One month after the pepper-spraying of student protesters at the University of California, Davis, officials are struggling with how to move forward, even as they prepare for the possibility of new protests and building takeovers when students return next month.
Anger over the rising cost of a college education in California is so great, university officials told a legislative panel Wednesday, that they are concerned about students building new encampments.
But so far the only consensus on how to deal with the protests going forward is to avoid using police force to quell the unrest.
The use-of-force issue was the topic of a joint Assembly-Senate committee hearing Wednesday, called in the wake of the Nov. 18 pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis and an earlier confrontation at UC Berkeley during which students were jabbed with riot batons. For four hours, UC and California State University officials, as well as representatives from student groups and the ACLU, spoke before lawmakers about how campuses should respond to the ongoing protests.
UC President Mark Yudof has called video images of the UC Davis incident showing campus officers pepper-spraying students seated on the ground appalling. On Wednesday, he suggested that the 10 UC campuses may need a single policy on how officials respond to such disturbances.
"I, of course, don't ever want to see such pain inflicted upon our students," he told lawmakers.
The angry fallout from that incident continued Wednesday. As UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi left the hearing, she was confronted in a Capitol hallway by a 24-year-old student.
Jerika Heinze, a cultural anthropology senior who says she was among those who inhaled pepper spray at the protest, insisted Katehi had been ducking her requests for a meeting.
"I've been contacting you every single day, calling your office, sending you emails, and your assistants said they passed the messages along," Heinze told Katehi. "You've never responded to me."
"Well, I've asked them to set an appointment with you," Katehi said quietly as reporters pressed in to record the incident.
"No, you haven't," Heinze insisted. "You absolutely have not."
Moments later, Katehi's chief of staff pulled Heinze aside to promise her an appointment while another UC official accompanying the embattled chancellor extracted her from the awkward setting.
"It's so frustrating," Heinze said afterward. "I just feel that I'm owed for her to look me in the face, look me in the eye and explain that she understands the position of the students
"I mean, we're not dangerous people, we're students. I'm not a terrorist, I'm not an anarchist. I'm not any of those things. I'm just a college student doing research at the university."
The confrontation followed weeks of effort by Katehi to repair relations with students, faculty and staff at UC Davis, including numerous meetings with students to hear their grievances.
During the hearing, Katehi reiterated her position that she had not authorized the use of force to remove two dozen tents that had been set up on the quad in protest of tuition hikes.
Saying that she realized it was a "very burning question" for many, Katehi told the panel: "Did I direct the police to use pepper spray? And the answer is no. Did I direct the police to use force? And the answer is no."
At least five investigations into the incident and overall campus policies toward protests are under way, and Yudof said he expected the most comprehensive answers from the probes to be available in March.
The Yolo County sheriff and district attorney had asked state Attorney General Kamala Harris to take over their probe, citing limited resources and the possibility of a conflict of interest. But Wednesday, Yolo County officials said they had been informed that Harris would not intervene.
"We appreciate the attorney general's vote of confidence in our ability to competently handle this job, but the fact remains that this issue has far-reaching ramifications and that there are limited resources in Yolo County," Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven said in a prepared statement. "Despite this, the sheriff and district attorney will do our very best to conduct the investigation."
Katehi and others acknowledged that anger over tuition hikes may lead to more confrontations statewide when classes resume.
"They are frustrated and angry about repeated tuition increases ," Katehi said. "They are justifiably frustrated, and so am I."
Under questioning from one lawmaker about what she would do differently from what she did on Nov. 18, she replied, "I have to tell you, if I knew that the police could not remove the tents peacefully, we would not remove them."
Editor's note: Comments have been removed from this story due to abusive behavior by some commenters.