Public Hearing Threatens Disciplinary Probation Against Students Who Participated in January Mrak Hall Sit-In, Despite Precedent of Unprosecuted Overnight Protests in Same Location
By Jenean Docter
The UC Davis administration held a public hearing on Friday afternoon to consider the charges it levied against six student protesters from the student organization Students for a Democratic Society. The hearing took place in the De Carli Room of the Memorial Union, and placed the six students across from three campus administrators and three student Campus Judicial Board Members.
On Tuesday, January 23, 2018, approximately 20 students gathered outside of the Memorial Union to protest after they had only been given four days’ notice of an upcoming vote of the UC Regents to increase tuition. Many of the students walked to Mrak Hall, and began a sit-in on the first floor lobby. The sit-in continued through Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Six of the students face charges of obstructing campus administration, failing to or refusing to identify themselves to a UC official and/or comply with the instructions of that UC official, and unauthorized entry to, use of, or receipt of university property and resources.
If found guilty, the students face disciplinary probation. Yet, they claim that the administration is selectively enforcing minor policies that it has not enforced in the past in order to punish students for drawing public attention to lack of transparency from the UC Regents regarding tuition hikes.
The sit-in was part of a larger three-day protest in Mrak Hall, which many other students participated in—many of whom faced no disciplinary action. Dr. Sheri Atkinson, the Associate Vice Chancellor of the University, claimed that such students did not face disciplinary action because some did not stay overnight in the building, and because she was not able to identify all of the students.
Two witnesses participated in the sit-in during the day, and returned home afterwards. According to the university, both did not face disciplinary action because they did not stay in the building after it was closed. However, both students previously sat in the (much smaller and more private) fifth floor of Mrak Hall as part of the 2016 Fire Katehi movement. Along with approximately 50 other students who lived in the building for nearly five weeks, neither faced any disciplinary action.
Comparatively, the much smaller sit-in that took place in the Mrak Hall Lobby this January appears rather tame. The January protesters claim that the charge of obstructing administration is baseless, drawing from witnesses’ testimony that the protesters left plenty of room for workers and administrators to navigate through the large Mrak Hall Lobby, and did not breach fire safety regulations.
Over the years, the Mrak Hall Lobby has arguably functioned as a public forum for student and worker discussion. According to a PhD candidate called to testify as a witness, Fossil-Free UCD participated in an overnight sit-in in the Mrak Hall Lobby last year, and faced no disciplinary charges. He described this as a “time-honored” tradition in which students utilize their freedom of speech rights to “hold the university accountable.” Additionally, students who occupied Dutton Hall for two weeks in the fall of 2011 following the pepper-spray incident faced no disciplinary action. Activists also took up residence in Olson Hall in 2014, and were not punished by campus administration.
One of the January protesters, W.E., asserted that the charges against them and their fellow student activists “is not out of duty to the law, but because it is easy to make an example out of six students, even if all student organizations urge them to drop the charges.”
The ASUCD and the GSA have filed resolutions calling upon UC Davis to drop the charges filed against the January protesters in support of free speech. One ASUCD Senator, Jake Sedgley, stood at the doors of the De Carli room and handed out copies of a new ASUCD Resolution introduced the day prior. The Resolution urges the Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs to support the student protesters, and emphasizes the need for a revision of campus policies condemning any non-violent protests.
The UC Davis administration, represented by Dr. Atkinson, claimed that time-place-manner restrictions allow UC Davis to inhibit its students’ freedom of speech in particular circumstances. Dr. Atkinson claimed that because Mrak Hall is not a residential building, the overnight sit-in forced the University to hire extra security staff. She also repeatedly emphasized that the building hours were posted on the door, and noted that she physically handed out warning notices to the students and provided them with time to review them before making the decision to leave or remain in the building.
Yet, the university charged multiple students with the failure to identify themselves on the second night of the sit-in, January 24, even though they had identified themselves previously. One graduating senior has known Dr. Atkinson for several years, and was nonetheless charged with failing to identify themself to a UC official. When Dr. Atkinson asked them for their identification, they claim they responded “you know me, Sheri.”
Additionally, another student faced charges for staying overnight in the building even though they had left after being warned about potential disciplinary action. According to the student, they remained with the other protesters in solidarity while they were making their decision to sleep in the building, and then left immediately after.
B.P., one of the January protesters, regarded the charges as being for “trespassing on our own campus and using the bathroom facilities.” They asserted that “education is a basic human right,” and emphasized that staying overnight in a building and “taking up space” is essential to the effectiveness of a sit-in protest.
Another student protester, A.J.B., attempted to “contextualize” the charges brought against the group. They argued that “tuition increases are antithetical to the quality and accessibility of higher education.” Like their peers, A.J.B. regarded the Mrak Hall Lobby sit-in as “a call for institutional accountability”; the students aimed to highlight the manner in which UC administrators are accountable to higher-level administrators within UC bureaucracy, rather than the groups of people their decisions actually affect—namely, students and workers.
A.J.B. argued that the financial restructuring undertaken by the UC system in 2003 deepened the involvement of privately-interested bankers and shareholders within the decisions of the Regents, citing a paper[i] published in 2013 by six UC Berkeley researchers. According to this research, the UC system began partnering with Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo in the early 2000s to borrow increasingly large sums of money (Eaton et al. 2).
The UC then invested these funds back into high-profit medical, athletic, and dormitory facilities while cutting allotments to core university functions at the excuse of reductions in state allocations (Eaton et al. 2). The UC administration has since promoted financially interested bankers and Wall Street experts to high executive positions and to serve as members of the Board of Regents[ii] (Eaton et al. 2).
Bankers In the Ivory Tower (2013) states that in 2003, the UC system adopted a new system of debt-financing that would allow it to take on larger quantities of debt without state approval, began trading financial derivatives, and approved the use of interest-rate swaps[iii] that would allow interest rates on bonds to be changed into a fixed payment to another party (often an investment bank) (Eaton et al. 11-16).
As the financial decisions of the UC system increasingly blur the boundaries distinguishing the behavior of non-profit and for-profit universities, skyrocketing tuition forces students to bear the burden of balancing risky borrowing decisions. With just one student advisor to the Regents, and the time given for students to speak at Regents meetings limited to just one minute, the allegations levied by the Mrak Hall protesters that the UC Regents partake in unfair and non-transparent financial practices[iv] come as no surprise.
“When people like [Monica] Lozano vote to raise tuition while sitting on the Board[v] of the Bank of America, causing students to take out more loans, the issue is structural,” another witness observed.
The Mrak Hall Protesters allege that, by pressing charges against them, the UC Davis administration is selectively enforcing minor policies that it has ignored in the past in order to silence their dissent regarding its financial practices. This is an interesting accusation, especially when combined with the fact that UC Davis has willingly hired extra security in the name of embracing the freedom of speech when speakers famous for messages offensive to many students, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, were brought to campus.
Considering such a precedent, it certainly appears that the UC Davis administration chooses to permit free speech when it does not threaten the status-quo—or rather, the financial interests of its highly-paid administrators. A.J.B. felt that the administration was “weaponizing” Student Judicial Affairs, and asked of the latter: “Who is it that you protect, and who do you serve?”
When combined with other issues such as declining student mental health and the critical housing shortage experienced by students in cities such as Berkeley and Davis, these steepening tuition increases stand to exclude students from less privileged socioeconomic and associated ethnic backgrounds from education at its campuses.
D.H. described the tuition increases as devices that “benefit those with privilege while destroying the gateway to privilege for those that are marginalized,” especially for out-of-state students like himself, who are already paying exorbitant tuition costs. D.H. has been at UC Davis for less than two years, but already owes more than $130,000 in debt. His $44,000 annual tuition does not include the costs he pays for housing, student health insurance, or the medication that he needs to live.
D.H. had to have six inches of his intestines removed at age 16 due to Crohn’s disease. The stress placed on him upon finding out about the planned tuition increase this past January—now furthered by stress from this arguably unprecedented investigation—has caused him to experience a flare-up of his disease that has endured for several months.
Other student protesters at the hearing mentioned that the stress caused by the proceedings prevented them from academic growth at the university, and worsened their mental health. Multiple protesters suffer from A.D.H.D., P.T.S.D., depression, and severe anxiety. To the detriment of their financial situation, A.J.B.’s previously offered on-campus job offer was revoked due to the pending disciplinary investigation.
If the students are found guilty of the charges held against them, they will be subject to suspension if they violate campus policy again. Since many protest activities may be construed as violations of campus policy, such a determination essentially prevents them from demonstrating against the university for the remainder of their time at UC Davis.
Dr. Atkinson defended the administration’s decision to prosecute the January protesters, maintaining that policy that has not been enforced in the past may be enforced in the present at the jurisdiction of the Chancellor.
Yet, witnesses noted that Chancellor Gary May’s behavior regarding the protests appeared misleading to students. At one point during the afternoon, he spoke with the protesters in the lobby, and shared his own experience with student activism as an undergraduate student. E.B., a PhD candidate, described his behavior as “very supportive and congenial.”
Previous Chancellors Katehi and Hexter reportedly reacted furiously to protests, and did not choose to pursue disciplinary action against involved students. The evident conflict between May’s initial presentation and disciplinary jurisdiction appear odd in such a light.
The UC Davis administration continues to send mixed messages to its student activists. Notably, the January Mrak Hall sit-in resulted in the Administration agreeing to several requirements included in a published list of needs. The UC Regents did meet the requirement of providing busing to Regent’s meetings, but they did not advertise the service. Subsequently, a single student attended the last meeting—a negligible victory for institutional transparency. Moreover, UC Davis administrators now hold monthly meetings with concerned students—yet, the January protesters that sparked this change when no other avenues of communication proved effective are facing punishment rather than celebration.
Even more cognitive dissonance exists between the UC’s superficial celebration of free-speech and its history of suppressing student activism. The use of pepper-spray on peaceful protesters on the UC Davis campus in 2011 still lies fresh in local memory. UC Berkeley, the self-proclaimed home of the free speech movement, is no stranger to police violence either. As T.J., a January protester, noted, police broke up an Occupy protest at UC Berkeley in 2011 by hitting protesters in the stomachs with batons[vi].
As society grows increasingly cognizant of police brutality, the UC administration has changed its tactic for suppressing undesirable speech; the administration and its agents have moved from the deployment of observable physical violence to quiet disciplinary actions intended to quiet dissenters.
B.P. recalled walking around the UC Davis campus as a child, dreaming of eventually attending classes there. They mused that at the time, they perceived the institution as a nexus “where scholars come together to exchange ideas and make the world a better place.” At the present moment, however, they recognize that such an ideal “is only partly-true” within the context of an administration that actively prioritizes insulating the decisions of its top administrators from the scrutiny of its students and workers.
Within the next week, the January protesters will receive an email informing them whether or not they will face disciplinary probation. The panel present on Friday will submit a determination to Donald Dudley. If found guilty, Dudley will decide the specific details of punishment. Although the charges will be cleared once they graduate, provided that they do not violate campus policy again, it is the decision on the part of the campus administration to pursue charges against these students that is of concern.
History has demonstrated that the freedom of individuals to demonstrate against decisions that negatively affect them, without fear of retaliation, critically supports the exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives that are pivotal to the maintenance of democracy and human rights. The decision made by the administration next week will reveal whether UC Davis embraces free speech, or fears it.
[i] Charlie Eaton, Adam Goldstein, Jacob Habinek, Mukul Kumar, Tamera Lee Stover, Alex Roehrkasse. (2013). “Bankers in the Ivory Tower: The Financialization of Governance at the University of California.” IRLE Working Paper No. 151-13. http://irle.berkeley.edu/workingpapers/151-13.pdf
[ii] See http://regents.universityofcalifornia.edu/about/members-and-advisors/index.html for general information about the Regents. It is no secret that prominent members of high-level UC administration hold questionable alternate positions. For example, Regent Maria Anguiano serves as the Chief Financial Officer of the only recently accredited for-profit college the Minerva Project (https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/San-Francisco-s-Minerva-Perfect-6465502.php).
[iii] Bankers in the Ivory Tower claims that the UC System enacted five interest-rate swap agreements with investment banks between 2003 and 2007, with the resulting funds totaling $606 million. These funds were invested into three UC medical centers—a seemingly benevolent intention—but the projected loss from these same interest rate swaps is expected to be greater than $200 million (Eaton et al. 16).
[iv] One may wish to remember the $175 million “slush fund” kept by UC President Janet Napolitano and discovered by a State of California audit last year. https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Closer-look-at-175-million-UC-hid-from-the-public-11144359.php
[v]https://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/person.asp?personId=639989&privcapId=19049, http://investor.bankofamerica.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=71595&p=irol-govBioCorpGov&ID=150691#fbid=yryaHf5l7nH. Lozano serves as a Chairwoman within the UC Regents, concurrently with her position as a Bank of America Board member.