UC Davis student government president Adam Thongsavat was in a meeting on Friday when he received an urgent text message: riot police were on the campus mall, pepper spraying a group of sitting protesters. You have to get down here, the message read.
When he arrived on the quad, people were yelling and had their cameras out. Some were crying, others were coughing.Thongsavat went up to a couple campus police lieutenants — including Lt. John Pike, one officer implicated in the pepper spraying — and asked what was going on and who gave the order. “It wasn’t us,” one of the officers replied. Pike was silent.
“I took a deep breath, and said, ‘It’s going to be a really different campus,” Thongsavat told TPM by phone Tuesday evening.
And so far it has been. Chancellor Linda Katehi is under increasing pressure to resign. The UC Davis police chief is on administrative leave. The University of California President Mark Yudof said he was “appalled” by the images on Friday. A number of investigations into the incident have been launched, and the UC Davis student government has requested the state’s attorney general look into the matter.
The campus isn’t satisfied with Katehi’s response to Friday’s events, student senator Amy Martin told TPM. “All (Katehi) did was say ‘I’m sorry,’” Martin said, which she does appreciate. “That’s not going to be enough for anyone in the student body.”
But what sparked the students’ protests? Like many of the Occupy Wall Street protests, it starts with money. The biggest cause of unrest at UC Davis and other University of California campuses is skyrocketing tuition, Martin told TPM. It’s an issue that’s been lost in the frenzy following the pepper spraying. But tuition in the UC system has nearly doubled in recent years. And just last week, amid protests and several arrests, trustees of the California State University approved another 9 percent tuition hike.
“Students are paying more for, honestly, less of an education,” Martin said. Thongsavat agrees.
“This incident wasn’t isolated,” he told TPM. “Students weren’t bored and decided to sit in the quad. They are pissed. They are angry.”
“Budget cuts and tuition hikes have been the most devastating things to campus,” he added. Next year, the UC system will receive more from student tuition than state funding.
It’s not just students who are upset. The Board of the Davis Faculty Association has called for Katehi’s resignation. The UC Davis physics department on Tuesday voted unanimously to apologize to students, and a number of faculty members called for Katehi’s resignation. UC Davis’ English department issued a stern statement on its website, calling for the University of California Police Department to be disbanded.
UC Davis physics professor Daniel Cox questions why Katehi didn’t first meet with protesters before ordering police to decamp the quad. The chancellor should have known that a confrontation could occur, given protests at UC Berkeley and elsewhere, Cox told TPM.
“If she’s not aware that it could happen, given everything that could happen with the “Occupy” protests, if she’s not aware, she’s naiive in a way that a leader of the campus should not be,” Cox said. And if she was aware of the possibility of an aggressive confrontation, Cox said, it casts a bad light on her position and leadership since.
Cox also echoed the concern for rising tuition. “I think that’s a huge part of (the protests),” he said. “This concern is huge nationwide.
“To call us state universities is an interesting use of the term,” Cox said, adding that the amount of state funding for UC’s budget is 17 percent and dropping.
So what’s next for UC Davis? Katehi has a lot of work to do,” Thongsavat said. He and Amy Martin don’t feel she should resign, arguing the university is better of at the moment with a chancellor than without. But Martin said students need Katehi to be an advocate for them and regain their trust. “She’s in a very good position to listen right now,” Martin said.
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com