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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Interim Chancellor Hexter holds second town hall meeting


Community discusses mental health, financial aid, student population

Interim Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter received questions and concerns from students at a public forum on Feb. 28 from 6:30 to 7:50 p.m. at Everson Hall. The event was attended by over 25 people. Hexter was joined by faculty and administration officials who were able to answer more specific questions.

The discussion topics included financial aid, student population, mental health services and the political climate on campus.

Students questioned the distribution of funds for financial aid and whether there were plans to keep increasing tuition or lower fees for students. Hexter said that he understood the difficulty that students face when trying to pay tuition or to graduate with little debt and that one of the saddest things about the country is that it has allowed income disparity to grow. He said that a model that some people consider is the high tuition-high aid model, in which part of tuition would be able to be directly funnel into more financial aid. However, due to the high sticker price, many families are discouraged and believe that they will no longer be able to afford a UC education.

Hexter believes that public education is in the middle of many contradictions and is fighting to keep it together despite challenges like antagonizing stories from the press about students having high levels of debt. The administration is making it a priority to explain the benefits of an education at UC Davis.

“The set of schools with the highest level of debt are for-profits, then the nonprofit privates and the lowest is the publics,” Hexter said. “Within the publics, the UC system has the lowest debt thanks to the return-to-aid programs. For UC Davis, […] about half of our students graduate without any debt whatsoever. Of that half that have debt, the average is under $20,000.”

Another student voiced concerns about the increasing student population — shortage of lecture hall seats, more dorms but less apartment space in the city, and the overcrowding of public spaces on campus, such as the dining commons and food areas. Hexter explained that the massive increase in student admission was due to UC Davis’ 2020 initiative growth plan, as well as a UC systemwide agreement to increase student population.

According to Hexter, Freeborn Hall is no longer used due to seismic problems, but new classrooms have been used or built in the Mondavi Center, Pitzer Center and Manetti Shrem Museum. There are plans to increase rooms in Haring Hall and Cruess Hall, and the biggest change will be the addition of a 600-seat auditorium in Storer Hall by Winter Quarter 2019. There are also plans to increase the size of dining halls, to build a new dining center in Tercero and to increase the number of food trucks in the space around the Silo.

“The Silo food trucks are the fastest way to add dining capacity,” Hexter said. “Even as we build more dorm space […] we’re acknowledging that when we do triples we squeeze people, so we’re building to accommodate people from the get-go.”

Students also voiced their disapproval of current mental health services and asked for a plan to increase services. One student spoke at length about their negative experiences with CAPS and their difficulty with being misgendered and disrespected at the Student Health and Wellness Center.

Students also called for more Community Advising Network counselors, especially for undocumented students, victims of sexual assault and students who are neurodivergent. Hexter redirected the question to Milton Lang, associate vice chancellor for student life, campus community and retention services at the Student Affairs Office of the Vice Chancellor.

“We have gotten a lot of pushback from students, faculty and staff,” Lang said. “[…] counselors are overwhelmed by the volume of students they are trying to serve.”

Lang confirmed that the university is in the process of hiring seven or eight new counselors who would operate out of the Student Health and Wellness Center. Since the ratio of students to counselors is very high right now, Lang believes this is the best decision. Students were also disappointed by faculty and administration’s lack of awareness regarding students’ mental health experiences on campus. Sheri Atkinson, the executive director of community resource and retention centers, mentioned that more conversations were being held at the centers.

“[There is a] willingness to do intersectional work, a lot of folks acknowledge it’s an area that needs to be worked at,” Atkinson said.

Tensions ran high and students became emotionally charged as the conversation turned to the political climate and the discussion of free speech and Milo Yiannopoulos’ controversial visit to UC Davis earlier this quarter.

A student expressed displeasure about having professors who do not know how to be supportive or choose not to attend workshops to build their knowledge regarding student experiences. Regarding a particular incident in which a professor voiced a personally hurtful opinion during class hours, the student questioned why it was difficult to take action against faculty and place trust in the system.

Hexter admitted some trainings were mandatory whereas other trainings were only “encouraged.”

“We’re in a continuously merging and evolving situation and we’re learning, and faculty have to learn as well,” Hexter said. “It is a journey. What we have to do is, wherever anyone is, we nudge them further along wherever they are on this journey. […] The administration cannot tell the faculty what to think.”  

Donald Dudley, the director of Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs (OSSJA), mentioned more places students could go to resolve issues regarding hate or bias. OSSJA is a resource for students who are uncertain about where to go to file a complaint. Hexter hopes to support those who are on the front lines to keep improving the university.

“[In] our office, we have case managers who really help to connect students with potential resources,” Dudley said.

ASUCD Senator-elect Rahi Suryawanshi, a third-year international relations major, was concerned about recent hate crimes and questioned how the administration ensures the safety of students and draws the line concerning hate speech.

Michael Sweeney, senior campus counsel, was on hand to answer any questions regarding legality.

“As a public institution we cannot tell people not to speak,” Sweeney said. “We are a public institution and have to follow government rules.”

Sweeney explained that for speech to be considered hate speech, a person must threaten to take a physical action against another being and it is only considered an issue after it has been uttered. He added that in order to prevent hate speech, one could enact a prior restraint, which could stop someone from speaking beforehand, but that this has very rarely worked. According to Hexter, censoring someone who has been invited by a public institution is difficult.

“The interim chancellor cannot prevent speaking under the First Amendment, even if it is hateful,” Sweeney said.

Hexter remained firm that guests would be welcome as long as situations remained nonviolent. Students were upset with Hexter’s email responses to the situation, in which Hexter defended Yiannopoulos’ right to speak on campus. Hexter added that there were discussions about contractual obligations for any campus guests to adhere to certain guidelines. Hexter answered a few more questions before wrapping up the town hall.

Students had mixed responses to the forum. Priyanka Sanghavi, a second-year cognitive science major, felt that the conversations were very interesting and that people were honest and civil.

“These town halls are extremely important because they foster mutual understanding and empathy between the administration and the students,” Sanghavi said. “Administrators need to have more open discussions because in a system as large and complex as a public university, they don’t always know right away when students are facing problems.”

Suryawanshi believes the conversation between students and administration is very important and must be held regularly.

“Admin forgets what it is to be students in this fast paced quarter system and these dialogues are necessary to remind them as well as to increase transparency between the two bodies,” Suryawanshi said via email. “[The] open dialogue steered in a similar direction as the others; the admin heard us out but failed to empathize with us.”

Written by: Jayashri Padmanabhan — campus@theaggie.org


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