An Apology and More Protests

Use of pepper spray against nonviolent students at Davis continues to shake academe. Calls grow for chancellor to resign and for other presidents to speak out in favor of protecting protest.

November 22, 2011

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi on Monday apologized in person to thousands of students and others at the University of California at Davis who gathered to express their anger at the actions of police officers there who used pepper spray on Friday on a nonviolent student protest. There are no signs that her brief apology will end the controversy.



Here are Katehi's remarks in their entirety: "Good day. Thank you. I am here to apologize. I really feel horrible for what happened on Friday. If you think you don't want to be students in a university like we had on Friday, I'm just telling you, I don't want to be the chancellor of the university we had on Friday. Our university has to be better than it is, and it needs all of the community to come together to do that. We need to work together. And I know you may not believe anything that I'm telling you today, and you don't have to. It is my responsibility to earn your trust. I only have to say one thing. There is a plaque out there that speaks about 17th of November of 1973. And I was there. And I don't want to forget that. So I hope that I will have a better opportunity to work with you, to meet you, to get to know you. And there will be many opportunities in the next few weeks to do that. Thank you."

The plaque referenced by Katehi is in her native Greece, and marks events at the National Technical University of Athens, her undergraduate alma mater. On November 17, 1973, military forces crushed protests that had gone on for several days at the university, which Katehi attended at the time. Students at Davis were pepper-sprayed on November 18.

It is unclear whether Katehi's talk -- and her pledges to promote peaceful protest and to fully investigate Friday's events -- will change the campus discussion about her. Many who attended the rally carried signs calling for her resignation or dismissal -- and many of those in attendance shouted at her, after she finished her talk, to quit. Some students carried American flags or wore gas masks to demonstrate their anger over what happened last week (see photograph above, by Keila Golden).

More than 70,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Katehi's ouster.

Linda F. Bisson, a professor of viticulture and enology at Davis and chair of the Academic Senate there -- when asked whether Katehi could be effective -- said it was "still an open question as far as the faculty are concerned." The Academic Senate has created a special committee to investigate Friday's incident.

The English Department at Davis on Monday called for Katehi's resignation. A statement posted on the department's website also called for the abolition of the university's police department, and the banning of police forces from the Davis campus unless specifically requested by someone there. "This will initiate a genuinely collective effort to determine how best to ensure the health and safety of the campus community at UC Davis," the statement said.

State Sen. Leland Yee on Monday said that the panel appointed by Katehi to study Friday's events was "a sham" because it was not independent. “Only a truly independent investigation – absent the influence of her office or the police department – is in order.  Students and taxpayers deserve to know what she knew and when, and what direction she gave to campus police. Waiting 30 days, as Katehi suggests, is unacceptable. The evidence is clear and we need to hold individuals accountable," he said.

The chancellor has been criticized for telling the police to shut down the tent encampment protesters had built, for not making sure that any police actions would take place without force against nonviolent students, and for not immediately understanding the horror many felt as soon as they saw the video of seated students being pepper-sprayed. In the days since the incident, Katehi has gradually upped her criticism of the event. On Monday morning, she placed the campus police chief on leave, saying that "it has become clear to me that this is a necessary step toward restoring trust on our campus."

While many on the campus are saying trust has not been restored, Katehi's boss is backing her. A spokesman for Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California, said that he has expressed his "confidence in and full support" for Katehi. (Yudof had on Sunday issued a statement that he was "appalled by images of University of California students being doused with pepper spray and jabbed with police batons on our campuses.")

While most of the public commentary about the Davis incident has been critical of the police and administration there, Fox News commentators Bill O'Reilly and Megyn Kelly offered a more sympathetic take Monday night, stressing the legality of pepper spray, and arguing that its use made it easier for police to then remove protesting students.

More Calls for Presidents to Act

The last few days have also seen more calls by academics for college and university leaders to speak out in favor of assuring protest on their campuses, even if that means tolerating tent cities that some administrators would prefer be packed up.

Over the weekend, Cathy Davidson, the Duke University humanities scholar, wrote on her blog  that "[a]ll of us – and university presidents more than anyone else – know the state of higher ed today demands critical attention. Yet, instead of working with the protesting students, too many university leaders are calling in police to 'maintain order' or to preserve 'safety' or 'security' or 'sanitation.' "

Matthew Smith, a philosopher at Yale University, is now gathering signatures on an open letter from professors to college and university leaders. The letter says that the events at Davis have had an impact everywhere. "The message sent by university officials is clear: if you engage in non-violent political protest on the university campus, you run the risk of being assaulted by university police," says the letter.

The letter calls on university leaders "to declare publicly that their campuses are Safe Protest Zones, where nonviolent, public political dissent and protest will be protected by university police and will never be attacked by the university police."

Since he started circulating the letter Sunday, Smith said that more than 850 professors have signed on. To date, he said, no college or university presidents have done so.

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