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Unnatural Enemies

November 25, 2009

Amid a season of protests across the University of California, the system’s president and the leader of its premiere campus have increasingly found themselves portrayed as the villains. While they are both working to change that, a few recent public relations missteps may complicate their efforts.

Allegations of police brutality during a protest at Berkeley last week and faculty concerns about athletics spending are the latest PR headaches for Robert J. Birgeneau, the campus's chancellor. As for the system’s president, Mark Yudof has been busy defending a 32 percent tuition hike, while suffering additional criticism for joking about his compensation in a New York Times interview.

Despite these challenges, Birgeneau and system officials believe they can galvanize support from a student protest movement that often maligns them, and instead channel the students' energy into a productive lobbying campaign for more state resources.

“When negative things happen, they don’t help,” Birgeneau said Tuesday, a day after announcing an investigation into the protest response. “It’s not all about me, and it’s not all about Yudof. It’s about the university, and people have to decide whether they support the university in a very difficult time.”

Yudof could not be reached for comment, but a system official shared Birgeneau’s hope that students who have targeted university leaders can be transformed into allies of the UC system. Nathan Brostrom, the system’s interim vice president for business operations, met with student protesters Monday for what he called an “often tense but constructive” dialogue.

“I think that if we can harness a lot of what is true anger and passion and get it directed toward our ongoing struggle with Sacramento, I think it’s going to be extremely valuable for us in this budget process,” said Brostrom, who also serves as Berkeley’s vice chancellor for administration. “I think that was missing in previous years. [Lawmakers] need to hear from the students.”

In the war for students’ hearts and minds, the fundamental struggle for UC officials is to convince students that the Legislature and governor -- not regents, Yudof and the chancellors -- are the problem. As one of the state's few discretionary budget items, higher education has been a target for legislative cuts in recent years, and some have even questioned whether political motives have contributed to an unsustainable expansion of campuses in the university system. Thus far, however, shifting blame to Sacramento has been a hard sell. While students say they’re angered about legislative cuts, there is a sense that the regents saddled them with excessive fees rather than seeking other solutions.

“The UC regents say their finger is pointed at Sacramento, but our finger is pointed directly at the UC regents and President Yudof,” said Aaminah Norris, a graduate student in Berkeley’s School of Education who has taken part in protests.

Donald Kingsbury, a graduate student on the Santa Cruz campus who helped organize protests there, said students simply don’t share Yudof’s goals -- so it wouldn’t be reasonable to work with him. Echoing concerns some faculty have expressed, Kingsbury said he worries Yudof and the regents are moving toward a more private model of education that relies on higher tuition, corporate partnerships and grant-funded-research that “enriches the sciences to the detriment of the humanities.”

“This is not all about an individual; the problems in the UC System and in the state of California predate Mark Yudof,” Kingsbury wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “He is simply an appropriate figurehead for a 30-year-old legacy of misplaced priorities and bad decisions. The Board of Regents itself is populated by investment bankers, businesspeople, and other types who view truly public education as a dinosaur, including [Board Chair] Russell Gould, a former board member of Wachovia Bank.”

While it may be an uphill climb with some students, Birgeneau says that most of his exchanges with students during forums on budget issues have been respectful. The television cameras, however, frequently focus on students he describes as a small and vocal minority.

“There is a radical core of students who are not interested in listening, and I don’t think you’ll ever reach them,” he said.

Given that, Birgeneau has opted to attend forums rather than protests. When faculty members and students participated in a systemwide walkout in September, Birgeneau did not engage with them.

“Going out in the middle of that would not have been useful in my opinion,” he said.

That is exactly, however, what the chancellor at the Riverside campus did do. Tim White addressed protesters with a megaphone, and students said at the time that he won some good will with the move.

"I'm proud of us," White said. "I understand the anger and frustration. I share the frustration."

Birgeneau and Yudof have both missed a window to align themselves with the movement, instead of becoming targets of it, according to Robert Dudley, a professor of integrative biology at Berkeley.

“I think they missed that opportunity months ago [during a systemwide walkout]," he said. “There is zero chance [now] that Yudof and Birgeneau would have any credibility to legitimately represent faculty or student interests. With Birgeneau, the silence has been deafening.”

Had Birgeneau engaged with protesters during the September walkout, he might be in a different political position now, Dudley said.

“That was his moment,” Dudley said. “He could have addressed the crowd from the balcony of the main building. He didn’t. Instead, it was individual faculty [addressing students], particularly in the humanities, because their budgets are being cut.”

If Dudley sounds upset, it’s in part because he has the dubious distinction of being the lone faculty member arrested during Friday’s protest. The arrest has drawn the ire of a number of Dudley’s colleagues, including something of a celebrity scientist who happened to witness it. Tim White (no relation to Riverside’s chancellor), who made worldwide news helping to uncover the oldest fossil skeleton of a human ancestor, says he was outraged to watch police wrestle Dudley to the ground.

“I saw a colleague of mine tackled from behind and thrown face down on the grass, put in handcuffs and walked away for simply coming close to police yellow tape, [and] students who had their hands raised being beaten with batons while they were chanting peaceful protest,” White said.

The chancellor’s call for a panel of students, faculty and staff to investigate the incident is a “step in the right direction,” but it’s too early to tell if it will effectively address what went wrong and prevent it from happening again, White said.

It's of note that White, who is presumably the kind of faculty member Berkeley would fight to keep as budgets decline, says he doesn't have a history of criticizing the administration -- but thinks the response here was so poor that it's warranted.

“Am I known as a campus radical? No," he said. "I’m an anthropologist and biologist who doesn't like seeing his colleague being blindsided by police officers and thrown to the ground, and I’m going to speak out against it.”

A Test for a Popular Chancellor

While the Berkeley protest began as the occupation of a building by a group of 40 people -- most of them students -- it has spawned a much larger debate that will be a real test for a chancellor who has enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in his first five years. Much of the criticism for the budget cuts has thus far been aimed at the Legislature and Yudof, but Friday’s events reinforced growing concerns that Birgeneau is not in touch with the concerns of his campus, according to Alice Agogino, a former chair of the Faculty Senate.

“I don’t think the general faculty was blaming Birgeneau so much, and this Friday kind of turned the tide on that,” she said. “The police violence and the message he was sending out about what a good job the police did, the fact that it was so hard to get in touch with him when faculty were trying to help, that was a turning point. It really depends on what he does in the near future. What he does next week is going to be critical. I think up until Friday people were upset and it wasn’t clear who to blame.”

Many faculty and students still give Birgeneau a lot of credit for past deeds, so it’s probably most accurate to say he’s “on probation” with both groups now, Agogino said. Faculty still remember, for instance, when Birgeneau supported their opposition to the Patriot Act a few years ago, incurring some political risk, she said.

Concerns about the protest incident come at an inopportune time, however, and not just because Birgeneau needs faculty and students to back him in such a difficult budget climate. The protest occurred just weeks after the Academic Senate passed a nonbinding resolution, calling for the university to discontinue its practice of subsidizing athletics with millions of dollars a year while staff are being laid off and programs are being cut.

The Senate voted 91-68 in favor of the resolution, and its passage drew national attention. Jack Citrin, a professor of political science at Berkeley, said it probably would have been in the chancellor’s long-term political interest to have tried to secure a different outcome for the vote. While he risked appearing too hands-on in a faculty matter, Birgeneau might have been spared the public blow of a vote that questioned the administration’s priorities, Citrin said.

“I don’t know how this [protest] is affecting our chancellor’s image or reputation among people who count, [but] the thing on athletics may not play well,” he said. “There, I think, was a mistake -- a lack of sort of political savvy on part of the people [in the chancellor’s office]. That resolution could very easily have been defeated; I don’t think it represents the views of the majority of faculty at all. So, yeah I think the politics of leadership is something that they need to attend to.”

For his part, Birgeneau says he’s focused on the big picture problem of preserving Berkeley’s strengths at a time of economic turmoil. A plan is in place to bring the budget into equilibrium in two to three years, and the chancellor says he’ll continue to push for additional revenues from the state. Birgeneau has previously proposed a gas tax for higher education, and says he’ll continue pushing for a new model to help the system.

“We’re going to work to try to get all of this energy directed in a more constructive direction,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. We’re going to do our job no matter what we get from protests, from what I believe is a relatively small percentage of our community.”

Janet Broughton, dean of the College of Letters & Science, said in an e-mail Tuesday that she agrees the students could become part of the larger effort to influence lawmakers.

“Our students are right to be angry about the new fee increases, and most of them understand that to preserve excellence and access at UC, we must change hearts and minds in Sacramento,” she wrote. “I think great things could happen if our students mobilized around that mission.”

 

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