The Office of Campus Community Relations (OCCR) will launch a new Event Observer Service (EOS) on campus next fall.
The service is to provide the University impartial observers consisting of UC Davis faculty, staff, student and retiree volunteers to observe and report at campus events and demonstrations. The observer’s role does not include mediating or getting involved with participants in any way. Once observers feel their safety is being compromised and feel the need to contact authorities, their role as observers ceases to continue at the event since they are no longer taking a neutral stance.
Anyone may request to have EOS at a public event that has the potential of illegal activity or violation of University policy.
EOS stems from Recommendation 41 made by the University of California Office of the President in 2012 in the Robinson Edley report that was composed in response to protests and demonstrations at UC campuses. According to the Robinson Edley description on the UC website, “This report guides the UC system and campuses in how to respond to future protests effectively by addressing roles and responsibilities; policies; organization and structure; and training.”
Several elements of the service model similar programs at UC Berkeley and the University of Oregon.
In the past, staff who worked as event observers were permitted to interact with participants at the event. Volunteers of EOS, however, are to be objective and neutral by only observing.
Depending on the size of the event, two to three observers will be present to gather data for an annual report for the campus. They will be identifiable by armbands.
“The idea is to get a better understanding in terms of what took place so that as much information is gathered in understanding a particular situation,” said Mikael Villalobos, administrator of Diversity Education Program at OCCR.
Students expressed concerns regarding the service’s potential negative usage as well as the administration’s perceived mistrust in its students.
“Neutrality doesn’t exist,” ASUCD Senator Azka Fayyaz said. “One of the biggest problems I have with this program is the fact that it calls for neutrality when it really isn’t neutral because anyone can request the service.”
According to Villalobos, he will determine each request on a case-by-case basis. As the manager of EOS, he will not provide the service at an event that he does not consider appropriate to have observers. Events must be open to the public, and those having the potential of drawing large crowds or getting out of hand will be considered.
However, some students are concerned that certain events will be more observed than others.
“The people holding protests and who are activists come from marginalized communities and the fact that these observers are coming in makes them feel that they can’t be as free to say what they want because of their presence,” said Edina Metovic, a third-year managerial economics major.
Many concerned students desire more transparency in the evaluation process of requests to help alleviate the fear of being targeted.
“The point is they are demanding transparency of students by essentially spying on them without permission, while failing to live up to their own standard of transparency by not making public the important details of this program,” said Matthew Palm, Ph.D. student in transportation technology and policy.
Those against EOS view it as a surveillance program that puts student observers against student participants, and some are worried about the motivations of these volunteers.
“I am concerned about the kinds of students who will sign up as observers,” said Evan Sandlin, a second-year political science graduate student. “They will most likely be the kinds of students that feel comfortable working with an administration that has
opposed the interests of student activists, and so will therefore be biased in favor of ‘calmness’ and ‘order’ rather than change and justice.”
According to Carolyn Penny, director of Campus Dialogue and Deliberation, the foundation of EOS is based on trust, and its intentions lie with serving the campus community. In response to the issue of the service reinforcing a silence at demonstrations that are already typically peaceful, Penny explained how EOS serves to support and not monitor.
“Based on information from similar programs at UC Berkeley and University of Oregon, I don’t expect conflict between student protestors and any of the observers,” Penny said. “My hope is that all of the campus community will see the event observers as a valuable service of and for the campus community to support freedom of expression on campus.”
Volunteer applications were accepted until May 23, and training will begin next fall. Observers of this two-year pilot program are to go through an initial six-hour training in the start of the 2014 academic year and will continue with quarterly trainings. Training will cover skill sets required for observers, including a focus on neutrality and impartiality as well as reporting without personal evaluation.
“I think it’s important for folks to hear the intent of the service as a service for the campus community,” Villalobos said. “It’s not intended to squelch speech. It’s not intended to squelch activity.”
NICOLE YI can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.