UCLA prevents students from enrolling in free speech course

University of California-Los Angeles students packed a 210-seat lecture hall late Wednesday afternoon to hear popular Communications Professor Keith Fink speak for nearly three hours.

Fink’s “Communication Studies M172: Free Speech in the Workplace” course is in such high demand that some students were sitting in the aisles. Many of the students are already enrolled, but others are stuck on a waitlist, and an alarming number are holding out hope of receiving a Permission to Enroll (PTE) number despite a crackdown on that practice by the new department chair.

Historically, Fink has been a popular lecturer at UCLA and has given out PTE numbers to students every year so long as space in the lecture hall permitted. In the past, Fink was allowed to use a lecture hall that accommodated 292 students, but is now fighting efforts by department chair Kerri Johnson to slash the size of his classroom and prevent him from issuing PTE numbers.

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Last quarter, the department stopped allowing Fink to give out PTE numbers to additional students past the enrollment capacity despite there being ample space in the classroom, justifying the restriction on the grounds that there were not enough Teaching Assistants (TAs) to accommodate the vast number of students.

Fink and his TA, Andrew Litt, vehemently disputed that argument, however, telling Campus Reform that the class size does not have any affect on how well they are able to teach the course.

Fink and Litt are now running into even more severe problems with this quarter’s Free Speech in the Workplace course. The course has been moved to a much smaller room that only seats 210 students, compared to the previous 292-seat capacity, and Fink has at times been threatened with an even lower cap.

At one point, Johnson reduced the maximum enrollment to as low as 150 students, a figure that Fink claims she later raised incrementally to 170, and later to 200, in response to a public outcry.

Johnson subsequently promised Fink in an email on February 28 that no further changes to enrollment caps would be made until she had “conducted a thorough review of each class,” and that his enrollment cap for the coming quarter would be 200 students.

The capacity for enrollment for Comm Studies M172 in Spring 2016 is estimated to have been 225 seats for Communications students and 25 seats for Labor and Workplace Studies students, adding up to a total capacity of 250, though it is impossible to verify that figure because the department has curiously closed the enrollment information for the recent course.

Even though the previous enrollment estimates are only educated guesses and could be wrong, Litt strongly asserted that the total capacity was at least at 225.

The removal of Spring 2016 capacity information conveniently makes it impossible for Fink and Litt to reference the former large capacities that Johnson has slashed, although the department claims that the disappearance of the former Spring 2016 cap is an "error."

Fink and Litt repeatedly sent Johnson emails providing various unused classrooms that could accommodate the prior capacity and high demand for the course.

Finally, on Feb. 21, the very night that Fink went on Tucker Carlson Tonight to speak about the situation, Johnson moved the class into one of the suggested classrooms (albeit the smallest one on the list), upping the seating capacity to 210, which is still smaller than last year’s enrollment capacity of 225.

Fink’s class was not observed by Johnson until March 1, after the changes had already been made, appearing to contradict her promise not to adjust the enrollment cap until completing her review.

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The controversy also coincides with an “excellence review” evaluating Fink’s performance in previous years based on student feedback, which could theoretically be used to justify ending his contract.

According to Litt, “the department kicked off the excellence review by asking for his CV, a personal statement on teaching, a list of up to 20 student names to be solicited, and a list of names of individuals who may not be able to provide objective evaluations.”

Curiously, faculty member Greg Bryant, who serves as vice chair of the Department of Communication Studies, was selected to evaluate the class on March 8 despite being on the list of individuals who may be biased against Fink, and predictably produced a less-than-satisfactory evaluation.

Johnson, however, told Campus Reform that the discussion surrounding the enrollment cap is merely intended to ensure that the quality of instruction does not suffer from an overload of students, and even went so far as to emphatically deny that the cap had even been reduced.

“Mr. Fink’s class has not been reduced in size this quarter, and has remained stable at 200 for several years,” she declared. “In addition to UCLA’s responsibility to our instructors, we are equally committed to ensuring a high quality of education to our students. Departments must maintain a proper and manageable balance between the number of students enrolled in a course and the teaching staff that serve that student body.”

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Fink and Litt, on the other hand, insist that Johnson’s justification is just a pretext, and that they have never expressed concerns regarding their ability to handle the larger number of students they have been lobbying for.

“Kerri is now relying on student-TA ratio as a pretextual argument to not increase his class size. Her argument is belied by two critical points,” Litt told Campus Reform. “First, she keeps emphasizing the ‘burden’ the size places on me—there is no burden. If you look at students’ reviews of me last quarter, it’s obvious that me alone TA-ing for Professor Fink’s class is effective.”

Fink and Litt say they are continuing to appeal their case to the administration, but have not received any indications that the impasse is headed toward a satisfactory resolution.

There are, however, several larger classrooms currently sitting unused during the 5:00-7:50 p.m. Wednesday timeslot that Fink’s course occupies, as evidence by images taken during Fink’s class.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @kathryn_mary96