The five-week student takeover of a lobby outside the office of UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi came to a quiet close Friday. The two dozen or so students who made up the rolling occupation on the fifth floor of Mrak Hall cleaned the carpets and cleared their provisions from a staff refrigerator. They left red roses on the floor, then marched through campus, many carrying signs and wearing silver duct tape over their mouths that read “Fire Katehi.”
The students said they decided to end their occupation because they felt isolated and wanted to bring their protest to the broader campus.
“It’s everyone’s fight,” said Emily Breuninger, 27, a graduate student who emerged as a spokeswoman for the group. “It’s a relief to be out in the fresh air, or somewhere with windows.”
Since March 11, when students staked their claim to the fifth-floor lobby, university police have kept a low profile. And when the students ended their sit-in Friday, they did so without being forced into the move. University officials occasionally asked the students to leave, but never pressed the issue.
It was a markedly different approach than the university took in the face of protest earlier in Katehi’s tenure.
In November 2009, as Katehi was in her sixth month as chancellor, hundreds of students flooded into the administration building to protest a $2,500 student fee increase. The protest was one of several being staged at UC campuses statewide, and UC Davis police wasted little time in breaking up the demonstration.
Clad in riot helmets and carrying batons and plastic handcuffs, officers eventually arrested 53 students as the student-run station, Aggie TV, recorded the pandemonium while helicopters flew overhead and police dogs stood at the ready.
Two years later, students staged another protest against rising tuition fees, erecting tents and staging a sit-in on the quad that was broken up by campus police who used pepper spray against some students.
By contrast, official reaction to the latest student demonstration has been a subdued mix of resignation and verbal warnings.
It’s everyone’s fight. It’s a relief to be out in the fresh air, or somewhere with windows.
Emily Breuninger, graduate student who took part in student occupation
The sit-in began last month after The Sacramento Bee reported that Katehi had accepted a paid seat on the board of DeVry Education Group as the for-profit company faces federal allegations of exaggerated job-placement claims. In the face of criticism, Katehi apologized and resigned from the seat.
The Bee subsequently reported she had received $420,000 in three years for serving on the board of textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons. The protesters contended holding the seat posed a conflict of interest for the chancellor of a public university whose students face high textbook costs. Katehi has defended accepting the seat, but pledged $200,000 in Wiley stock toward a scholarship fund.
Renewed criticism arose this week following a Bee report that the school spent at least $175,000 to scrub the Internet of negative publicity surrounding the 2011 pepper-spraying episode and execute an online branding campaign to boost the image of the university and chancellor.
UC Davis issued a statement Friday afternoon saying Katehi still wants to meet with the students who staged the sit-in and discuss their concerns.
“UC Davis supports freedom of expression and appreciates the role activism plays on college campuses,” spokeswoman Dana Topousis said in a statement.
“Although the students have chosen to end their sit-in, Chancellor Katehi acknowledges, and appreciates, that the students’ concerns remain. She is committed to meeting with them and is hopeful they are willing to have a meaningful discussion with her.”
The end of the sit-in came one day before Saturday’s annual Picnic Day at UC Davis, a celebration of campus life that typically draws thousands of participants.
The two dozen or so protesters had spent the last five weeks eating, sleeping and studying in the small foyer in front of Katehi’s office, with only a small hallway and bathrooms as added living space. They voted Thursday night to end the occupation, but said they would continue their push for the chancellor’s resignation
Some students watching the band of protesters march across campus said they shared their concerns, but didn’t agree with the way the protesters have conducted themselves.
“I’m in support of the protests, but I am not in support of some of the actions they have taken,” said Brittany Smith, a sophomore. “I don’t agree with how they have reacted in Mrak Hall by chalking up the walls. I don’t agree with prohibiting researchers from doing their work by occupying the hallway outside the chancellor’s door.
“I believe in ethical protests and having their voices heard like this instead of ruining public and private property for their cause.”
Haley Chung, a freshman, said she felt some of the protesters were committed, and others were protesting just to protest. Still, she said, she was disturbed to learn of Katehi’s board seat with Wiley & Sons. “I feel her association is shady,” she said. “We pay a disproportionate amount for textbooks.”
Brian Landry, also a freshman, said the Internet scrubbing effort, to him, was most troublesome.
“It made nationwide news,” he said. “Just the fact they are just trying to cloud it over, it’s not honest.”
Doug Elmets, a Sacramento crisis communications expert who served in the Reagan White House, said UC Davis officials had few options in responding to the sit-in, and that sending in officers to clear out Mrak would have been a mistake.
“They could, if they want to create a huge fiasco, if they want to create another news story or get another black eye,” Elmets said. “They may as well have just allowed the students to sit there and try and run out the clock on the academic year.”
The university had warned the sit-in group that they were violating campus rules and could be subject to academic discipline.
“Because Mrak Hall is not a residence hall, it has been necessary to assign additional staff to monitor the building throughout nights and over the weekend in order to ensure safety,” Provost Ralph Hexter wrote in an April 8 email to the campus. “The protesters’ remaining in Mrak Hall when it is closed is but one of the violations of campus regulations about which the occupiers have been repeatedly informed but which they continue to ignore.”
Hexter and others complained that the protesters were intimidating some staffers and others who use the fifth floor of the building.
“Staff are not merely inconvenienced,” Hexter wrote. “Many no longer feel comfortable using the restrooms in Mrak Hall. Many complain about the odors emanating from the protesters’ food and the garbage they leave behind, which is also an additional burden on the custodial staff ...”
The protesters deny any bullying. During the vigil students often could be found sitting in the hallway working on laptops or reading.
Earlier this week, Patricia Bohls, a 23-year-old graduate student from Ohio, was among those studying in the hallway while about five others slept inside the darkened reception area.
“We’ve been vacuuming every couple of days, people tend to organize the food every couple of days,” Bohls said. “We do big clean-outs fairly often here.”
The setting was hardly pristine. Boxes of markers and poster boards for making protest signs were stacked in the hall, and a table held a selection of food: baby carrots, peanut butter, jam and other items. The remains of a “Fire Katehi” cake remained from the night before, when students had marked the one-month anniversary of the takeover.
“This is a protest outside of the chancellor’s office,” Bohls said. “It’s not going to be perfect.”