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Monday, October 25, 2021

A history of controversy: Ralph J. Hexter

BRIAN LANDRY / AGGIE
BRIAN LANDRY / AGGIE

Exploring the reasons behind acting Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter’s resignation from former position at Hampshire College in 2010.

Amid accusations as serious as embezzlement and protests of unsatisfied students demanding for his immediate resignation, Ralph J. Hexter stepped down from his former position of president of Hampshire College in December 2010.

Now, six years later, Hexter has taken up the position of acting chancellor at UC Davis after Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi was put on investigative leave on April 27. While the fight to remove Katehi as administrative leader may have been won temporarily, many, who are aware of Hexter’s past career in the world of academia, believe the fight for a responsible head of administration is only just beginning.

According to Ben Saucier, a 26-year-old alumnus from Hampshire College’s class of 2011, Hexter’s 2010 situation at Hampshire was scattered with controversy: Hampshire’s Students for Justice in Palestine challenging his noncommittal stance on the college’s divestment from Israel; Hexter’s on-campus paramilitary group of law enforcers, present for “public safety,” causing dissent amongst students; his inability to answer questions regarding the whereabouts of certain funds, specifically with regard to Hampshire’s massive budget deficit and plans to relocate several admissions offices.

These accusations led a group of almost 100 student protesters to stage a sit-in in Hexter’s Hampshire College office in the spring of 2010, demanding he face the group instead of hiding behind closed doors.

“The college was on the brink of even existing under his management,” Saucier said. “He had a big house outside of campus that he was keeping horses on; he was a socialite he had parties and he would schmooze up fundraising money, and people kind of felt like he was being [disingenuous] with the student body, like he was saying one thing to them and doing another thing behind closed doors.”

Saucier was a third-year when Hexter relinquished his position as president. Although his opinion has changed since, during his time as an undergraduate at Hampshire, Saucier said he felt “jaded” by the protests, and in fact, was a fan of Hexter.

“I thought he brought this Ivy League swagger to Hampshire which, at the time, I thought would be good for the college,” Saucier said. “I was like, ‘what are these kids so upset about?’ But in hindsight, seeing what [the current Hampshire president] has done — there are new buildings being built on campus, and the funding that [Hexter] said wasn’t there, all of a sudden [has started] to appear.”

Saucier studied narrative nonfiction and journalism at Hampshire and was present during the 2010 protests, during which put his writing skills to use. As he watched the scene unfold, Saucier wrote a firsthand account of the unrest, and published the article online in August of 2010.

“Outside, I noticed one student scribbling on a sign. He was writing: ‘Hexter nobody likes you but you’ while holding a bottle of champagne. He explained to me: ‘Hexter is a narcissist; he only cares about himself. All narcissists have their fall,’” Saucier wrote in the article.

In the time leading up to the sit-in, over a hundred of the 1,300 tight-knit students attending Hampshire College in 2010 spoke out against Hexter’s presidency, using tactics such as petitions, organizational meetings, public on-campus announcements and “the red armband.”

“The use of the red armband [by many students] became this symbol for anti-institution or anti-Hexter kind of regime,” Saucier said. “There was a whole series of events that led to this blowing over. After the graduation of the class of 2010, the ceremony was so anti-Hexter that they almost forced him out.”

During Hampshire College’s 2010 commencement ceremony, graduating student speaker Daniel Scheer called the administration “two-faced and corporate.” He solemnly questioned why he “stuck out” the past few years at the college, indicting Hexter and his administration as the reason for his unsatisfied departure.

“Staff cuts, budget cuts, administrators threatening student activists with disciplinary action, half-hearted promises to end institutionalized racism,” Scheer said during his commencement speech. “This is not how I want to remember Hampshire, but this is a Hampshire that we experienced together.”

UC Davis student activist groups, such as Davis Stands with Ferguson and Fire Katehi, have long called into question Katehi’s disregard of UC Davis’ own institutionalized racism problems.

With the past administration’s lack of transparency, Hexter hopes to “achieve a better sense of communication” with the UC Davis student body in the coming months, even if that means opening back up the contention that engulfed him in 2010.

“I have the highest respect for Hampshire College and what it stands for,” Hexter said. “But frankly, after a few years […] I really seemed to understand that [with] my values — really what made the most sense to me was to seek a return to a research university.”

Before his start at Hampshire, Hexter served ten years at UC Berkeley, seven of them as dean of the Arts and Humanities. Hexter attributes the 2010 situation at Hampshire to the little experience he had in working at a small liberal arts school.

According to Hexter, although Hampshire’s board renewed his contract as president in 2010, he was already planning the “appropriate exit” from Massachusetts to start as provost at UC Davis.

“It is true that on the Internet you will find a lot of dissent and protest,” Hexter said. “But frankly, from my perspective, that was more of a symptom of a realizing on everyone’s part that this wasn’t the perfect match.”

The Hampshire controversy seemed to live and die within the grounds of the small liberal arts campus, and Hexter was able to continue his career at UC Davis relatively unscathed. However, certain on-campus groups have recently called into question his uncontested appointment as acting chancellor. One such group of students is the UC Davis Cultural Studies Graduate Group.

“Hexter had to leave Hampshire as Katehi had to leave here,” said Evan Buswell, a graduate student in Cultural Studies Department, in an email interview. “By playing this game of musical chairs with administrators, the interests which govern the University hope to be able to confine our awareness of these problems to the people in whom they are embodied. But I think this time we — both graduate and undergraduate students at this university — are not willing to stop looking.”

The graduate students questioned the absence of student involvement in Hexter’s appointment, while also condemning his help in the implementation of policies to privatize UC Davis. The group stated in a letter that Hexter has been an instrumental force in “suppressing and criminalizing dissent on this campus,” including the 2011 pepper spray incident. According to the letter, Hexter is responsible for having acted as the “intermediary between the chancellor and the UCDPD.”

“While Katehi was seen and chastised, Hexter operated largely unseen to support her in both her suppression of dissent, and the de-democratization that accompanies sudden shifts of publicly administered resources to the private sphere,” Buswell said.

Saucier drew parallels between the tension among UC Davis students and law enforcement officers in the infamous 2011 pepper spraying and the tension between Hampshire students and Hexter’s on-campus paramilitary group present during his five years as president.

“There was a state of tension that existed between the [students and the Hampshire law enforcement officers], and I think we saw that happen at UC Davis with the [pepper spray too],” Saucier said. “The frustration for tuition increase is totally justifiable, [tuition] is totally ridiculous in this country. And I think the main problem with Hexter is he’s just part of that system that profits off tuition increases while trying to maintain the status quo.”

After a 36-day sit-in in Katehi’s office and 57 straight days of mobilization on the issue, the Fire Katehi protesters released a public statement on April 29 in response to Katehi’s paid leave, stating that the fight is not over.

“Although her 90-day leave is a partial victory, we recognize that unless it is accompanied by systematic changes these injustices will persist. We will utilize the momentum that we have built in order to move forward with the greater goals of this movement: to disentangle and to correct the undemocratic appointment of executive administrators to this public institution,” the letter stated.

Hexter stresses to the student body that “this great university” will continue to move toward future progress, but those such as Saucier and Buswell are not so sure about UC Davis’ growth under Hexter.

“The University of California has often been the resting place for those who were driven out of somewhere else,” Buswell said. “[Such as] cops who had to leave their districts, and administrators who had to leave their posts because they could no longer get away with whatever they were getting away with before.”

While it is possible that Hexter has learned from the string of mishandled events that led to his resignation at Hampshire, Saucier believes that for Hexter, the appointment as UC Davis’ acting chancellor is an “ego thing” rather than a chance to move the student body toward success.

“I don’t think he’s nefarious, I don’t think he has cruel intentions, I just think he’s kind of a puppet for this old-school, elitist mentality that exists in academia,” Saucier said. “I don’t think he’s an administrator because he cares about students, I don’t see him genuinely caring about the institution — I just see him climbing the ladder.”

Written by Ellie Dierking — features@theaggie.org

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