By Matthew Palm
This is the story of how I went from being a passionate “Fire Katehi” supporter to someone calling for the protest’s end. After a decade of being a student activist, I’ve seen how this ends — and it will not help us defend what is still “public” about this public university.
I used to be very enthusiastic about protests like the current one seeking the firing or resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi. In fact, the cardboard cut-out of her that the protesters have been using in the media? I made it with some help, and I fronted the money for it last year for a previous protest on the rights of Palestinian students. The first night of Fire Katehi I bought $40 worth of food for the protesters.
But I can no longer support the protest. This change in perspective began when a staffer in Mrak Hall called me one night about 1 a.m. This staffer has done so much for so many students, including me. This staffer spoke of being harassed and stalked by some of the protesters. A few of us upset by this penned a letter calling for the protest to end. But I was afraid to publicly own up to it — especially to my “radical” colleagues who, like me, generally have never met a protest they didn’t like.
After Monday’s legislative hearing, it’s time to speak openly because the damage this is doing to the University of California’s reputation harms our status as a publicly supported institution.
I’ve been affiliated with the UC as an undergrad, alumni or grad student for a decade. As someone who has been a part of two tree sit-ins, two campus shutdowns and three building occupations — including one where I helped “negotiate” the release of administrators trapped in Kerr Hall, Santa Cruz’s administration building — I’ll argue that this will be the long-term impact of Fire Katehi, if anything:
Within a few years there will be appropriations fights over UC’s share of the state budget. President Janet Napolitano, Katehi and the “tools of management” (what a few Fire Katehi folks call ASUCD/Graduate Student Association types) will be lobbying hard to retain our public funding.
The self-proclaimed revolutionaries at Fire Katehi will not be present. I know many of them enough to know they find mainstream politics “naive,” “counter-revolutionary,” “useless,” etc. And that’s OK. But I also know the talking points they argued at the state Capitol against Katehi on Monday will be used by reactionary politicians to justify further cuts to UC public funding.
The rhetoric of Fire Katehi will be used to encourage the very act of privatization itself that the protesters claim to oppose. All of this has happened before — at least three times since I first enrolled at UC Santa Cruz in 2006 — and all of this will happen again.
Unlike Fire Katehi, past protests also targeted actual politicians whose votes pushed the UC toward private funding, enabling then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff to admit that the protests shook Sacramento into withholding further cuts.
Fire Katehi most likely would counter with “But Katehi’s greed is the problem!,” as the protesters said directly to the Legislature. If all UCD executive administrators were fired and their compensation divided among our 32,000 students as tuition reduction annually, each student would save roughly 1.9 percent of their tuition, not including rent, food and health care. That’s it. I’ve made a Google doc explaining the math, at http://tinyurl.com/IfWeFiredEveryone.
But that doesn’t factor in the loss of fundraising dollars, and it also includes UCD Medical Center administrators who aren’t funded by main campus tuition anyway. So this is quite generous to Fire Katehi’s argument. In truth, it would be less than half that saved per student — and those savings would be more than wiped out by the loss of funds raised by these folks. Only 00.2 percent, a fifth of 1 percent, of UCD’s $4.3 billion budget would be saved.
There’s another reason why this needs to end beyond offering Fox News free talking points to bash UC. At some point, a staffer who is having a bad day is going to pass by the students. The students will start up with their usual pestering, and this person is going to snap and say something out of anger. The students, facing a taste of their own harassment-as-medicine, will cry “micro-aggression!,” “oppression!” or what have you. It will be filmed and played over and over again.
People will demand that the staffer be fired, without any concern for how hard this person actually may work to make this a great campus. Unfortunately, these outrage-inducing incidents are what these kinds of protests rely on for continued “momentum.”
This is why every encounter you see filmed on Facebook gets so nasty. This is why the posts are followed by a tiring string of comments declaring that whichever faculty/staff/administrator it was who they spoke to is no longer worthy of respect despite, in some cases, these people having accomplished careers devoted to justice, opening academia up to marginalized groups and groundbreaking scholarship.
So for those of us who do not think Firing Katehi is a necessary prerequisite to ending all the problems of the world, what are we to demand?
The chancellor needs to create, and Napolitano needs to respect, a committee of students, staff and faculty who have final say on what campus administrators can and cannot do as affiliates of external organizations. This is a good start. But I can already hear some familiar groans from the fifth-floor lobby in Mrak Hall.
“Change,” “accountability” and “justice” are a lot less sexy when you actually have to implement them. And when it comes to implementing the ideals of a public institution, Chancellor Katehi deserves credit. While it was wrong of her to take credit for the AB540 Center in legislative testimony, she does deserve some of the credit for the fact that 55 percent of the in-state students on campus pay no core tuition ($13,000 a year). And for this she has earned my respect.
She can continue to build goodwill with the community by consenting to staff, faculty and student oversight and regulation of administrators’ external activities.
Matthew Palm is a doctoral candidate in geography at UC Davis.