Student protesters who occupied the administration building at UC Davis for three days in January to protest proposed tuition hikes are facing disciplinary hearings, a shift after students were accommodated during a five-week demonstration in 2016.
The students took over the lobby on the first floor of Mrak Hall on Jan. 24, ahead of a UC Board of Regents meeting on tuition, said Zachary Markham, a second-year biology student and protester. They stayed three days and two nights, with evening visits from administrators who wrote down student identification numbers and handed out notices spelling out the policies the students were violating, he said.
Markham said he protested because so many students struggle financially. "The tuition hikes themselves are a big deal because like a lot of people, I have to skip meals and struggle to make rent," he said. "I'm going into debt - that applies to half of the students that are here, probably more."
The disciplinary response is in contrast to how the administration reacted to a previous student occupation of Mrak Hall in 2016, which lasted five weeks to protest former Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.
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During that period, students took shifts on the fifth floor of the administration building outside Katehi's office. While they faced warnings, they were also allowed to keep provisions in a staff refrigerator. Students who led that demonstration said they were not disciplined.
This time, students remained on the first floor instead of outside the chancellor's office. But officials required administrative meetings for six students, who were offered two options – accept probation or attend a disciplinary hearing at the Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs.
UC Davis spokeswoman Dana Topousis said students aren't referred to the Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs for participating in protests. They are referred when campus policies are violated, including occupying buildings after posted business hours. If a policy violation occurs during a protest, that is subject to a referral like any other violation, she said.
"UC Davis supports the rights of the students, including their right to freedom of expression," she said, adding that the university website offers guidance on student expression.
Although about 50 students took part in the protest over the three days in January, only a handful stayed overnight and administrators managed to get identification numbers from only six of them. Markham said. He is one of the six facing a hearing.
Topousis could not say whether students who participated in past sit-ins were subject to probationary hearings. She said student privacy laws prohibited her from discussing a particular student or case.
Annie Ashmore, 23, and Emily Breuninger, 29, who both took part in the occupation of the fifth floor of Mrak Hall in 2016, said they were not disciplined for their part in the five-week sit-in, although they received a formal letter threatening disciplinary action. The students started their protest after The Bee reported that Katehi was paid for sitting on several corporate boards.
Katehi resigned in August 2016. Her permanent successor, Gary S. May, began as chancellor in August 2017.
"I think it's just upsetting that the administration is treating the students like this," Ashmore said Friday of the hearings for recent protesters.
Dexter Hampton, 20, faces a disciplinary hearing for the January sit-in. The second-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major calls the hearings a deliberate strategy to quash protests as the university faces a second year of tuition hikes.
Acknowledging student opposition, UC regents in January agreed to delay their tuition vote until May to see if the UC system could get more funding in the state budget.
Markham said the administration is suppressing student activism by using "seemingly less harsh administrative channels. "They had a lot of PR disasters in the last few years," he said. "Doing it this way seems more mundane. In the past they pepper-sprayed them and brought out the police."
In November 2009, hundreds of students flooded into Mrak Hall to protest a $2,500 student fee increase. UC Davis police, carrying batons and plastic handcuffs, broke up the protest.
Two years later, students staged another protest against rising tuition, erecting tents on the quad. The sit-in was broken up by campus police with pepper spray. Pictures and video of officers pepper spraying students sitting arm-in-arm on the ground were shown internationally.
University of California administrators reviewed policies on student protests after that incident, producing a report that outlines how campuses should handle protests. The policy offers dozens of recommendations to improve communication and oversight in an effort to avoid student protests – or at least ensure they end without the use of force by police.
The report stopped short of requiring the use of student conduct proceedings – as opposed to police arrests – because parties disagreed on how viable it would be to carry them out. But it did suggest they be considered as an option.
The report also suggested that administrators early on explain to protesters the potential consequences for their actions.
The 2016 sit-in directed at Katehi was one of the first major tests of the protest policy at UC Davis. The five-week sit-in ended quietly. During the protest, police kept a low profile and university officials asked students to leave, but didn't press the issue.
UC Davis policy states that a student on probation must conform to the university's standards of conduct and could have restrictions on their privileges and eligibility for activities. Misconduct during the probationary period could result in suspension or dismissal, according to the policy.
Some of the protesters said they have already lost campus job opportunities because they face probation, even though they have not gone through the hearing process yet.
Markham said it has already resulted in changes to the way some of the students, many of whom belong to Students for a Democratic Society, are continuing their activism. He said they have had a daytime protest since the sit-in.
"I can only speak for myself and the others with disciplinary notices, but the six of us are not comfortable doing a sit-in again until after the trial," he said.