Responding to the Crisis
Following the 2010 bias-related incidents, UC officials released public statements denouncing what had occurred and calling on students to practice civility. At UC Davis, staff and volunteers at the LGBTRC negotiated with university administration to allow the homophobic graffiti covering the center’s walls to remain for one day; they lobbied to do this in order to let the hate speak for itself. In the days that followed, members of the university community gathered together to vent emotions and discuss their next steps.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS:
UC Davis Speaks
-UC Davis staff member
-UC Davis undergraduate student
-UC Davis faculty member
In public statements following the 2010 bias-related incidents, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi described the acts as “manifestations of the historical and deep-rooted prejudices and biases that remain in our society.” She assigned blame to “a few individuals [who] grossly violated” the campus’s “Principles of Community,” which is a non-binding statement of the university’s values that were adopted in 1990 and reaffirmed most recently in 2010. Katehi echoed the “Principles” in calling for members of the campus community to practice civility.
In a joint statement, the UC leadership identified themselves “as stewards of free speech on our campuses… [with] a responsibility to speak out against activities that promote intolerance or undermine civil dialogue.” In a separate statement, Chancellor Katehi addressed universities’ unique role as “special places for the pursuit of knowledge and the exchange of ideas, views and differing opinions.” She likewise expressed support for the right of free speech, but noted that freedom is limited when it is harmful to others. In my conversations with them, individuals at UC Davis repeatedly assured me of their support for the right to expression and echoed the concern for balancing free speech rights with the right to feel safe on campus.
As one faculty member said, “as much as you’re protecting the First Amendment rights, you [also] have to protect the rights of students to go to school without fear of hostility and harassment.” However, she questioned the framing of some of these incidents as matters of free speech, arguing that a qualitative difference exists between “clandestine behavior to terrorize people,” as she saw the incidents at UC San Diego, and the legitimate – though sometimes unpopular – social protests conducted by groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church (which also happened to visit UC Davis in early February 2010). Arguably, one of the “2010 bias-related incidents” falls into that latter category: the 11 students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside who were arrested for disrupting Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UC Irvine argued they were exercising their freedom of expression, but prosecutors argued they violated Oren’s rights in the process. (After a controversial trial, ten students were convicted of two misdemeanor charges and sentenced to community service and probation.)
Despite these complexities, the party line of the university was straightforward: to denounce all bias-related incidents, regardless of individual nuance, while proclaiming civility as the solution to problems of discrimination and bias. In the weeks that followed, President Yudof requested that each campus create a committee to address issues of campus climate and inclusion. As part of this effort, the newly-reorganized UC Davis Campus Council on Community and Diversity created a “Rapid Response Team” to streamline the university’s responses to future incidents of hate and bias; the Council also established an ongoing “Hate-Free Campus Initiative” to support proactive efforts “to make our campus a more safe and welcoming place,” in the words of one administrator. The Hate-Free Campus Initiative – since renamed the “Building a More Inclusive Community Initiative” – sponsored the Civility Project.
Other efforts at the system level included the development of a standardized reporting mechanism for incidents related to bias or discrimination. My sources expressed mixed feelings to me about the new reporting system. Some wanted the system to be publicized, displeased that so few people were even aware of the new system. Others expressed disbelief that the system could be trusted to produce adequate responses to sensitive complaints. Although several individuals noted that this system presents a positive alternative to filing a police report, they were skeptical that students and others who hold little power on campus will feel comfortable using it. A staff member recognized the need to gather information at a system level, “tracking all of the crap that happens on campuses,” but objected to the urge to quantify the damage incurred by discrimination. “Do we actually have to have some data to tell you the number of people that are in pain for you to believe it? The very act offends me. … It makes the assumption that… people make stuff up. It makes the assumption that people are looking for trouble.” This comment captures an essential flaw within the neoliberal approach to conflict, which is to establish committees to study the given problem. By virtue of creating the committee and eventually producing a report on the problem (or, in this case, developing a UC-wide reporting mechanism for incidents of hate or bias), the institution appears forthcoming and proactive, yet little change is made to correct the underlying issues of structural inequality.
Immediately after the vandalism at the LGBT Resource Center (LGBTRC) was discovered, LGBTRC staff and volunteers met to discuss their response. Rather than covering the graffiti as soon as possible, as university administrators suggested, the LGBTRC staff and volunteers decided that they wanted to leave the graffiti up for a short time to allow other members of the campus community to see for themselves what had occurred. A staff member explained, “I think the intention is good of wanting to clean it up. This is really ugly stuff that’s very hurtful, so we want to get rid of it. And, at the same time, you also often feel that people don’t really believe that these things happen, or… they don’t get that total impact of what… students are experiencing on a daily basis.” From this perspective, leaving the graffiti up represents a symbolic effort to not sweep prejudice and discrimination under the rug. As LGBTRC staff stated in an open letter to the campus community, “We feel it is easier to erase physical representations of violence than to heal from the ongoing impacts of this hatred. Erasing it makes it possible to avoid believing these things happen on our campus. We want to work towards a healing resolution.” Following a successful “hard sell” of this plan by LGBTRC staff to university administrators, the graffiti remained in place for one day before being painted over.
The decision to keep the graffiti visible for a short time proved immensely popular with everyone I talked to. One staff member explained the educational impact of leaving the graffiti up: “[It] makes everyone aware that we may think that we are at a point in time when we are inclusive of everyone, but these things happen, and it reminds us that we have to be vigilant to really speak out against biased or hateful acts.” Seeing the harsh words for oneself provided “a reality check,” in the words of one student, “that we still obviously have a lot of work to do.”
The negative messages of the graffiti were countered quickly by both public and private statements of solidarity with the LGBTRC community. Although the graffiti was still visible, numerous individuals spontaneously began placing signs over the graffiti with statements affirming queer rights and identities. The LGBTRC was also flooded with letters and other gestures of support from across the country. Staff members have saved these materials as a reminder of the community’s strength in the midst of adversity.
After the LGBTRC was defaced on February 26th, the organization held a town hall meeting to discuss what had occurred. The meeting, attended by roughly 400 members of the campus and broader community, including administrators and representatives of the media, served as a place for community members to share their emotional reactions and discuss a plan of action. The presence of both the media and university administrators at this event was challenging for some, who desired more privacy, but necessary to others, who viewed the broad participation positively, especially the presence of the Chancellor. The meeting affirmed the importance of listening to those affected by hateful incidents and allowing them to voice their feelings. Most people with whom I spoke saw the town hall meeting as a fairly effective venue for this, with other, smaller meetings providing additional opportunities.
In the weeks that followed, LGBTRC staff and volunteers continued discussing the needs of the queer community, working alongside members of the Black Student Union to develop two separate proposals that were submitted to the Chancellor in early March 2010. An additional set of recommendations was submitted in April by the Graduate Ally Coalition, which represents the needs of graduate and professional students on campus. Describing the recent “acts of hate/ignorance” as “a manifestation of structural deficiency in institutional support,” the collaborative set of proposals called for structural changes to improve the campus climate for members of under-represented groups. Specific recommendations from the Black Student Union included the transformation of the African and African American Studies program into a department, increased hiring of black faculty, and increased funding to support the retention of black students; the LGBTRC’s proposal called for funds to hire an Assistant Director for the center and a full-time Community Counselor; the Graduate Ally Coalition’s proposal requested, among other things, the creation of work-study-funded Graduate Student Researcher positions at each of the campus’s student centers.
In May, Chancellor Katehi responded to these proposals, offering “a strategic investment of $230,000 annually… to combat hate and intolerance on our campus.” The LGBTRC used a portion of this money to hire, for the first time, an Assistant Director. As one graduate student noted, this addition was much needed because the Director of the LGBTRC, Sheri Atkinson, also serves as the Director of the Student Recruitment and Retention Center. Funding was also allocated to support mentorship programs for black students on campus, to provide Graduate Student Researcher positions at the campus centers, and to support ongoing events to promote a “hate-free campus.”
These funding allocations represent the silver lining of the 2010 incidents. In each case, members of the affected communities identified their needs and developed substantive recommendations for change. Advocates for marginalized students at UC Davis succeeded in leveraging the attention brought by acts of discrimination to seek increased resources to support their communities. Those advocates deserve credit, as does Chancellor Katehi for listening to their requests. According to a staff member I spoke with, these funds are “giving wings to a movement that could potentially have an impact in creating… institutional change.” Response to these funding allocations has been mostly positive, but some remain critical. An undergraduate student disapproved of the university’s reactive posture: “I would like to see the administration fighting for more of our programming [for marginalized students] without acts like [those in 2010] having to happen first.” Another source that I spoke with felt that internal discussion about the funding allocations pitted the various affected groups (in this case, queers and African Americans) against one another, despite the efforts by the proposals’ authors to recognize the groups’ shared concerns. A staff member criticized the small dollar amounts as “window dressing” that fails to address structural inequalities. As the next section of this report will show, more is needed for the university to fully adhere to its “Principles of Community.”