Could UC Davis pepper-spray fury bring down the chancellor?

Faculty and students infuriated by this weekend’s pepper-spraying incident at the University of California, Davis, are determined to force out the school’s chancellor.

Linda Katehi
REUTERS/Max Whittaker
Linda Katehi

Police in riot gear used pepper spray and batons Friday to break up a peaceful protest, and a video of the incident has since gone viral on the Internet.

Critics of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi say she should not have allowed police on campus, and they have scheduled a rally Monday. Ms. Katehi is fighting back, insisting Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “the university needs me.” Her office said she plans to attend the rally.

The controversy comes at a time when clashes between Occupy Wall Street protesters and law enforcement have been escalating. City mayors and federal and local law enforcement have struggled with how to deal with the Occupy movement. And among college administrators, “there is real fear that if these occupations became established … they would not go away,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political historian at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

For example, as California’s higher-education systems have been raising fees and tuition, student protests have burgeoned over the past two years, he adds. “Now, police are upping the ante very quickly to prevent occupations from getting a foothold.”

UC Davis English professor Nathan Brown has written an open letter calling for the chancellor to resign, which became a petition that has more than 50,000 signatures.

“Police are not allowed on university campuses in most areas of the globe,” says Professor Brown. “This is becoming the global norm everywhere but here in the United States.”

Katehi has stated her main concern is for the health and safety of the students on campus. But “one of the main reasons I am calling for her resignation is that she, herself, is one of the biggest threats to the health and safety of the students on campus” by allowing in the police, says Brown.

The UC Davis faculty association, which represents about 100 of the university’s 1,500 faculty, has joined the call for Katehi’s resignation, claiming on its website that she displayed “gross failure of leadership” this weekend.

The situation escalated further Saturday when students surrounded a building where Katehi was holding a press conference. Katehi didn’t leave until several hours afterward, apparently because of safety concerns. When she did leave, she had to walk by rows of students, who had gathered in a silent protest against her.

She responded with a statement released Sunday: “I am deeply saddened that this happened on our campus, and as chancellor, I take full responsibility…. I feel very sorry for the harm our students were subjected to and I vow to work tirelessly to make the campus a more welcoming and safe place.”

She has called for a task force to investigate the incidents and to report to her office within 30 days. The campus police chief and the two officers involved in the pepper spraying have been put on administrative leave.

The president of the University of California system, Mark Yudof, has also weighed in, calling for a meeting of the chancellors from all 10 UC campuses, stating on Sunday that he was “appalled” by the use of force against nonviolent campus protesters. The goal, he says is to ensure that law enforcement reacts proportionally to future protests.

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