‘This school is a model of cultural resilience in the face of adversity,’ said Gabriele Schwab, a professor of comparative literature and a member of UC Irvine’s department of Anthropology, to a crowd of over 100 students, faculty, and community members on May 30.
Schwab served as the keynote speaker for the opening of a UC Irvine library exhibit titled, ‘The War Within: Dissent During Crisis in America,’ an event aimed at promoting civil dissent and cultural resilience.
Schwab spoke as a last-minute replacement for the original speaker, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a professor of English and comparative literature.
Thiong’o could not make the event because he was delayed in Africa while attending the trial of a group of men accused of attacking him and his wife (who is the director of faculty welfare at UCI) two years ago in response to his work on dissent and freedom of speech.
Schwab, at the beginning of her speech, implored the audience to ‘take [her] words as an act of solidarity with [Thiong’o],’ and said that the message she would be conveying was ‘in his spirit.’
According to Schwab, the act of violence toward Thiong’o and his family and their difficult decision to prosecute at the expense of their own safety, is directly related to the purpose of the event itself.
Thiong’o and Schwab both believe in the act of voiced dissension as a human responsibility. Thiong’o’s attendance at the trial in Africa was ‘part of the larger trial of human rights,’ according to Schwab.
The opening event of the exhibit encouraged the audience to consider the importance of practicing dissent in a ‘world at war’ and also to reflect on one’s own First Amendment rights as an American.
‘Freedom of speech is the bedrock foundation of this university,’ said Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez, who also spoke at the event.
The occasion was also used as a venue for Gomez to speak about UCI as an ’embodiment of the precious, ever-vigilant freedom that we have,’ referring to the recent surge of student activism on campus.
Gomez also announced the first ever UCI Dalai Lama Scholarship. In recognition of the Dalai Lama’s visit last year, and the result of a generous donation of $100,000 from an anonymous group, two students will receive $10,000 each in scholarship funds in what the vice chancellor hopes will become an annual scholarship.
The exhibit, located inside the library, ‘examines issues of war, peace, dissent and dialogue during critical periods in the 20th century when free speech and civil liberties were threatened.’ The exhibit is divided into sections that explore McCarthyism during the Cold War, conscientious objectors during World War II, the Japanese-American internment during World War II and protests during the Vietnam War, some of which occurred at UCI.
‘This event serves to remind us of the mission and values of libraries, which is to support and facilitate the work of faculty and students to share knowledge,’ said Gerald Munoff, the university librarian, who opened the event.
The exhibit was co-sponsored by UCI Difficult Dialogues, which is a Ford Foundation-funded project that supports civil discourse on controversial issues taking place at universities. UCI beat out a plethora of other top-notch universities to receive a $127,000 grant to put on programs such as these.
‘It was surprising to see the number of students present,’ said Steve MacLeod, one of the librarians who coordinated the event. ‘The event is not so much meant to encourage anything, but rather to cause people to reflect.’
Schwab’s closing statement was directed to Thiong’o: ‘It is our voices of dissent that will shape the future of this country for us, our children, and our grandchildren.’
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