UC-Davis Chancellor Apologizes as Outrage Builds Over Pepper-Spray Use on Peaceful Protesters

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of the U. of California at Davis, promised to earn back the trust of students at a rally on the campus on Monday.
November 22, 2011

The outrage over a police pepper-spraying of peacefully protesting students at the University of California at Davis—a chilling scene captured in videos that have been viewed around the world since Friday—has put the institution at the center of a growing storm that includes demands for Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi's resignation, condemnations from political leaders, and at least four investigations, including one by the Yolo County District Attorney.

It has also spawned a nationwide faculty petition drive calling on all university presidents and chancellors to pledge to protect nonviolent campus protesters from police attacks, as "Occupy" college protests continue to sprout up.

On Monday, at a huge two-and-a-half-hour rally at the center of the Davis campus that drew thousands of students, faculty members, and onlookers, Ms. Katehi spoke briefly and apologized without specifically discussing the actions of the university police.

Taking the stage as scattered shouts of "shame" echoed through the crowd, Ms. Katehi said, "I really feel horrible for what happened on Friday," and promised students that she would earn back their trust.

Two officers who confronted the students were placed on paid leave on Sunday, including Lt. John Pike who, in amateur video after video on the Internet, can be seen walking along a row of about 20 seated students and spraying them with an orange mist as if treating an area for insects. On Monday, Ms. Katehi also placed the campus police chief on administrative leave.

Several Davis faculty members have questioned Ms. Katehi's decision to order in armed police officers in the first place, saying the day-old Occupy UC Davis encampment was not a real threat to campus safety. "Really? Twenty tents on the quad 'raised serious health and safety concerns?'" a Davis faculty member, Bob Ostertag, wrote in a column published Monday on The Huffington Post. "Has the chancellor been to a frat party lately?"

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Ostertag, a composer and professor of technocultural studies and music, said he knows many of the students who were sprayed by the police and admired them for their willingness to take peaceful action against the state's continuing cuts to higher education. "The students are just extraordinary," said Mr. Ostertag. "The administration is certainly not providing any leadership."

On a KQED radio show Monday, Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of law and police science at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, suggested that university leaders run a risk if they rely too heavily on the police when dealing with peaceful protests. "We need less use of the police," he said, and "more use of people not wearing uniforms."

Describing the police involvement a "gross failure of leadership," the Davis Faculty Association, a dues-supported organization, called on Ms. Katehi to resign. That sentiment was echoed in a sharply worded open letter from one of its board members, an assistant professor of English, Nathan Brown, who called the chancellor "unfit," and in an online petition on started by one of the students who was sprayed, David Buscho, which had drawn more than 71,000 signatures by Monday evening.

Ms. Katehi, who appeared Monday on the ABC News show Good Morning America as well as that KQED radio show, has said she doesn't intend to resign, and the president of the University of California system, Mark G. Yudof, said in a statement that she and the other University of California chancellors "have my full trust and confidence."

Ms. Katehi declined to comment to The Chronicle. Kevin Johnson, dean of the law school, who spoke on her behalf, said that when Ms. Katehi initially expressed support of the police action on Friday, she didn't have complete information about the incident.

"She was shocked" when she saw the video, Mr. Johnson said. He said he was, too. "It's a stain on our national and international reputation."

Ms. Katehi's statements at a news conference Saturday evening, after seeing the video, were more cautious. But that event generated its own spate of eerily chilling Internet videos featuring Ms. Katehi walking as if in a funeral procession from the building past a pathway of silent students.

The exit was arranged by a chaplain called in to mediate the situation after members of Ms. Katehi's staff and her husband, a professor at Davis, became concerned about her safety because of the presence of protesters in and around the building. The Rev. Kristin Stoneking said in a posting on her blog that the student protesters wanted "to see and be seen by the chancellor," and their silent protest was a way to do that.

"The situation was not hostile" and the only threat to the chancellor was "a perceived one," Ms. Stoneking wrote.

Recalling Athens, 1973

At the rally on the university's quad on Monday, Ms. Katehi waited among other speakers for a brief turn at the microphone.

In her 90-second remarks, Ms. Katehi sought to establish solidarity with the crowd with an allusion to a nearby sign referring to the events of November 17, 1973, when the Greek military junta cracked down on an antigovernment protest at the National Technical University of Athens by crashing a tank through its gates. "I was there and I don't want to forget that," said the Greek-born Ms. Katehi, who has been chancellor at Davis since 2009.

Her opening remarks from the rally, "I'm here to apologize," were prominently featured on the university's home page.

Also on Monday, Mr. Yudof convened the chancellors of all 10 campuses and, according to a statement from his office, "asserted that they must do everything possible to protect the rights of students, faculty, and staff to peaceful protest." He said that he had been appalled by the images of students being doused with pepper spray at Davis and jabbed with batons at Berkeley in an earlier demonstration at that campus. He and the chair of the system's Board of Regents, Sherry L. Lansing, said they were organizing a systemwide review of police procedures, protocols, and training, and would develop policies to ensure the safety of everyone during protests on University of California campuses.

"We fully and unequivocally support your right to protest peacefully," Ms. Lansing, a former movie-industry executive, said in a video posted on the system's Web site.

Nationwide Call for 'Safe Protest Zones'

Out of alarm that such rights are at risk at many campuses, Matthew Noah Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at Yale University, began his own effort to enlist fellow faculty members across the country to call upon their university leaders "to declare publicly that their campuses are Safe Protest Zones." Invoking the memory of civil-rights and political protest beginning with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed at Shaw University in 1960 and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, Mr. Smith's open letter warns that this "admirable tradition" is threatened by police actions like those at Davis and Berkeley.

"A university is a community. It's not just a series of offices and classrooms and labs," said Mr. Smith in an interview Monday night, after he had tallied and confirmed faculty affiliations for the 850 people who responded to his Facebook appeal in less than 36 hours.

Faculty "really hold dear the special place colleges and universities have in American political discourse," he said.

At Davis, meanwhile, protests appear to be continuing. Even as the rally was breaking up Monday, several dozen students were seen erecting tents and a 30-foot geodesic dome.