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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Column: Good people

Last week Chancellor Katehi’s student assistants (a position you should consider applying for) invited me to “The Chancellor’s Winter Dialogue.” It was an opportunity for student leaders to share what we want to see at UC Davis with the Chancellor and other high-level administrators, a communication I’ve advocated in my last three columns. Each student who received an invitation represented an important campus community: ASUCD, CalPIRG, Center for Student Involvement, Student Judicial Affairs, the LGBT Resource Center, etc. However, because it is statistically unlikely that you were invited, and because I get this unique opportunity to address you, I’d like to think that I represented the largest demographic of the bunch – you, the readers of this newspaper.

As such, I want to do my best to bring the conversation to you.

The catalyst of the dialogue was a profound anxiety over the lack of effective communication between students and the administration. In this moment of economic turmoil, students feel like the administration has no face, that because administrators do not care to interact with us in a meaningful way they must be up to no good. In contrast, administrators seemed concerned that this lack of communication is misleading, that the long hours they spend in meetings working on our behalf, deciding the fate of our funds makes communicating face-to-face impractical. Both concerns seem valid to me.

The university’s budget became the whipping boy of this anxiety. Students and administrators spent the first 20 minutes or so sharing ideas on how we could work together to get students to better understand the budget, hopefully eliminating some of the concerns that the administration is up to no good. I suggested that this would have been a productive strategy in say, 2008, when eliminating our budget concerns would’ve been a thoughtful administrative gesture. If a student really wants to understand our budget, they can go online and read all about it. It’s readily available.

I suggested that in 2011, many students have accepted that the problems with UC Davis’ operating budget are a function of California’s larger fiscal challenges, and that at this point I’d much rather read about UC administrators acting responsibly to do the most with what we do have than demanding what we don’t.

Most importantly, we could achieve this if administrators offered access to their process. They seem to want our help, and we theirs, yet I have yet to receive an invitation to gain insight into the difficulty and importance of their work.

The next morning I had the privilege of meeting the author Daniel Handler, perhaps better known by the name of his narrator, Lemony Snicket. In a Q&A before his lecture at the Mondavi Center, Handler spoke a bit about his novel, A Series of Unfortunate Events, in which the Baudelaire children are left orphaned after their parents perish in a fatal car accident. He spoke briefly about a character named Mr. Poe, a banker left in charge of the Baudelaire estate. Because the will instructs him to make sure the children “be raised in the most convenient way possible,” an easily misinterpreted request, he places them in the care of their distant cousin, the evil Count Olaf.

The unfortunate events that follow are ironic because they are not brought about by the novel’s antagonist, Count Olaf. Instead, the children’s plight stems from a bureaucrat who actually does seem to have their best interests at heart. He places them in harm’s way because the bureaucracy limits his usefulness, making him seem inept to the reader. At his core, Mr. Poe is merely an administrator trying his damnedest to carry out the task assigned to him in “the most convenient way possible.”

Mr. Handler drew a plot chart on the board in which he diverts the Baudelaire children around a small square representing Mr. Poe, making their journey much longer and more unfortunate. He labeled this square obstacle “good person.”

In the moment, I thought this was a fantastic metaphor for what I’d seen in the Chancellor’s Dialogue the night before. It was obvious to me how difficult these administrators’ jobs are, how much passion for the students their occupation requires. You could see it in their faces; they are good people. Yet students are being diverted around their efforts by the nature of their bureaucracy and the anxiety that catalyzed our dialogue, the lack of effective communication between students and the administration.

I want to spend spring quarter donating my time to help the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability fundraise for the lighting initiative that Assistant Vice Chancellor Sid England mentioned in his letter to the editor last Thursday. This requires a conversation with an administrator. Do I need another invitation?

JOSH ROTTMAN cordially invites you to his Winter Dialogue, Friday at 7:30 p.m. on Dairy Field, when the UCD Men’s Lacrosse teaches Stanford what flash floods look like. RSVP at jjrottman@ucdavis.edu.

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