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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Column: Time for accountability

On Nov. 21, Linda Katehi stood before up to five thousand students and personally apologized for the events three days earlier. She struggled to hold back tears as she referenced memories from her own past, of the struggle in her home country of Greece during the ‘70s, of the morning when the military junta in power sent tanks to crush dissidents protesting the regime. It was a moving moment, a tribute to her personal past of activism and a gesture of common cause with the Occupy movement.

Yet, Katehi completely reversed course the next evening during a town hall meeting. In the span of 24 hours, she went from a heartfelt apology to flat-out denial of responsibility for the greatest failure in protecting students in university history. “My instructions were for no arrests and no police force. I explicitly directed the chief of police that violence should be avoided at all costs,” she said unequivocally.

With the release of the Reynoso report last week, the facts are finally coming out. In short, they are damning. None are accused more in the report than Katehi, and no narrative is more explicitly rejected than her claim that the police acted outside of her directive. Instead, it was her faulty logic and failure to effectively communicate that would lead to the searing images and injured students from that fateful day.

The night before students were pepper sprayed, Katehi’s leadership team met through conference call to discuss what should be done about the newly erected encampment in the Quad. Initially, the police were to remove the tents at 3 a.m. Friday. However, according to Chief Spicuzza, there were not enough officers to do this. She requested that the operation be pushed back 24 hours to Saturday morning. This was unacceptable to Katehi.

In a show of reasoning so absurd that, in a less violent outcome, would be hilarious, Katehi stated that the tents simply had to be removed before Friday night. Why? She was worried about the use of alcohol and drugs, “and everything.” She believed that there were significant numbers of “non-affiliates” in the encampment and feared that this would result in the Quad becoming “a place for fun.”

I’m having difficulty even writing about this use of logic, because, quite simply, there is no logic! The notion that there were a large number of non-affiliates is completely debunked by the Reynoso report. Moreover, during the late-night conference call, her Assistant Vice Chancellor, Griselda Castro, had argued that this claim was patently wrong. The report stated that Castro spoke about this for 40 minutes. The response was “dead silence.” Yet Katehi was convinced otherwise and did not change course. In doing so, she put the police in a position that was almost guaranteed to end uglily.

Beyond her faulty logic, Katehi also failed to offer needed leadership about what the police could or could not do. Here, her claim that she instructed the police not to use violent force is exposed to be completely false. In fact, the only directive given to the police about use of force was from a conference call earlier in the day when Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter stated, “We don’t want it to be like Berkeley,” and Katehi merely agreed.

Nowhere does the lack of leadership become more evident than at this moment. Silence is not leadership. Neither is affirming vague notions of policy in the context of an emergency situation. And leadership certainly is not shifting blame onto others — in this case, the police who, Katehi claimed, acted outside of her “explicit” orders. The fact that, after such a stark failure, she could just days later state that she had clearly stated what the police could and could not do, is almost unfathomable.

The chancellor’s heart may be in the right place, but her judgment is not. Her gesture of apology a few days after the incident may have been heartfelt, but her statement that she delineated the boundaries of police action is simply untrue. And while her desire to protect students from non-affiliates might have been commendable, the fact remains that, in the end, her actions led to far worse harm than the dangers any outsiders posed — outsiders that turned out to be a marginal presence at best.

Personally, I think it’s time for accountability. I’ll leave the rest up to you.

Send your thoughts about the Reynoso report, the Banker’s Dozen and events in general to jdnelson@ucdavis.edu.


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