By Jerika L.H.
While many are still in celebration over Chancellor Katehi’s forced administrative leave due to claims of dishonesty, unethical behavior, nepotism, and mishandling of UC funds, a group of students have come forward to call for a free election of UC leaders, not a new acting chancellor. There is palpable fear and that Katehi’s replacement Ralph Hexter will be an extension of the same problematic leadership that has scorned UC Davis, making it forever synonymous with the “Pepper Spray University.” These concerns are not unfounded.
Hexter stepped down from his position as President of Hampshire College in 2010 after two years of fervent student protests. Among students’ claims were that Hexter and his administration took no steps towards their pleas for additional faculty and staff positions in multicultural affairs, as well as mandatory training on issues of race, class, and gender for all employees. Instead, he approved the construction of a new building on the Hampshire College campus amidst tuition increases, a decision that the vast majority of students were not in agreement with – calling it “another building we don’t need” and “a squandering of funds and priorities.” Hexter was firm that during economic crises, universities must make staff cuts and raise tuition. Yet, while Hexter approved tuition hikes at Hampshire college in 2006, he enjoyed a 30% salary increase of $76,527 from the Hampshire board of trustees, which boosted his salary to $328,139. This familiar narrative ties in all too well with the decades-long trend of administration wanting more and more from students, while the university offers less and less. Students and faculty are told to bear the brunt impact of “economic crisis” while administration is somehow exempt from pay cuts and sacrifice.
The Hampshire Board of Trustees praised Hexter for some of the very same issues that were unpopular with the students. “Ralph has had a tremendous influence on Hampshire. He concluded a capital campaign, completed funding for a major building project with an addition of a new wing to the Jerome Liebling Center for Film, Photography, and Video and promoted sustainability efforts on campus. The Liebling Center addition received LEED gold certification for ‘green’ buildings. Under his leadership Hampshire established a program that provides a new model for world language learning. Numerous prestigious grants have been awarded to Hampshire to support the College’s distinctive programs and initiatives. And, he has worked tirelessly on behalf of diversity both on campus and across higher education.”
This telling statement showcases the glaring gap between administrative standards of successful management and meaningful actions based on students’ needs. Students continue to feel their voices go unheard despite claims that the UC puts students first. In fact, students have voiced concern over Ralph Hexter’s own involvement with the very same unethical behavior that led to Katehi’s professional demise. Davina C. explains: “As Provost, it is nearly impossible to believe that he was none the wiser about Katehi’s missteps. And yet, throughout our calls for her resignation, the administration, which includes Hexter, voiced staunch support for Katehi’s leadership. That is either bad judgment or a disloyalty to transparency and common morals. The whole ideology needs to change. The University is for the students, funded by the students but not of the students. Without us, there’s no UC. And yet, it’s like we have no bargaining power.”
Others are taking issue with the UC’s use of Hexter’s personal orientation as some sort of selling point on his leadership. Yet, as history has shown, students found a false ally in Hexter during his time as President of Hampshire College. Undergraduate Mike Tran elaborates. “It’s funny to me how they keep including Hexter’s sexual orientation as an asterisk under his name every time he is mentioned. Like I am supposed to subconsciously be like ‘oh okay, he is gay so he must share my political standings and be a renegade for equality.’ It just goes to show how the UC not only plays up tokenism, but how they grossly underestimate the deeply nuanced nature of personal identity and representation. And on top of that, their use of ‘openly gay.’ As if to say ‘he’s gay and not ashamed… there’s some more brownie points, liberal kids.’ It’s not about getting a gay man or a black man in office, it’s about the fundamental principles of equity, of which democratically elected leaders are a cornerstone. It reminds me of what Bette Midler said about Caitlyn Jenner… she’s not problematic because she’s trans; she’s problematic because of her politics, actions, and beliefs. So stop mentioning the fact that Hexter is gay. It is so irrelevant. It’s a noncritical distraction. Let’s talk about his policies and administrative history, and the bigger need for free elections.”
But not everyone is unhappy with the transition. An on campus surveying of students showed the sentiments of his reception to be mixed bag. Agriculture student Ashley M. notes, “I’m glad Katehi is gone and I think we should give her replacement at least a chance. The pressure is high right now. Hexter could surprise us. People are almost expecting a neo-Katehi because of everything the campus has been through with her. But I just feel it wouldn’t be fair to him. If he starts down the same path, I think it’s time for a reorganization of how who we’re putting in power. But just like with Katehi, time will reveal all. Give him a chance.”
Regardless of where your opinion falls about Ralph Hexter, the installment of yet another chancellor deserves a moment of reflection. The issue of unsuitable leadership is not just a Davis problem, it is a UC problem. Given that student tuition is the biggest contributor to UC operations, students have a big stake in claiming the right to speak on how their education is being run, as well as how their money is being spent. As it currently stands, UC Chancellors do not have to answer to students apart from just good PR. While the UC has come to publically adopt all of the buzzwords that symbolize the generic American credo: diversity, freedom, tolerance, innovation; why is ‘democratic’ nowhere in the bunch?
The below statement was released by a collection of Comparative Literature graduate students to call for a democratic UC and an end to installed Chancellors.
We, the undersigned graduate students in Comparative Literature, write with growing concern over the sudden and unexpected appointment of Ralph Hexter as acting chancellor of UC Davis. Our opposition to this appointment stems from several principled objections.
Firstly, Hexter, in the capacity of provost, not only condoned the violations for which former chancellor Katehi is currently under investigation, but, as her second in command, actively supported and encouraged the implementation of policies privatizing the public university and streamlining public education at the expense of the growing undergraduate student body for the sake of short term profitability, actions which, as we well know, have been the catalyst for numerous recent protests against the deterioration of the public university not only at UC Davis but across the UC system.
Secondly, Hexter, like Katehi before him, has been instrumental in suppressing and criminalizing dissent on this campus in its multiple forms. For one, we object to his role as intermediary between the chancellor and the UCDPD during the infamous events of November 18th, 2011, in which peaceful demonstrators were, in contradiction to UC policy, beaten with batons and doused with weapons-grade pepper spray. Additionally, we recall Hexter’s involvement in the legal prosecution of the so-called Davis Dozen, whose actions in front of the former US Bank branch at the MU were meant to emphasize the very illegitimate relationship between private money and public stewardship for which Katehi’s recent involvement with DeVry has come under scrutiny. As provost, Hexter also served as an accomplice to Katehi in the failure to address numerous incidences of hate crimes, racial and gendered violence on this campus, as well as to redress the university’s troubling proscription and quelling of free speech regarding the repression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and his continued defense of the university’s financial ties to the Israeli state which have come, justifiably, under heavy criticism. Further, we find his vacillations in dealing with the recent Mrak Hall protests to be less than satisfactory. While claiming to respect the rights of the protestors, Hexter belied a condescending and insulting attitude toward them, with explicit dissatisfaction with, for example, “odors emanating from the protesters’ food and the garbage they leave behind.” This itself reeks of the classist language used to demonize and criminalize poverty and homelessness, products of the very structures of financial and social inequality plaguing the privatized model of the university and intensified under Katehi’s leadership.
Thirdly, and most importantly, in utter disregard for the recent Mrak Hall protestors’ demand for an open, inclusive, and democratic process for proposing, evaluating and hiring a new chancellor to replace Katehi, Hexter’s recent appointment was accomplished by fiat, as it were, unbeknown to the campus community and without our active democratic participation in the election process.
We recognize the risks taken by the voices raised at Mrak and elsewhere that faced intimidation and potential retribution. We find it necessary to stand with them unequivocally, to make clear that our ethics will not be held ransom by threats of academic reprisal.
For these reasons, we call for the immediate suspension of Hexter’s appointment as chancellor and demand a free election on the basis of equal undergraduate, graduate, and faculty (both senate and temporary lecturers) participation to determine which figure (or figures) most appropriately represent our public community against the encroachment of private interests whose damage to the university’s reputation and public commitment is already so severe.
Magnús Þór Snæbjörnsson