The University We Are For?

There is much about the University of California today of concern. California state support for education has been slashed to the bone. Official state contribution to covering the cost of educating UC students has dropped by 60 percent since 1990 and student-related contributions now total 50 percent. The overall proportion of the UC budget provided by the state continues to drop hand over fist.

As public support has dropped, tuition has spiraled upwards. In the past two years tuition costs have increased by 40 percent, though roughly 50 percent of UC undergraduate students don't pay full tuition costs. This past week Regents were due to discuss enacting increases that could total 80 percent by 2016 in the not-unlikely scenario that state contribution to the UC budget shows no increase, raising annual student fees to nearly $23,000.

Students will be getting less for the increases: larger campus enrollments mean taxed services, ballooning class sizes, stressed faculty as workload trebles, faculty salaries shrink relative to the cost of living, and administrative support for teaching and research dries up with extensive layoffs, taxing campus infrastructures. At the same time, while the educational apparatus has come under duress, campus police have received increasing support.

It is this combination of spiraling long-term student debt, crimped educational support, and diminished prospects of attractive work opportunities that folks have been protesting. Who can blame them?

Over the past two weeks, multiple campuses have seen student actions, including attempts to establish small symbolic, temporary tent encampments on campus, supported by larger student protests. The student protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful. At UC Davis when students started to hurl expletive-laden slogans at riot-clad police, other students resisted, leading more respectful chanting, explicitly appealing to non-violence.

Initial administrative responses were a lot less peaceful. They coincided, oddly enough, with violent actions against the occupiers in New York, Oakland, Portland and elsewhere. One has to think there is something to the coincidence. But the UC police responses and their initial rationalization by campus representatives have been impatient and intemperate in the extreme.

At Berkeley, on the very steps named in honor of 1960s free speech hero Mario Savio, unprovoked police viciously beat students with batons, breaking bones and dragging students by the hair. A faculty protester peacefully offered her hands to police to facilitate her arrest. In response, police dragged her to the ground by her hair, trampling her underfoot. A 70 year-old former US Poet Laureate was baton-bashed in the stomach. He quipped that it gives new meaning to "beat poets." At UCLA police cleared out student protesters in a pre-dawn raid, issuing various arrests. At UC Davis, students peacefully sitting and chanting non-officious slogans were pepper sprayed by gloating police more intent on displaying their power than with keeping the peace.

Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi at first tried to justify the police brutality in the name of peace and safety, without first viewing the disturbing videotape of the pepper spraying which she oddly examined only a full day after the event. Her campus police chief crudely dismissed the students as violent because they had locked their arms together in police defiance. The issue is not that the police repeatedly warned students that force would be used against them; it is that the police felt so stupidly compelled to give the warning in the first place. What police training, in the absence of any deeper sense of justice, do our taxes go to pay for? And what expenditure of resources is appropriate for an institution of higher learning?

Prompted by the resultant outrage, fighting for her job while showing little leadership courage, Katehi called for an inquiry into the police action by a committee of faculty, staff, and students. The campus police chief and brutalizing policemen were suspended. UC President Mark Yudof, Regents Chair Sherry Lansing, and other campus chancellors eventually issued condemnatory statements expressing belated support for non-violent free speech and protest on campuses. (Where were their voices after the Berkeley beatings?) But instead of faculty, staff and student investigations, President Yudof appointed former NYPD and LAPD police chief William Bratton to head the inquiry, no doubt at considerable cost to already strapped university coffers. London riots redux. This hardly inspires confidence.

These events will cost the university far more -- in negative publicity, in harmed relations, in investigative time, in resignations and searches for replacements, in defending against and likely losing lawsuits -- than would have if patience, cool administrative heads, and a real commitment to free speech prevailed. Instead, there has been an immediate surge in support for the protests fueled by the police brutality. One petition calling for Chancellor Katehi's resignation has received more than 100,000 signatures!

In the name of free speech, peace and safety, then, peaceful protest has been brutally suppressed, safety foregone. I came of intellectual age in apartheid South Africa. The past week's repression does not quite amount to 1970s apartheid. But that its images of police sadism should even conjure the comparison should give pause. South African universities under apartheid had an agreement with authorities that police would be allowed on campus only if invited by university administrations. The agreement was violated by police whenever they felt the need to protect "peace and state security." At the same time, anti-apartheid "slum" encampments proliferated across American campuses in support of 1980s divestment campaigns, met with nothing like this current round of vicious repression.

What and whom, accordingly, have the university come to represent? As a learning institution, what do we want our students to take away from these experiences? Cowed subjects or self-confident critical citizens? Surely not that legitimate peaceful protest about matters of concern should be put down, let alone brutally and with administrative acquiescence. It is sadly telling that today the latter would be a realistic lesson. The University of California must live up to its mission and name as an institution of higher learning, helping to produce a generation of leaders worthy of the challenges.