Last May, UC President Mark Yudof responded to the trouble that had been brewing at schools throughout the UC system for the past several months. First it was Jewish and Muslim students in an uproar over Muslim interruption of Michael Oren’s visit to UC Irvine. Then it was black students angry at those students who had dressed for a “Compton Cookout” party. Then came possible divestment from Israel at several UC campuses, including UCSD. And claims of anti-Semitism and bigotry in general, against all groups, is nothing new. But with the escalation earlier this year, Yudof took action. In May, he announced the creation of the President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion. The council, comprised of a diverse group of 18 California professionals as well as a student representative from each of the UCs, works to address these challenges in creating and sustaining a safe, inclusive environment across the UC system. In October, the announcement came that because Uri Herscher, a Jew and president of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, stepped down from the Council, San Diegan Jew and renowned trial lawyer Richard Barton had been chosen to take his place. Barton, a partner in the law firm of Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves and Savitch LLP, has not only enjoyed a highly successful legal career, he’s also served as a volunteer with the Anti-Defamation League since 1992 and is currently its national chair of education. Barton took some time out of his morning last month to talk to the San Diego Jewish Journal about his new appointment and why the issues at stake are so important to him.
San Diego Jewish Journal: You’ve been a lawyer for 28 years and with Procopio for just over one, with a specialty is healthcare litigation. So how did your interest in volunteering with the ADL come about?
Richard Barton: It came from my family. My mother is German-born to a Jewish family whose family fled to Rio de Jienero, Brazil. They got out [of Germany] in 1933. She was raised in Rio. My dad was raised by a Southern Baptist family in Savannah, Ga. He was surrounded by racism, which he rejected, and so after World War II he was actually in Brazil doing oil exploration for [ARCO] and met my mother. They got married, he was transferred back to Southern California, and his reaction to his upbringing was to marry this German Jewish woman and raise their children Jewish. I grew up in a house where civil rights — the way you treat others — was a huge theme, and obviously where anti-Semitism and the Holocaust were huge themes. The ADL was a perfect fit for me.
SDJJ: What was it about your combination of legal skills and ADL experience that made you a choice for the President’s Advisory Council?
RB: As national chair of education for the ADL, I oversee as a lay leader the committee that oversees all of ADL’s education programs, which includes our campus programs. ADL has been on the forefront of introducing programs into college, such as our Campus of Difference program, and of advocating for both first amendment rights of those on campus and of making sure issues of discrimination, bias and prejudice are at the forefront of college administration, because they have an obligation to protect their student body. I think the other part of it is both of my kids were UC kids. My wife and I both went to UCLA as well. I watched [my kids] as active Jewish students there, so I think I bring some firsthand experience of what it’s like for some of the students who presently go to those schools.
SDJJ: So your legal skills really don’t have that much to do with it?
RB: That wouldn’t be true. Part of my volunteer work with the ADL has been to incorporate my legal skills. I have done cases in the civil rights area, so the fact that I do just healthcare may be misleading. I’ve done a lot of different types of cases over the years that have sort of married my litigation skills, which were developed in the healthcare environment, with the interest that I have in civil rights. For instance, I did an amicus brief to the California Supreme Court on an issue having to do with religious freedom of physicians to make certain choices with regard to which patients they will treat. I wrote one of ADL’s briefs to the Ninth Circuit on the Mt. Soledad Cross issue.
SDJJ; Do you think you’re part of President Yudof’s answer to Jewish students who say they face anti-Semitism and bigotry on campus?
RB: I have a really strong commitment to and have worked with ADL here in San Diego on issues having to do with UCSD and UCI, so I think I bring a really strong voice on behalf of Jewish students on the issues they’re confronting. That said, I want to make sure we don’t view my appointment simply within the narrow prism of my being there for the Jewish students. I think there are issues confronting a lot of minority students, which we saw with the African American students at UCSD, and we’ve seen it on other campuses. So I think ADL’s breadth in terms of the issues we deal with and which I personally have dealt with lends itself to my being a voice not only for Jewish students, but for all students who are confronting issues on campuses.
SDJJ: As a leader and volunteer with the ADL, what is your view on the hateful and insensitive climate that’s affected the UC system for much of 2010?
RB: What I think is that we’re seeing a tremendous amount of insensitivity on the part of individuals on campuses to how their message is being perceived. The [Compton Cookout] incident at UCSD in my mind was a horrific example of individuals thinking something was funny, thinking something would be entertaining and not thinking about how it would be perceived by others. We encourage our children who go to college not only to learn, but also to find a voice with respect to issues, to be engaged. We also ask them to pursue more about their own identity. I think for Jewish parents, we’ve very proud of [our children’s involvement] and their activism; we want that. But what we also see is that they sometimes lose sight in that activism and in that desire to identify themselves with where they came from. We see an insensitivity to how those messages get translated by those who may not be a part of their group. I think that is what we are seeing on the part of Muslim Student Union and Muslim Student Association with respect to what they say about Israel. I think in their desire to articulate a narrative for the Palestinians, they have lost sight of how that message gets perceived by Jewish kids, particularly when they use words like genocide and apartheid. It has to be also said that Muslim students feel, especially because of the issues that exist outside with respect to what’s going on in the Middle East and with Sept. 11, under siege on a number of fronts.
SDJJ: What do you hope you’ll uniquely be able to contribute to the UC system and the Council during your term?
RB: I intend to see it through however long President Yudof finds me to be useful, and I’m extremely excited about this opportunity. I think it presents some extremely difficult challenges, but it’s such an important thing that is being done. What I hope to accomplish is to help the UCs find or create a structure where they can better mediate some of the difficulties [and find] a balance in terms of encouraging activism, encouraging students to explore their own identity, mixing with students who they don’t know and who come from different communities, and at the same time understanding that those messages sometimes become hateful, inappropriate and cross certain lines. I think it’s true of African American students, of gay and lesbian students, of Latino students, of Muslim students, and certainly of Jewish students. They’re all on the receiving end of a great amount of insensitivity.
• To find out more about the President’s Advisory Council or to see a full list of members, visit www.universityofcalifornia.edu.