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Davis, California

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Editorial Board meets with Chancellor Gary May, UC Davis administrators

May and administrators discuss the UC academic workers’ strike, plans for graduation, law school rankings and more


The California Aggie’s Editorial Board met with Chancellor Gary May, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Croughan, Associate Chancellor and Chief of Staff Karl Engelbach, Vice Chancellor for Finance, Operations and Administration Clare Shinnerl, Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Renetta Tull, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Dana Topousis, Academic Senate Chair Ahmet Palazoglu, Faculty Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost Ari Kelman and Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Life, Campus Community and Retention Services Sheri Atkinson on Nov. 22.


Below is a transcript of the meeting that has been edited for length and clarity. This interview took place over Zoom the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.


Question: After the return to in-person instruction, many ASUCD units have been struggling with low employment numbers. What is the university doing to encourage more students to work for ASUCD and resume normal operations? 


May: So as you probably already know, labor shortages and staffing issues are not unique to UC Davis or higher education. They’re nationwide, applying to all employment and all workforces. In the past week, there have been campus job fairs that offered some incentives, like gift cards to attract new applicants. We can see what more we could do on that end to assist ASUCD in the same way.


Atkinson: I know Unitrans does incentives as well to get some drivers hired. And also the Coffee House has been working on getting employees onboarded so that they can open up more platforms. And I think that we’ll see more of that in winter quarter. The ongoing support we’re trying to provide early amplifies student employment because we have a lot of positions available. People also are in the process of hiring additional students for positions at the internship center to help with those types of positions.


Q: With the upcoming winter, there have been predictions of spikes in COVID-19 cases on top of the current flu season and RSV currently being reported from hospitalizations. Will the administration make any changes to on-campus public health policies in response to this and are any preventative health measures going to be put in place to accommodate students for the 2023 winter quarter as more students might get sick?


May: Firstly, I’ll just say that we’re expecting guidance from the UC Office of the President some time probably next week that will talk about the vaccination policy. We don’t anticipate doing the same level of compliance checking that we were doing with COVID rapid-antigen tests, but we do anticipate there being a requirement for flu shots, COVID boosters and any other relevant vaccinations. So as we’re getting close to Thanksgiving, I want to make sure that as people travel outside of Davis, we mitigate the spread of the virus. So we have issued some testing guidance for students and employees. And we recommend the students take tests prior to returning to Davis. If you test positive, you have to isolate yourselves until the isolation period ends. The positive test also has to be recorded on Health-e-Messaging, our software that’s online. And after the break, we have hope the students will take a safe test within one week of returning to campus. And again, positive tests are important to Health-e-Messaging. During the break, we recommend you take a saliva test at our testing site where that’s available, and you can make an appointment again via Health-e-Messaging for our site. We keep everything up to date on our policy page and our campus website, as we’ve been doing for two years, to see anything that you need to know.


Croughan: Right now, it is required for students to have both the COVID vaccine and boosters in addition to the flu vaccine. The policy letter that will come out from the president’s office is for faculty and staff. And I wouldn’t be very surprised, honestly, if it’s not still a requirement, given what’s happening in our hospitals. But I want to be clear that RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is more of an issue in children than in adults. It’s with infants and children under the age of five that you worry about RSV. I’m only familiar with one adult case. And in children, literally in the first six months, it can be life and death. More often, as adults, we carry it. So it comes back to the same issue around the importance of wearing a mask. Particularly, if you’re traveling on airplanes, I make the choice to, in public places that are not Davis where I know we have very high vaccination rates, always wear a mask. So on an airplane, in an airport, traveling on a bus any place outside of Davis, I can guarantee I’ve got a mask on. That will help protect you and that will help protect others on the chance that you’re a carrier. It’s highly unlikely that you would actually get RSV. The problem with the combination of what we’ve already had in past winters, with COVID and the flu together, is one or the other is bad enough. Having both epidemics at once really is problematic. You add RSV on top of it, which takes away the available pediatric hospital beds. And it’s the pediatric beds that we’re having the most concerns about right now in California and throughout the U.S. So we want to make it possible that kids can come in, and if the viruses are so much more adversely affecting their health, we can move them into an adult unit. And that’s not going to be possible if the adult units are filled with individuals with COVID infections. So vaccines and wearing masks are still the right route to go.


Q: The strike that began Nov. 14 is just the most recent graduate student strikes for higher wages to support rising costs of living. Is UC Davis or the UC planning to make any changes long term in order to decrease the number of strikes and ensure that graduate students are compensated fairly for their work?


May: Our campus administration certainly recognizes the right of students and other union members that are employees to strike, and we agree that the cost of living in Northern California is high. And so it’s a real concern. We hope that the union negotiators and negotiators in the office of the UC president will agree on a contract that makes it possible for the members of that union — for those four bargaining units of the union — to live here and thrive and be successful in the graduate programs. It’s important to note that the negotiation does not occur on the campus level. The negotiation occurs at the Office of the President with a team of negotiators. Income inequality is a concern. And it’s not just a concern here; it’s also a concern nationwide. The university will do what it can to address the issue with those resources that are not unlimited. So we have to figure out an appropriate compromise so that the university can continue and the students and postdocs can have a successful livelihood and career.


Croughan: We want to clarify that this is a strike of the union that they are allowed to have. If they take a vote and declare that they’re going to take a strike, that is the circumstance we’re under now. When you’re saying there have been multiple strikes in the past, the last strike that occurred was a “wildcat strike.” That was a strike that was called by the members and not allowed by the union, because they were still under contract. But that’s a very different thing. 


May: A lot of it had to do with labor laws that you may or may not be familiar with. So when you do say “multiple strikes,” it really only has been this one strike that was authorized.


Q: Some Jewish students have expressed that due to recent events on campus and in Davis, they do not feel like UC Davis is a safe place for them. How would you respond to this, and what is the administration doing to address this issue?


May: First, let me just say, unequivocally, that we stand in strong support of the Jewish community — that includes our students, faculty and staff. And we understand the toll that some of these recent events have taken on that community. We are working proactively with the Jewish community now, both on and off campus, to raise awareness to combat antisemitism. We’ve been doing this since I’ve been here, for five years. The Jewish Student Life Advisory Council was established in 2020 and activated in 2021 during the pandemic. It was created per my recommendation in cooperation with Hillel at Davis and includes Jewish student leaders, Hillel board members, Davis faculty, leadership and community representatives. In fall of 2021, we had educational sessions on antisemitism for all members of UC Davis Council of Deans and Vice Chancellors. The session was on Zoom and was facilitated by staff from the Academic Engagement Network, which is a Washington D.C. nonprofit that promotes campus free expression. We continue to meet with our Jewish colleagues, students, faculty and staff to show our support and talk through solutions. We invite the community to learn more on our addressing antisemitism webpage, which is hosted on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion website. But in terms of other things we’re doing, we’re in the very early stages of a program we’re calling “Hate Free Together,” modeled loosely after “Healthy Davis Together.” But the idea is now that the virus is hate, and we’re trying to combat hate in collaboration with the city of Davis and Yolo County. We’ll be having some news occur very soon where we have a resolution that will adopt some other activities — like programming, some promotional activities and raising public awareness — to really redouble our efforts to make this community free of antisemitism and all forms of hate.


Tull: We’ve been paying a lot of attention to the uptick of antisemitism. We’ve been very disturbed by that. Last year, I did participate in the Academic Engagement Network that Chancellor May talked about and went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and worked with a lot of leaders from around the U.S. to see what can we do on our campuses to have more awareness about antisemitism and to increase our resources. And so with that launch of the addressing antisemitism page this year, one of the things that we also did was to work with Rob Davis and the Center for Student Involvement part of Student Affairs to meet with members of Jewish student groups to look at our antisemitism page to offer resources so that we could have something that was co-constructed. And about a week and a half ago, members of my team went over to Hillel to have a meeting with the Hillel Student Board Chair [and others] to not only talk about our page, but to also get information related to case studies to find out what some of the students are experiencing here and to be able to put that into some of the training that we’re doing through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. [Our office is] putting it into the modules for DEI training that students take when they come into UC Davis — the new students and the transfer students. In addition to that, one of our other colleagues, who’s in charge of our harassment and discrimination assistance and prevention program (HDAPP), hosted a training that was led by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for leaders on campus about a week ago. So we had an opportunity to see things that were tropes, to ask a lot of questions, so that we could obviously do a stronger job as we’re working with not only our staff, but also planning resources for students, faculty and others on the campus.


Q: After the Turning Point USA event and protests earlier this quarter, there has been a lot of discussion about ensuring people have a safe way to protest on campus. What solutions has the administration come up with to ensure future protests are safer?


May: Campus safety is a primary concern — a high priority for me all the time. When people ask me, “what keeps you up at night,” that’s probably the one thing that keeps me awake at night, worrying about this community being safe and every definition of that word. So these controversial events really raised the level of concern. We’re going to work closely with Student Affairs, as well as the fire and police department, as we plan these events. We try to develop operational plans prior to the events taking place, and we always do an after-action meeting with a discussion of what happened, what went right and what went wrong. Our solutions to ensuring the safety of future events are trained quarterly — the leadership team trains and discusses these things regularly to listen carefully to the community. Just had a meeting with UCD leadership last night where this was discussed, and we’re talking with you now and absolutely listen to the community and try to express what we think is the right approach to our student community. And to be very clear on a couple of things: One, I probably don’t agree with anything Turning Point USA espouses except for their right to espouse it. So, and I don’t, we don’t condone any violence of any kind, that includes property damage, as well as physical violence and vandalism. We try to confront and reject discrimination whenever we face it, and we have our principles of community that we use as a model and as a guide.


Atkinson: What the Chancellor said was right on point again. Student safety is one of the things that I think about a lot. Oftentimes, supporting student strikes, rights and protests can come off in a lot of ways that they don’t really want to. So with Student Affairs, our work is to work with students, empower them, help educate and support what they want to do to have their voices heard.


Topousis: I’ll just add that I know there’s continued concern about the Proud Boys who turned up on campus. Things quickly escalated as soon as they arrived when things were already escalating at that location. But I think there’s some people out there who think we should be able to predict and stop people from coming to campus like that. But there was no way for us to know; they don’t tell us in advance that they’re coming to our campus. And I am guessing that most of them are not UC Davis students, faculty or staff, and that they’re probably not from our community. And so we just have to, in real time, deal with that when that happens and do our best. We do a lot of planning to make sure that we’re prepared as much as we can be, to keep that area safe and to keep things in as much control as we can. In that case, we were surprised that they showed up and they were looking for activity and helped create it.


May: As you know, we don’t have a fence or gate around our campus. So the entire community has access in a public situation like that. This was difficult to control as people can just come and go. We’re at a disadvantage when someone wants to do something like that.


Q: UC Davis students have been expressing discontentment with the student fees that are a part of the university’s quarterly tuition and for parking on campus. Some ASUCD senators are trying to lower these fees. How is the UC Davis administration working with ASUCD to hear student matters and address these concerns? 


May: We have this council on student affairs, called the Council on Student Affairs and Fees (COSAF), which we work with very directly. That committee includes ASUCD members that bring the concerns to the administration. And Student Affairs meets regularly every month with COSAF. The committee helps guide our campus policies or at least advises on campus policies.  So in terms of what we recommend, we recommend leveraging job boards and other search engines through the Internship and Career search and to help spread the word about these opportunities to provide input. And we’re always open to those kinds of discussions. We also know that there’s a fairly systematic, rigorous process for changing fees. That process is documented, and student government officers are always welcome to utilize that process whenever they think there needs to be some sort of adjustment. 


Atkinson: We have worked with student leaders recently as well on the guidelines. And we’ve gotten feedback that there needs to be some more clarity on those guidelines. And so we work closely with our student representative leaders over the summer and early fall to make sure that that document closely aligns with our policies and is very clear. We were just about to wrap that up; it’s pretty much a complete document so that we’ll be able to allow folks if they do want to add a referendum, or adjust the record and that it’s clear.


Q: Last spring, commencement ceremonies were cut short due to excessive heat. How will this year’s ceremonies be different from last years and what changes are being made to ensure that the ceremonies are able to take place as scheduled?


May: We do have some news to share. You have already seen the announcement last Friday, in the chancellor email about spring commencement being held at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. That was after a student survey that was created by a planning committee, made up of half students and half administrators. They put the survey together and have been discussing the planning for commencement. So we don’t expect any more heat events because we’ll be inside and we have a facility that’s well accustomed to having such events. You might know that Sac State has their commencement at the Golden 1. We’re looking forward to a much smoother and more celebratory event than we were able to have this past June. 


Engelbach: The Commencement Advisory Committee will be meeting again in December. The next issue that’s on the docket is to discuss exactly whether students want to continue to walk with their major when they graduate, or if they want to be able to select which ceremony they attend based on their own schedule and their family’s schedule and availability. So that’ll be the next issue we tackle. And then after that, we’re going to go to speakers. We’ve received feedback about what’s not the highest priority for our students. So we’re going to keep having a discussion about who we should invite, how we should invite them and how we can get our students engaged in helping us invite the fabulous speakers that they have in mind. And together, we’ll figure out how to make that work.


Q: The ongoing events in Iran have been distressing to many students. What do you view as the university’s responsibility to support and protect students who feel unsafe in light of these events?


May: We have an unshakable commitment to upholding human rights, not just here on our campus in the community, but it’s standing up for those rights for members of those communities that are represented here around the world. So again, we stand against violence, repression and discrimination anywhere that might happen. We are concerned about the feelings of our Iranian students. We’ve actually put out a statement very early on in that conflict about providing support and suggestions for support for students who are feeling anxiety. It was a joint statement from campus leadership following the death of Mahsa Amini. And again, we share support resources for those impacted by it. We also direct our students to our Aggie Mental Health and staff to our Academic Staff and Assistance Program (ASAP) office to help them get through these anxious times. We’ll continue to monitor, make statements and provide other resources as we think it’s necessary. We’ve been listening to members of that community and trying to respond appropriately.


Tull: I’ll just add that one of the things that we did is there was a teach-in session that was sponsored by graduate studies, but it also included the Davis Humanities Institute and Human Rights Program and Global Studies. And there were students on the panel as well as faculty and staff. And we were asking them in some of the questions after a lot of the information was shared, “What are the things we can do?” So continuing to raise awareness, women’s life freedoms and the different kinds of things that Iranian students want us to share and to make sure that information is coming to the forefront. We’re going to continue to do that in the DEI newsletter and in some of our other resources but also continue to have these partnerships and opportunities to have conversations and to raise awareness. I think those are some of the things that we hope are helping students to feel safe, because we’re not being silent about these various issues.


Atkinson: I’ll just add that we also have provided support to students who have been impacted by what’s happening, and as you mentioned, causing distress and impacting their time here on campus. So we’ve been providing support in different ways to help them navigate that and also their academics.


Q: A recent investigation by the Dallas Morning News revealed that UC Davis Police have been using a software program to track students’ social media posts. One of our articles revealed that the UCDPD has been using the scanning software since 2015. Davis students are concerned by this software and the lack of transparency surrounding the program, specifically that it can be used to track student protests. What would you say to students who already feel unsafe when UC Davis Police are present, especially when considering historically poor responses to student protests such as the pepper spray incident?


May: Let me first start by saying that the software is not used to track student protests by any means. It’s not used to monitor private texts, emails or devices, but we try to look for our students that are in crisis and are going to need help. And we look for trends in that electronic communication that would indicate that students that are thinking about harming themselves or showing suicidal tendencies, and this is based on their public- posts only. You might be interested to know that we’ve had many successful interventions by using the software, and in fact, we have saved lives, specifically of students that were thinking about harming themselves. So I think if we stopped doing this, people could be hurt. So this software has been very useful in a very positive way. And as for students who might feel unsafe when UC Davis police are present, again, this is not relevant for the software. This is used to help students in crisis and it’s not used for anything else. You might be aware of this already, but our campus Police Chief Joe Farrow has really been committed to mental health training for himself and his officers. In July, he was elected to a three-year term as President of the Board of Directors for the California Branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). So, we take this commitment to addressing students’ mental health crisis situations very seriously. 


Q: Summer and fall have been particularly distressing in terms of current state- and federal-level political change, especially for students of marginalized communities. For example, the DACA program was ruled unconstitutional and, most recently, the Indian Child Welfare Act is being challenged in the Supreme Court. How does the university plan to address how these changes in policy may impact the university and UC Davis students? 


May: Thank you for the question. You know, we’re proud at the campus level and the UC system level as well, despite some of the national trends, that we’ve remained committed to supporting our undocumented students, who are also concerned about the uncertainty that accompanies their educational journey. We can’t change the decisions made by the courts, obviously, but we can advocate in those matters, and we do. I’ve printed letters and given speeches, etc. And we’re doing all we can to make sure that our undocumented students can enroll and stay enrolled here at Davis and elsewhere in our public system. AB540 and Undocumented Student Center is a valuable resource in this activity. It gives those students up-to-date information and supports them academically, as well as their private lives outside of the university. Their peer and staff mentors on call connect them with resources that they need to deal with all this uncertainty and anxiety they’re experiencing, particularly [due to] this recent judgment. With respect to Native American students, we have watched that decision on the Indian Child Welfare Act. We’ll be working in close consultation with our own Native American community here on campus, through our Department of Native American Studies, and the Native Nest and the regional tribes to determine how best to support those in that community and their situation. So, we’re doing what we think we can do to be supportive, be aware and to be advocates.


Tull: I will say that an interesting thing that happens with our office often is that we’ll have family members who will come in or people who are thinking about coming to Davis. And I think in the last year, particularly due to a lot of the political unrest, it has been very interesting to have parents come or even students who are thinking about Davis say that they’re specifically coming to Davis for their families or moving to California because they want to be able to have access to the higher-education system that’s here and recognizing that there are so many things that are happening around the country and in states where they don’t have the same levels of free thought. There are people who have decided not to go to school in various other states, but specifically to come to California, and then in looking at California, to come to Davis, because of where we stand. They looked to see what we were doing in past administrations in response to things that were coming out of Washington, D.C. And then we took a stand for our students, whether they were DACA students or [students affected by] other forms of discrimination, when other states were having things shut down. And we moved full force ahead, saying that we were going to stand with our students, that we were going to support them and that we’re going to put resources behind all things that they would need. And I think that that has worked in our favor at the university.


Atkinson: I’ll just add that in addition to our AB540 and Undocumented Students Center, you also have the California Immigrant Legal Services Center, which serves all these needs, but it’s housed here at UC Davis. And this center works with students and their families related to immigration. 


Q: The shooting at the University of Virginia is just the most recent of many instances of gun violence at educational institutions. What are the measures that UC Davis has in place to prevent gun violence on our campus?


May: That was such a terrible tragedy. Again, I’ve talked about things that keep me up at night and that’s got to be one of them. To answer the question, we train and practice very heavily for active shooter potential situations. You may have seen some of these training taking place in the MU or Mondavi while you’re out walking around. The Police Department also holds an active shooter survival workshop for the UC Davis community that aims to increase the likelihood of surviving such an event. State law and University of California policy both prohibit possession of weapons on university property. And that information is available at the campus police website, which provides regular updates on campus crime and a lot more. So those are things that we do. We’re always remaining vigilant and training very regularly to prevent such a tragedy from happening on our campus.


Q: There has been some concern expressed regarding the Resnicks’ recent donation to UC Davis, specifically the motivation behind their donation and the overall character of their financial decisions. What is the screening process you have for taking in large-scale donations?


May: So to answer the question, there’s a very rigorous screening process that includes a background check. But I would add, regarding the Resnicks, that it’s not their first philanthropic venture. There’s a Resnick building at UCLA. You may have read that they gave Caltech $750 million for sustainability research. The tone of the question is a little bit more negative than I would expect; this is the largest gift our university has ever received from a private donor, or in this case, a couple. It’s going to be a transformational gift for the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, for the research they want to do to make agriculture more resilient to climate change, more energy efficient, use of byproducts and waste byproducts in agriculture. So I don’t want to be defensive but I’m surprised at the negative tone of the question, given the really, really super positive aspects of having such a gift. When the gift was announced, I can’t tell you how many other chancellors and presidents around the country called me to say congratulations, or “How did you do it?” So I would hope that we would take a more positive view of a really wonderful gift. Stuart Resnick has been a member of the Chancellor’s Board of Advisors for more than a decade. We know him well. He’s a friend. He’s a contributor and supporter in many ways beyond this particular gift. Forty wonderful scholar students are supported by their company at our campus. Most of them, from the Central Valley, are marginalized students who would otherwise not have the opportunities they have because of the Resnicks. So I really hope that the people that have these concerns consider all of that.


Q: Many top law schools including UC Berkeley have decided to remove themselves from rankings such as U.S. News due to equity concerns. Will UC Davis follow suit?


Croughan: We had been talking about it when Yale was the first to remove themselves from the U.S. News and World Report rankings. I approached Kevin Johnson, our Dean of the Law School, and said, “Would you consider this for UC Davis?” because Kevin is very much an equity-minded dean. He’s a civil rights lawyer and immigration expert, and he has worked harder than any other dean of a law school to diversify the student body. So two things are happening right now. One is people pulling out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. The second is potential elimination of the LSAT, and the LSAT has been shown to specifically disadvantage African American students. So Kevin and I, just yesterday, had further conversation. We’re looking at both of those. I only wish we had been the first UC to remove ourselves from U.S. News, but we were beat out by Berkeley. But anyway, we are considering it strongly. I’ll put it that way.


Q: ASUCD elections have historically received low voter turnout which led to the TGIF student fee referendum failing. Do our university officials have any ideas for promoting higher voter turnout in these elections?


May: Historically, I have done PSAs on students to vote, not just voting in elections in the city, county and national elections, but also ASUCD. I’m happy to continue to use my voice on campus to encourage students to participate in the process.


Atkinson: I’ll just add, in my time, the years where I saw the greatest voter turnout was when a lot of students were out and about encouraging their peers to vote, more than, the administration encouraging people to vote. So I think that one of the biggest tools that ASUCD and students have is talking to their peers and encouraging them to vote as well.