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Adolfo Bermeo
        Chicano Studies, Administration

(Author’s note: As of October 2005, Adolfo Bermeo is no longer a UCLA employee).

Adolfo Bermeo is a professor and upper UCLA administration figure who has repeatedly emphasized his revolutionary credentials and outlook.  In perhaps his finest moment, Bermeo confessed in print to UCLA Today that the person he most admires is island despot Fidel Castro, followed closely by Chiapas, Mexico Marxist rebel leader Subcommandante Marcos.  While this set of heroes is not unique for a UCLA faculty member, the proud public acknowledgement certainly is.  Worse yet is that Bermeo is not just a regular faculty member, but also an upper administration figure who wields significant power as an Assistant Vice Provost and director of the Academic Advancement Program. 

If that chilling combination of radicalism and power weren’t bad enough, it turns out that both Bermeo and his son Robert Bermeo (a former UCLA student and employee) have had their own run-ins with the law.  In 2005, Bermeo the Elder had an unspecified “relationship” with a student far less than half his age; while from 1990-1992, Bermeo the Younger stole items worth in excess of $1 million from the UCLA Library’s Special Collections, this after an earlier conviction for shoplifting $1,200 at a Westwood store while in a “special advocate” position with UCLA undergraduate student government.  For his extensive UCLA thefts, Robert Bermeo was sentenced to a 40-month state prison term.  The scandal involving his father Adolfo resulted in his sudden and ignominious departure in October 2005.  According to a UCLA press release on the subject, Bermeo had not served the AAP as director since the investigation began in April of 2005; his departure in October was a simultaneous resignation and retirement. 

Rather than denigrating Bermeo solely for his radical politics or apparent immorality (all of that will come later), we’ll first consider his academic and administrative career.  While there isn’t the time to recount the full sordid history of the Academic Advancement Program, the story of Adolfo Bermeo can’t be properly told without briefly telling the story of the AAP itself.

The AAP, created in 1970 to retain minority students, is a relic of another time and place.  However, like so many other bureaucratic programs, it has over the years ossified into near-immobility.  In fact, the AAP’s position was so solid than even the mid-90’s earthquakes of SP-1/2 and Proposition 209 did not level the program.  AAP simply switched from offering its services only to state-recognized “underrepresented minority groups,” to an admissions policy that was nominally color-blind.  Emphasis, however, on the “nominally.”

Much of this resilience, and AAP’s continually rising reputation, was due to Bermeo.  Arriving from Mexico at the relatively advanced age of 14, Bermeo graduated high school and went on an academic tear, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then his 1981 doctorate from UCLA Bermeo completed his meteoric rise when he was chosen to head the AAP in 1985.  Over the next two decades, Bermeo oversaw AAP student improvements in GPA, graduation rates, and participation in honors programs. 

Bermeo ascribes the relative success of AAP to changing the culture of the program itself.  As Bermeo tells it, the attitude of program organizers and participants before his arrival was one of playing catch-up, starting from the idea that program participants needed extra help and were probably behind their non-tutored classmates.  Bermeo put a stop to this eminently reasonable practice, and instituted what he calls a “pedagogy of excellence.”  Media reports repeatedly mention Bermeo’s insistence that AAP students should shun any feelings of possible inadequacy.  Instead, program participants are instructed to take the attitude of the Mexican bandits from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, who dismissed challenges to their authority with the comeback, “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”  In short, these students were instructed to set aside any hesitations or self-doubt and believe that they were as good as any other student.

Reserving judgment, for a second, on whether this idea is actually any good, research on Bermeo’s scholarly career clearly shows that his “pedagogy of excellence” is essentially the one original idea he’s had in his life, and it's an idea that he is determined to sell for as long as people will keep buying.  In reality, it’s not that much of a breakthrough.  The so-called “pedagogy of excellence” is just basic self-esteem psychology, based on the doubtful idea that students will perform only to the level expected of them.  Thus, the theory goes, any mention of the fact that AAP students are different or inferior in any way would crush their ability to succeed.  Yet the theory’s logic doesn’t exactly hold up in any specific, consistent manner.  Just about any parent expects ‘A’ grades from his or her child, but not all parents get their wish.  In simpler terms, simply expecting something won’t make it so. 

Now on average, Bermeo’s relentlessly upbeat “pedagogy of excellence” might help to keep up the confidence of program participants.  And on balance, it may well have been better for the AAP to adopt this educational philosophy of basic esteem, than to not have done so.  But watching Bermeo pop up at academic conferences all over the country selling this simple idea, one is reminded of another UCLA faculty member, Reverend James Lawson.  Lawson also had essentially one major idea in his life, and like Bermeo, has been successfully retailing the simple idea for decades.  The non-violent sit-in strategy that Lawson favored was extremely effective in the early days of the civil rights movement, and in fact, was probably far more inspired and influential than Bermeo’s “pedagogy of excellence” scheme.  But that difference aside, the similarity is that both Lawson and Bermeo have spent their adult lives selling their one idea.  And Bermeo, like Lawson, has managed to extract a remarkable amount of mileage from his concept.

Of course, nobody’s been willing to point out that Bermeo’s “pedagogy of excellence” is a logically absurd concept.  If these students truly “don’t need no badges,” if they’re really as good as any other UCLA student, then why do they need the special resources of the AAP?  Right now, Bermeo tries to have it both ways, preserving his job by giving a limited group of students superior set-aside services, while telling them the lie that they’re just as advanced as anyone else.  The truth is that the AAP in the post-209 era is open to students whose “academic profiles and personal backgrounds may impact their university experience and their retention and graduation from UCLA.”  In other words, people who need extra help.

The logical inanity if Bermeo’s “pedagogy of excellence” did not spring fully formed from his brain, but rather was the product of his deep thinking (after a fashion) about racism.  His conclusion about racism and its effect on education mirrors the notorious Marx/Engels concept of “false consciousness” which was originally applied to capitalism.  As Bermeo explained, “Racism is a violence.  Oftentimes what happens [is] the victim internalizes the racism.  We’ve got to turn that around here and say, “You belong here.  You’ve earned your right to be here.””  

Regardless of the truth behind AAP and the students it serves, Bermeo was the perfect man to head the program.  Since the dawn of recorded time (or at least the 1994 inception of Daily Bruin digital archives), Bermeo has been a reliably strident voice on behalf of affirmative action, at times tying himself in verbal knots to link contradictory attitudes into a logical whole.

As Bermeo states on CollegeTrack.com, “If we come from a legacy of privilege, if we come from a tradition of college, what we’ve accumulated is intellectual capital.  We’ve accumulated a way of seeing the world that we flow into the university.  For those who come from a legacy of struggle, we don’t flow into the university, we flow into struggle.” 

 Cue the United Farm Workers anthem: Si se puede, Adolfo, si se puede!

Bermeo has on more than one occasion rhapsodized about his own “legacy of struggle” as a Mexican immigrant, writing in vengeful Spanglish prose about his tia y tio (aunt and uncle) and other first-generation immigrants who had to “work in the fields and factories, clean the houses, and mow the lawns” of white families.  Bermeo waves the bloody shirt when he declares, “My B.A., my M.A., and my Ph. D. carry the long hours that my father breathed the asphalt fumes that killed him.”  Bermeo’s egotism caused him to forget that just about any family at some point had its own difficult row to hoe.  Many of the white families he writes about so resentfully have difficulties that extend to current day.  Bermeo is doing no one any favors when he puts an emotional, and especially racial, gloss on an utterly typical set of lower-class struggles.

            Bermeo’s use of the rhetoric of struggle, of the poor against the powerful, sometimes veers into near-absurdity.  In one flight of fancy, Bermeo claimed that the “AAP is living proof that thousands of people of different races and ethnicities are able to experience their differences, come together as a community, and successfully achieve their individual goals. It is from such a community that a new leadership, one sensitive to the needs of all peoples, can emerge to build a society that will provide education, employment, decent housing, and guaranteed medical care for all.” 

          And in Bermeo’s mind, racially preferential college admissions were the linch-pin behind the building of this new world.  In pursuit of that goal, Bermeo has signed on to two different BAMN declarations in support of affirmative action, and even got his hands dirty by signing his name to a list of Hispanic academics on a letter opposing the nomination of Miguel Estrada.  Evidently for Bermeo, racial solidarity is all consuming except for ideological opponents like Estrada. 

However, when the race and politics are right, Bermeo does not hesitate to involve himself, even in support of outright criminals.  Bermeo appeared as the keynote speaker at a December 6, 2002 fundraiser at Los Angeles Mission College, helping raise scholarship funds for students attending the school under the auspices of a state law which (and this is not a joke) allows illegal immigrants to attend California state schools at in-state tuition.  Actual American citizens, if they’re not from California, pay enormous out-of-state fees.  But if you’re illegal – at least a California illegal – UCLA won’t try to send you home.  In fact, they’ll welcome the diversity you provide, and maybe even give you AAP status, if you smile and ask nicely.  And they’ll even dispatch UCLA personnel to speak at scholarship dinners benefiting you and your illegal brethren.  What a country!

Once you realize that Bermeo will help raise money on behalf of criminals, you’ve come a long way toward realizing what kind of a political animal we’re dealing with.  And that in turn explains the caustic rhetoric Bermeo directs at his opponents.  When, in 2004, there was brief talk from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger about eliminating the UC’s outreach budget, Bermeo bristled to the Daily Bruin, “You cannot talk about the ‘American Dream’ if you cut programs that are designed to facilitate that dream.  Schwarzenegger doesn’t talk about (budget cuts) as an attack on diversity, but it is.” 

 Bermeo’s exercise in absurdum ad reductum is similar to the rhetorical warfare practiced by Democrats and liberals on a national level.  In one particularly despicable episode, the NAACP ran ads suggesting that because James Byrd was dragged to his death in Texas, then-Governor George W. Bush is somehow responsible for the crimes.  By Bermeo’s tendentious logic, just about any reduction in government services reveals the budget-cutting politicians’ supposed hatred of the group that would be primarily impacted.  Thus, a politician isn’t balancing a budget, but deliberately trying to kill poor folks and intends to send the mentally ill into the streets to die.

For someone who has made a veritable career of climbing on his moral high horse in order to practice class warfare, Bermeo, and his son Robert Bermeo have both exhibited a certain, shall we say, lack of moral rectitude in their personal affairs.

Robert Bermeo’s particular exploits have long been a matter of public record, and quite a record it is, too.  Hired by the UCLA library in October 1990 as a special collections processor and student assistant, Bermeo took advantage of lax security measures and procedures, along with a backlogged inventory status, to loot over $1 million in valuable collectibles from the library’s Special Collections.  According to an extensive December 1, 1995 report in the Daily News of Los Angeles, most of the items taken and later recovered were film, theater and TV archival material, along with antique bibles, animation cels, first-edition comic books, film scripts, sheet music and movie storyboards.  Bermeo was finally arrested in a June 1994 sting operation sparked by a tip from an alert collectibles dealer.  However, while out on $150,000 bail in October 1994, an anonymous tip led the police to search Bermeo’s vehicle, recovering another $100,000 in materials from his trunk.  Finally convicted in late 1995 or early 1996, the prosecutor’s decision not to settle for probation again stemmed only (according to Los Angeles Police Department detective Don Hrycyk) from an election-year letter writing campaign by the victims of the thefts – i.e. the donors of the valuable items.  Thanks to their perseverance, Bermeo was prosecuted, convicted and eventually sentenced to a 40-month prison term

Oddly enough, this was not the first time Bermeo had shown a love for larceny.  In 1986, while a UCLA “student advocate,” an obsolete undergraduate student government position whose exact dimensions are now unclear, Bermeo was caught and convicted of shoplifting $1,200 in merchandise from a Westwood store, eventually serving community service and resigning the student advocate position.  None of this came to the attention of the Library’s managers at the time of Bermeo’s 1990 hiring because background checks were not yet standard policy.  The library knew only a few things: that Bermeo was the son of the powerful AAP director, and that (in the words of Detective Hrycyk in a December 1, 1995 Daily News article), Bermeo had a trustworthy, “clean-cut appearance.”  Ultimately, as Brian Schottlaender, an assistant university librarian noted in a February 15, 1996 Daily Bruin article, Bermeo “had the trust of those who had hired him.”

            All of this leaves one to wonder just how much of a role Adolfo Bermeo played, directly or indirectly, in his son Robert’s winning the plum job.  Beginning March 2005, those questions to a back seat to the broader concern of just what was wrong with the family as a whole.  On March 14, 2005, the Daily Bruin reported a growing scandal involving Bermeo the Elder’s relationship with a young student.  Neither the initial nor following articles specifics Bermeo’s marital status of the time, how Bermeo met the student, and whether their relationship was consensual.  From UCLA’s perspective, there was only one actionable concern: whether the relationship violated employee rules.  The most relevant portion of the faculty code of conduct prohibits faculty from having “a romantic or sexual relationship with any student for whom a faculty member has, or should reasonably expect to have in the future, academic responsibilities (instructional, evaluative, or supervisory).”  This new, stricter rule had just been passed in July 2003, giving the appearance that Bermeo’s actions were some perverse form of civil disobedience. 

However, what followed next for Bermeo was the real surprise.  In a virtually unprecedented spasm of candor, Chancellor Carnesale made two stunning admissions in a meeting with concerned (read, pro-Bermeo) students in Campbell Hall, home of the AAP program.  Carnesale declared in no uncertain terms that Bermeo would be judged purely on the facts of the matter, with no consideration given of his record as a teacher or an administrator.  Then Carnesale dropped the first bomb, noting that if Bermeo had been a dean, he would have been “out of here.”  The usually cagey Carnesale then made a second incendiary observation that, in conducting a relationship of such extreme age (not to mention power) difference, Bermeo’s actions didn’t “miss statutory rape by that much.”  From the Chancellor, these two comments were the equivalent of being strung up and left to twist in the wind. 

            Bermeo, for his part, decided he wouldn’t be going down without a fight.  An April 7, 2005 Daily Bruin article reported that during spring break (which began March 24, 2005), Bermeo had filed a UCPD police report alleging that someone had broken into his email accounts or computer in order to read his emails, thereby supposedly exposed his secret relationship with the student.  Most ironic was the timing of the report, which followed by just days Carnesale’s March 18, 2005 meeting with concerned students in which Bermeo was essentially hung out to dry.  UCPD spokeswoman Nancy Greenstein told the Bruin, “We investigated the report and at this point we’re unable to confirm whether his computer was hacked into.”  Based on UCLAProfs' recent interview with Greenstein, that statement essentially closed the investigation.  Whether Bermeo’s complaint was either found meritless, or impossible (for some reason), to investigate, it was at base unverifiable. 

            The whole situation reeked of spin mixed with damage control.  Did Bermeo really have to rack his brain for nearly a month to alight on the possibility that his email had been hacked?  The initial story publicizing the relationship had come out March 14th, but it was not until Carnesale lowered the boom on March 18th that Bermeo went scrambling, and some time after the 24th arrived at the UCPD with the vague report that someone had hacked into his email.  If it smells like damage control, it probably is.  And what better way than turning the finger of blame back on some unknown person?  Sure, he’d carried on a relationship against all sense and employer rules, but someone had broken into his email.  Letting someone get away with that would be the real crime.

            Having established Bermeo’s extremism in scholarly work and personal behavior, we can add classroom conduct to the various venues in which he plays the radical.  As reviews on BruinWalk.com establish, the Bermeo we see outside the classroom is, not surprisingly, the Bermeo inside the classroom.  One student notes,

I found his lectures to be more like an inspirational speech than a university lecture. It is true that he is passionate about the material that he teaches. His lectures consist of denouncing the unfair “system” that holds down all Latinos. Therefore, I can understand why many of my fellow Latino peers would find him inspirational. However, he offers no solutions for the problems of which he complains, but rather encourages others to blame all of their failures on an unjust system. Although I agree with many of Bermeo's opinions, in the face of his biased perspective, I often found myself reacting against his opinions simply because he fails to present any other possible interpretation of laws or social policies. Although he tells you that you are welcome to disagree with his opinions on your essays and exams, this is impossible to do, given that you must provide direct cites from the articles in the reader, all of which present only his viewpoint.

Another student summarizes the situation more briefly, noting that Bermeo is “very liberal,” while a third claims that Bermeo is “extremely liberal.”  “Most of lecture,” the reviewer explains, “is him going off on Bush and the war in Iraq.  He barely mentions the readings in class or lectures on topics relevant to the subject.”  In that same vein, another student complains that he or she “did not like his strong views against the U.S. foreign policy.”  Perhaps most unusual of all is that even Bermeo’s teaching assistants come in for abuse, with one reviewer cautioning “beware of the ultra-liberal TA's that are ready to bombard you with leftist ideology and slaughter you if you don't digest it,” while another notes Bermeo’s “dreaded TA’s that have no care for differing (mainstream) views.”

The most instructive review of all comes, however, in a different student review that notes succinctly, “There is no doubt where he stands when it comes to his political views, it’s on the left and when I mean left I mean the FAR LEFT.”

In that spirit of upper-case emphasis, let us offer a FAREWELL to Bermeo, and let us add that UCLA’s decision to finally push him out the door came about TWENTY YEARS TOO LATE.