Student Comments at U. of California Regents' Meeting Highlight Divisions

Max Whittaker for The Chronicle

Students protested at the U. of California at Davis's Dutton Hall on Monday. Organizers had called a general strike, but turnout was thin.
November 29, 2011

They couldn't have been farther apart—in socioeconomic status, and, quite likely, in point of view. And the divide was something that students and faculty members pointed out again and again when they addressed the University of California's Board of Regents during a raucous meeting on Monday. The regents met at four system campuses, linked to each other by teleconference, and then heard public comment.

"Honestly, I am not interested in a false dialogue with a body, the UC regents, that is not democratically accountable to the students or any members of the community," said Robin Marie Averbeck, a graduate student at the University of California at Davis. Meetings like this, she said, were meant to "make us feel like we're being heard, when the fact that we are here on teleconference shows how absurd it is."

The meeting ended early, as chanting protesters drowned out the regents' meeting, following the public-comment session.

At issue were the converging crises hitting the University of California system in recent weeks. Early in November, baton-wielding police who broke up an Occupy Berkeley protest on campus made headlines—including an essay by a former poet laureate of the United States in The New York Times, in which the poet described being hit in the ribs. Then, at an Occupy protest at the Davis campus, pepper-spraying of students by the police became the subject of outrage and satire around the world.

That incident continued to draw strong reaction on the Davis campus on Monday, as hundreds of students renewed calls for the resignation of the campus' chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi. Meanwhile, at a special meeting of the Academic Senate on the Berkeley campus, the chancellor there, Robert J. Birgeneau, acknowledged mistakes in the police beatings and promised to improve officer training.

An impetus for the Occupy protests in the first place—the state's budget problems and gradual retreat from supporting higher education­—was a subject of debate at both the regents' meeting and the Davis protests on Monday. Part of the regents' meeting was devoted to sending an expenditure budget to Sacramento, where Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. was putting together a budget proposal. The University of California administration is asking the state to raise the system's financing from $2.3-billion to $2.7-billion, which is $500-million less than the state support of a few years ago.

All of that gave students, staff members, and faculty members—calling in from Davis, Merced, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—plenty to rail about. During an unusually long public-comment period, extended to an hour and a half by the board's chair, Sherry L. Lansing, people complained of police brutality, the ineffectiveness of the board, and the vested interests of its wealthiest members. They pressured board members and administrators to support the so-called "ReFund California Pledge," which calls for raising taxes on the wealthiest Californians, closing tax loopholes, and lowering tuition.

Before the public comment opened, Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, reminded everyone that university committees would conduct thorough investigations of police action during the protests. "UC students and the UC administration are on the same page with regard to peaceful demonstrations and First Amendment rights," he said, adding that protest and free speech was "part of the DNA" of the UC system. "I intend to do everything in my power as president of this university to protect the rights of students, faculty, and staff to engage in nonviolent protests."

Objections to Treatment

Some were unimpressed. A graduate student and teaching assistant at the Berkeley campus addressed Mr. Yudof directly, saying he had trained his students in sniffing out false statements and would do the same at this meeting. He contended that there had been a pattern of police putting down protests at system campuses in recent years, and he didn't believe the president's statements.

"You beat me on November 9 at UC-Berkeley," the graduate student said. "You beat me as I lay on the ground in the fetal position. Do not tell me that you are committed to protecting free expression and that you are shocked by what happened."

Cheryl Deutsch, a graduate student at UCLA and president of the statewide union that represents student workers, challenged the regents directly. "Will you continue to speak empty words while serving the interests of your class, or will you act as the education leaders that the title of regent would have us believe that you are?" she said to raucous applause. "Let's be clear: You, as bankers and financiers, real-estate developers and members of the corporate elite, are not representative of the people of California. You are not representative of the students of UC. You are the 1 percent." (The board includes Richard C. Blum, an investment banker and husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein; Russell Gould and Paul D. Wachter, who work in financial services; Hadi Makarechian and George M. Marcus, who work in real-estate investments; and Monica Lozano, a newspaper publisher who sits on Bank of America's Board of Directors.)

Robert Anderson, a professor of economics and mathematics at Berkeley and a faculty representative of the Board of Regents, said that faculty members had been "outraged" by the police forces, that the campuses should exercise restraint in response to the protests, and that the chancellors should accept responsibility for what had happened. Faculty members, who had initially called for a no-confidence vote on Mr. Birgeneau, the chancellor at Berkeley, decided instead to vote on a resolution opposing violent responses to nonviolent protests.

At a Berkeley faculty meeting on Monday, Mr. Birgeneau said that although he was out of the country during the protest, he had explicitly told the police chief, Mitchell Celaya, not to use pepper spray, but acknowledged that they had not discussed the use of batons, according to local news reports. He also regretted a message he sent out after the protest, in which he had warned students not to put up tents. That message, he said, hadn't been vetted by others at the university.

A Plea for Perspective

Shortly before the regents' meeting on Monday morning, campus police at Berkeley released an open letter, pleading for understanding. "Please know we are not your enemy. A video clip gone viral does not depict the full story or the facts leading up to an actual incident," the letter said, adding that some protesters were "hitting, pushing, grabbing officers' batons, fighting back with backpacks and skateboards."

Over the course of the hour and a half of public comment, dozens of University of California students offered their perspectives on the problems facing the university and the state. Most commenters were limited to one minute, and many surpassed their allotted time, ignoring requests by the board secretary to stop.

Near the conclusion of the public comments, Ms. Lansing, the board chair, remained diplomatic. She said that she would visit each of the campuses in coming weeks to hear from more students. She also asked students to join her and other regents in marching to the statehouse in January to demand more support for the university system. "You have a very powerful voice," she said. "You're very good at this—I would say, in all honesty, that you are better at this than we are."

Not long after her remarks concluded, protesters began chanting, and the audio feed was cut off.

On the ground at the Davis campus, students had planned to hold a general strike to coincide with the regents meeting and to hold classes on the quad. Turnout for the strike was thin, but many students did attend the teach-ins on the quad.

"I think people went to class rather than skipped class," said Jonathan Eisen, a professor of evolution and ecology at Davis. Although hundreds of tents sprang up on campus over the Thanksgiving break, not many people showed up Monday morning. "I think a lot of students were confused, and it didn't make sense to skip class. A rally would make sense," Mr. Eisen said.

Laura A. Meek, a cultural anthropology Ph.D. student at Davis, led one of many teach-ins outside the recreation center. "I wanted to talk about anarchist politics, and what about it might be useful for the student movement going on—in particular, the idea of consensus decision-making," Ms. Meek said. "Because there's no centralized leadership here on the campus, and people are struggling to figure out ways to make decisions as a group."

According to eyewitnesses, more than 300 students showed up on the campus quad, then marched across campus to Dutton Hall, where they called for a rejection of education cuts and tuition hikes, an embrace of free education, and the resignation of Ms. Katehi, the campus's chancellor.

The plan for the occupation is to sit in the building until there's a confrontation, said Farshid Haque, a graduate student at Davis studying community development.