Monday, November 21, 2011

An Open Letter to Chancellor Katehi of the University of California, Davis

Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I imagine you’re feeling burned right now. You trusted the wrong people, and find yourself in a completely untenable position.

You know perfectly well that what the police did to peaceful protesters was beyond reason. There’s really no disputing that. The right to peaceable assembly is well-enshrined in American law, and for good reason. The videos speak for themselves.

Your people overshot. But you know that.

I’m not writing you to educate you about free speech or police brutality. I assume you’re smart enough to understand both, and to see clearly that the University was badly on the wrong side here.

I’m writing as a fellow higher ed administrator. Like you, I’ve been on the receiving end of smug tirades by people who don’t have to balance competing goods. It’s frustrating. And I’ve also had to deal with the fallout when people who report to me make decisions I wish they hadn’t. It happens.

Now you’re in that awful position where the protesters are right. It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true.

At this point, as I see it, you have exactly two ways to play this. You can resign, or you can jump out in front of the issue. The one thing you absolutely cannot do is be careful.

Resignation is obvious, and your hand may be forced, so I’ll leave it at that. The second option is admittedly risky, but with the egregiousness of the police conduct and the international attention being paid, the usual “let’s appoint a committee to look into it” won’t work.

The ground has shifted from under you. You cannot defend the police. You just can’t.

If you’re up to it, though, you can try to defend the purpose of the university. You can’t dodge this, but you may be able to lead your way out.

The way to do that would involve, first of all, admitting fault. You’ll have to eat a fair bit of crow, both privately and publicly. Then you have to admit that this has been a wake-up call.

The point of the university is the pursuit of truth through the open exchange of ideas. You need to admit -- even better, assert -- that the conduct of the police was directly antithetical to the purpose of the university. You need to prosecute the police involved, and replace the chief. You need to establish some sort of community board to monitor the police. The campus police will hate you for that, but it has to be done.

Then you need to take active steps to make UC-Davis a civil community in the fullest sense of ‘civil.’ That doesn’t mean ‘polite’ or ‘quiescent.’ It means a setting in which vigorous debate is actually possible -- and sometimes even encouraged -- with the shared understanding that we separate the speaker from the speech. I’d start by personally engaging the Occupy protesters on campus, and then by inviting speakers from all over to debate each other in public, both formally and informally. You need to attend those debates personally.

This can’t be delegated. You can’t ask your associate dean of whatever to handle it. As the chancellor, you have to get out there yourself. And you have to steel yourself emotionally for the vituperation that will come your way. You can’t take the bait.

Like it or not, the only way around this is through it. You have to own this, personally and publicly. You have to get out there yourself, take the risk of public humiliation, and change the way the university treats the people who get on its nerves.

If that’s too tall an order, just resign. But make up your mind quickly. Twisting in the wind will do untold damage to everything the university stands for.

Good luck. I’m glad I’m not you right now.


Dean Dad