apply in high rates because of UC Berkeley’s values of equity and students’ desires to tie those values to a career.” Notice that she doesn’t mention the type of career. Could be anything but teaching, and usually is. But, here’s what TFA is really about:

1) Installing low-paid, unqualified, uncertified, non-union teaching labor into the most challenging schools. Leafy suburban schools would never accept a core group of teachers that enter their schools in significant numbers with only 5 weeks of experience. Charter schools actively employ non-union TFA teaching labor; charters’ teacher retention record is abysmal, typically 2 years. Not surprising, since this corresponds with the 2-year TFA teaching commitment.

2) Creating  a “teacher pipeline” to fill teaching positions is secondary to TFA’s true mission mentioned above. Despite TFA’sassertions, there isn’t a teacher shortage; that narrative is trotted out by TFA and is accepted as gospel by the ed reform echo chamber; teachers as a whole are woefully underpaid and unsupported, particularly in high needs districts (was everyone at UCBerkeley asleep during the Oakland strike?). TFA solves none of this; its existence exacerbates the problem by undermining the professionalism, credentials, and experience of authentic teachers committed to the job as a profession, and not just a career stepping stone or resume padding on the part of corps members.

3) TFA charges school districts a fee for hiring TFA members. This fee causes a significant burden for cash-strapped districts already grappling with expenses associated with supporting high needs students. There is no guarantee that these teachers will remain with the district, and in fact, collectively, TFA has a poor track record of teacher retention within the host district in which they serve. This disruptive model of teacher churn caused in part by hiring TFA is damaging to our students, who deserve highly-trained, certified teachers with a long-term commitment to the profession.

4) TFA is a privatization group that is actively supported by the Walton Family Foundation.  Why UC Berkeley would ever align itself with the worst of corporate school privatization supporters completely escapes rational thought. UC Berkeley is one of the most important assets and symbols of public education in California. Support for groups like TFA flies in the face of the core values that UC Berkeley represents. Its mission to serve public students and to serve in the public interest will forever be tainted by this ill-advised invitation to a group that undermines all we value as democratically represented public institutions.

Read here for the unflinching reality of what TFA truly represents, and ask yourself if this narrative aligns with the values of UCBerkeley. I was disheartened to note that UC Berkeley has been a part of what has become the education misery in Oakland and elsewhere by supplying a large pool of students as corps members. Again, while the Berkeley students may find this kind of service admirable, this model is actively undermining the teaching profession. Not surprising that it is our mostly black and brown students that are suffering the consequences because of it. There is nothing admirable or equitable about that.

While I understand that this decision was based in part by student input, it is sometimes advisable for other adults in the room to step up and explain the symbolism behind this TFA invitation. This generation of college students hasn’t been around long enough to understand what has happened regarding school privatization in this country, but someone (besides TFAer Ms. Rossoni) needs to explain it to them. The students’ wish to give back to their community has been hijacked by the very people like the Waltons that want publicly supported institutions like UC Berkeley to go away. The irony is not lost on those of us who have witnessed this calamity for far too long. Please do the right thing and rescind your decision to Ms. Kopp, offer her your sincerest apologies, and find someone like Diane Ravitch or Jitu Brown, both true champions of authentic public education in this country. Thank you for your consideration. .


Jane Nylund

Here is the response from Carol T. Christ, UC Berkeley Chancellor.
Dear Ms. Nylund,

Thank you for taking the time to alert us to your concerns about Wendy Kopp being selected as the 2019 commencement speaker.  The University of California, Berkeley has a commencement speaker selection process in place which includes the involvement of the student group, the Californians, the Associated Students of the University of California, and the Chancellor’s office.  Please see the attached flow chart for more detail on the selection process.

We are highly committed to this process and we do not disinvite speakers when groups or individuals come forward who do not support the speaker’s beliefs or body of work.  While we understand the concerns put forth by those who have written, we must adhere to both our process as well as to the tenets of free speech.
While I believe it is important that we protect constitutional free speech, I also believe that educational leaders must promote dialogues rather than monologues when discussing controversial topis— this approach allows the power of ideas to prevail. As an educational leader, I have participated in Cambridge-style debates, attend workgroups at the American Enterpise Institute (until they couldn’t handle my free speech) and even participated in a mock trial at the Libertarians Freedom Fest. So for me, it’s malpractice for educational leaders to allow monologues instead of dialogues when there are controversial topics at hand. So, here’s what I opined and suggested.

Carolyn, At least now you can’t say you weren’t made aware of the peer reviewed research and criticism about Teach For America for sending unqualified teachers to temporarily teach primarily Brown and Black children in California. You’ve been apprised. You should also reference that the California legislature is debating banning TFA in California schools via AB 221 because the [vast majority] of TFA only stopover in California schools on their way to Berkeley etc. The California NAACP and California LULAC, our state’s largest and oldest civil rights organizations, are supporting the bill. So are the teacher associations of California. Now you also know this also… Furthermore, free speech on campus should not be a one-sided, unbalanced public debate as Berkeley has purposely set up in this instance. Show some scholarly leadership. Create a balanced debate on your campus— that’s free speech.

In my view, we often shortchange our academic communities and stifle the exchance of ideas that free speech was meant to promote. Promoters of controversial ideas as “free speech” should be ready and willing to defend and promote a platform for dialogue instead of monologue.


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  • Pingback: Julian Vasquez Heilig Advises Berkeley Chancellor About Wendy Kopp, TFA, and Free Sppech | Diane Ravitch's blog

  • I am a recent undergraduate, earning her degree BA at UC Berkeley, I earned and built my own degree with the most recent awarded number 1 ranking Interdisciplinary Studies research degree. I applied for TFA, researching the agency I was very disappointed. Completing all the steps then interviewing, I was told they did not hire individuals, like myself, a 61 year old woman, they were primarily interested in candidates that were younger. I was absolutely dumbfounded. TFA, is only interested in young 20’s, elitist, and privileged.
    I am still pursuing my dreams to work with the disadvantage, marginalised, poorly supported students who most of these young TFA students will want nothing do with, after the 2 year stint, the majority use the experience for their resume- to look great, a sort of charitable (they don’t pay well) volunteer job.


    • Isnt it illegal for them to deny you based on your age? Would you like to come on the Truth For America podcast and discuss your experience applying?


    • Yes, that’s likely true because they see TFA recruits as future cogs in their network of influence-peddling and school privatization.

      Such a shame that ageism is so rampant when many of us have much to offer.

      Perhaps TFA saw you as becoming an inside threat to their organization. As an older individual myself, I find that I do a lot more critical thinking, along with being far more assertive, than I was in my ’20s. And those two components are what pose the greatest threat to the Privateers’s agenda.


  • The selection process is student-driven, with buy-in from the chancellor at the end of the process. Speakers are invited, in part, based on a poll of seniors over the summer. It makes sense that TFA came up as one of the choices since almost 900 students have been recruited since its inception. For what it’s worth, Berkeley students have expressed their own displeasure on the invitation of Ms. Kopp and have indicated a willingness to boycott the event.

    The senior class president, Jesse Gil states, “I really hope that she brings to our commencement a message to strive for greatness not only for yourself but the people around you to better our community and the world,” Gil said. “We shouldn’t only think about ourselves, but things that affect other people as well.” For better or for worse, I might add. Mr. Gil needs to open up TFA’s Alum web page to see just how much corps members really care about the students around them. Few stick around to see the fruits of their labor in urban classrooms, but TFA likes to boast about their alums, when they have furthered their own careers outside of the classroom. Because being a classroom teacher alum isn’t enough of a reason to boast about TFA’s own teacher training program, but we already knew that. Sorry, Mr. Gil, TFA may be a lot of things, but “striving for greatness” isn’t about serving high-needs urban students. It’s about getting your bio written up on TFA’s alum page.



    • Good to see that some Cal students — the dissenters — are informed and principled.

      At the beginning, TFA didn’t intend for its “corps members” to stay in education — the idea was that their sparkling Ivy League magic would benefit the low-income kids they attempted to teach in a two-year stint, before they moved on to their hedge fund careers or Harvard Law. (The sparkling Ivy League magic would also compensate for their lack of credentials and preparation, of course.)

      Along the way, TFA experienced what’s called “mission creep,” adapting its program to what the billionaire funders would bestow money upon. They started promoting their temp beginners as superior to committed veteran credentialed teachers, whom they scorned (at least by implication) as burned-out deadwood. Then they started making a big deal of boasting that many of their temps actually stayed in education (though often by going to work in billionaire-funded policy operations). To be fair, they responded to the Great White Savior criticism by seeking out recruits of color.

      But they have solidified into a deep-rooted part of the so-called education “reform” sector, funded by billionaires from far right to neoliberal, and aimed at undermining and privatizing public education — and of course busting teachers’ unions (made up mostly of uppity women!) along the way.

      It’s hard to imagine that anyone could believe this operation reflects Cal’s values.


  • Most people pay little attention to the weeds of education policy, and those people are likely to think Wendy Kopp is just a caring philanthropist who created a project designed to help low-income children. The public is divided between those starry-eyed folks and the savvier observers who realize that her work (pushing inexperienced, unqualified temp beginner teachers into the most vulnerable kids’ classrooms, sending the message that those teachers are what poor kids deserve) is destructive and even racist.

    It’s an interesting question whether the planners who invited Kopp to do the commencement address are in the first camp and had no idea that she was controversial at all — and whether they WOULD knowingly invite a controversial figure as commencement speaker. (Especially someone who is accused of promoting harm to low-income children and to public education, with the funding and cheerleading of billionaires and privatization proponents.) You’d think they’d invite speakers who reflected UC Berkeley’s essential values.


  • Mr. Goldenberg, it is interesting how this topic of free speech even came up, and it’s important to remember that I did not bring it up, nor did Dr. Heilig. The subject of free speech was, in fact, raised by the university in their response to my letter. In this case, the “free speech” argument was used by UC Berkeley as a cop-out, a blanket non-response to justify their choice of commencement speaker. Dr. Heilig then responded to the university’s free speech comment with what I consider to be a thoughtful argument about what free speech means. In no instance did I say that Ms. Kopp should be limited as to what she is going to say. I don’t know what she will say at commencement. My objection is to Wendy Kopp herself, the organization that she leads, and what she symbolizes as an enemy of public education.

    The best part about this whole exercise is that this is the perfect example of having free speech right now, in the moment. You are free to disagree with me and accuse me of owning pearls and being a hysterical “progressive, radical, non-conformist”. I mean, that’s a stretch for someone you’ve never met; I am free to defend my right to be outraged, and not conform to anyone else’s definition of outrage. We are actually having a healthy dialogue-a thoughtful example of free speech and an exchange of ideas. You made the point that a commencement is not a place for dialogue and you are correct. That is exactly why UC Berkeley’s free speech argument is at best dismissive, and at worst, disingenuous.


    • You seem to have conflated a couple of my statements into something I didn’t say and never would. My comment on progressives, radicals, and non-conformists was decidedly NOT that such are hysterical (though there are all sorts of people in any political segment), but their viewpoint and they are the real target of movements to silence speech in this country.

      You can’t have academic dialogue in an atmosphere where speakers are disinvited at the behest of some group(s) who object, or else said groups are allowed to make it impossible for speakers they dislike to be heard. Locally, at the University of Michigan, there have been small but vocal and active groups whose slogan is “No free speech for fascists.” And of course they are the judges as to just who the fascists are.

      I have been highly critical of Kopp and TFA for a very long time. I am perfectly aware of who she is and for what she has stood. But I see no circumstances in which rescinding and invitation to speak on campus can be allowed to obtain or that your or my or anyone else’s outrage, sense of being offended, or political preferences top the need for our universities, particularly our public ones, to allow people with influential ideas to put them forward. And if you, professors, students, or other members of the community wish to hold seminars before, after, or concurrent with Kopp’s appearance, or to leaflet the event, by all means do so. You are certainly correct to be critical of her and her work. Where you go amiss is asking that her invitation be withdrawn. And you will always be siding with forces of repression, the people who historically have tried to silence dissent on campuses, and against whom Mario Savio fought on the Berkeley campus nearly sixty years ago.


  • No argument against allowing Kopp to speak will hold water, and we on the left SHOULD know that. The current ripple of disrupting or blocking speakers on the right (or un-PC speakers on the left who don’t accept every little pearl-clutching bit of outrage that surfaces), is a very short-lived blip in American academia and beyond. The long-term preponderant targets of anti-speech policies and hysteria has always been and will continue to be progressives, radicals, and non-conformists.

    Commencement addresses are not debates. There is no tradition of rebuttal or equal time associated with them. And if someone is “outraged” (so much of that going around these days, you’d almost think academia and democracy were awfully fragile to not survive it) by the choice of commencement speaker, s/he is free to protest in ways that deny the rights of would-be listeners to hear.

    Wendy Kopp is well-off my holiday card list, but her speaking at Berkeley’s commencement bothers me not at all.


    • “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Frustrating. Many Public School Administrators have joined the “Neo-liberal Bandwagon” both at the K-12 and University level. Too much money is at stake!. At a local level in Mariposa, County, for example, U.C. Professors and others closed an Elementary Public School in Cathys Valley where new U.C. professionals moved into its evolving “bedroom community.” The CA State Charter School Org. took advantage and created a charter school. The sad part was that the “other” Necessary Small School – (one of the poorest schools in CA) was also closed. Privatization goals and programs such as TFA put many on the “horns of dilemma” between their values and their practical family needs.


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