Russell's Blog

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Say it with us : Another open letter to the Chancellor

Posted by Russell on November 23, 2011 at 2:05 a.m.
Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I know this joins a growing list of open letters addressed to you, but you will find that this one really is addressed to you, rather than at you.

On Saturday, I signed the petition for your resignation. After this evening's townhall meeting, I withdrew my signature. You've restored some of my confidence in your ability to lead this campus, although reservations remain. The way I see it, you have two choices; lead, or resign. I would prefer you that lead.

Unfortunately, it seems that you are not getting the best advice in that regard. I offer these thoughts in the hope that they will point the way.

Sometimes, it is necessary to break a small rule in order to protect a more important rule. Civil disobedience is not disregard for rules in general; it is a statement about the relative importance of two rules that are, or have become contradictory. The Civil Rights rights movement broke many local ordinances and state laws, but this was done in order to push the country into compliance with the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution. This is a proud and honorable part of American history, and has been a model for tremendous positive change around the world.

The Occupy protests belong to this tradition; they are peacefully but deliberately breaking a small law, in this case, ordinances against camping, in order to protect the country from the existential threat of economic nihilism. UC Davis was occupied by its students because they object to its destruction.

You spoke powerfully this evening about the burning of universities and libraries in Greece. "No one has the right to destroy the public's property," is how I think you put it. I am absolutely in agreement. I believe it is indeed your duty as chancellor to protect this campus, because there are indeed anarchists who are very eager to burn it down. However, the anarchists who threaten UC Davis are not camping on the quad tonight. They are in Sacramento and Washington D.C.

One of the most difficult problems in politics is building coalitions. You are always divided from your natural allies by social boundaries. Race, religion, age, region, class and gender create boundaries to mutual comprehension. Professors are separated from students by the roles each must play in the classroom, and administrators are separated from both professors and students by billowing layers of university bureaucracy.

You have fought for this campus in Sacramento and Washington, and you have seen just how frustrating and lonely it is to fight for public education these days. You clearly understand how important places like UC Davis are for the future of this country. But on Friday, your officers used chemical weapons on people who were engaged in the very same fight.

So, let me make a suggestion. Don't just apologize. Don't just seek to heal and muddle forward. The panels, investigations, reports and meetings you discussed this evening are all important positive things, and by all means proceed with them. However, you must know that they will not save this campus from the fire that is coming.

Instead, look across the divide and recognize Occupy UC Davis for what it is; the banner of your true allies. They are the infantry in the battle to save public education. Join them. Next time you walk the halls of Congress to fight for this campus, don't just bring a few token students. Bring an army.

The past few days have made it painfully clear that while you can be quite articulate, you are not a skilled politician or tactician. This sits in stark contrast to the students, who have frankly run circles around you. If you're willing to fight for us, your errors can and will be forgiven. However, if you are going to be an effective advocate for this campus, you will need to employ the skills you have, and find trustworthy friends to help when you are out of your element. An alliance of the Chancellor's office and the student movement would be much greater than the sum of its parts, and would certainly be more productive than continuing to antagonize one another. If you want that alliance, you are going to have ask for it in the language of mass protest; with symbols, not words.

You will find that there is plenty of room on the quad for another tent. There could be no symbol more unambiguous than joining the students in committing this trivial infraction. The world is watching.

Whose university? Our university. Say it with us, Chancellor.

Russell Neches
Graduate student, Microbiology
UC Davis

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