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The Chancellor and the Student, or, Speaking Truth to Power

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In the wake of campus police pepper spraying seated students on November 18, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has stated, in various forums, to faculty and students, that she tried to meet with the students who were sprayed but was rebuffed. This came as a surprise to Jerika H., who says she has been contacting the Chancellor's office nearly every day asking for a meeting, and it is the Chancellor who has rejected her entreaties, not the other way around.

Jerika is a compelling young woman. She is an honors student in Cultural Anthropology. She got straight A's this fall even while sleeping in a tent on the quad, participating in demonstrations, and dealing with the effects of pepper spray. She has no parental support and became a ward of the state in her late teens. Very, very few such people make it to college. Even fewer graduate. Almost none end up straight A honors students. Speaking with her, one gets the clear impression that she has made it as far as she has by developing a skill set that includes an uncanny knack for being simultaneously respectful of, yet never intimidated by, her elders.

Jerika was not one of the students who got a triple dose of pepper spray right in the face, but she was close enough to feel its effects. At the time she was being treated for a lung infection by the campus clinic, where she had been given an inhaler and a slew of medications. The pepper spray exacerbated her condition. She did some research and learned that pre-existing respiratory conditions like hers are a frequent cause of pepper spray fatalities. She decided to do what she has done all her life in such situations: seek a face to face dialog with the person in charge. So on November 23 she sent an email to Chancellor Katehi:

I know you do not know me personally... I would like to come talk to you one on one without media.. I will offer you the utmost respect and hope to truly understand what you are going to do to make this right..

When she received no reply she began calling the Chancellor's office. Over and over. Nearly every day. Finally, Jerika reports that the receptionist told her, "I have passed along all of your messages, there is really nothing more I can do."

So when Jerika heard that the Chancellor was set to testify at a hearing a the state Capitol on December 14, she headed off for Sacramento and confronted the Chancellor in the corridor as she was leaving the hearing. This is where the story veers into the bizarre.

"I've been contacting you every single day, calling your office, sending you emails, and your assistants said they passed the messages along," Jerika told the Chancellor. "You've never responded to me."

"Well, I've asked them to set an appointment with you," Katehi replied.

"No, you haven't," Jerika insisted. "You absolutely have not."

A man in the Chancellor's entourage quickly buttonholed Jerika off to the side and told her that her meeting with the Chancellor had been set for the following Monday. "How could you possibly know that?" Jerika replied. "You don't even know my name."

When the news of the encounter appeared later that day on the web page of the Sacramento newspaper, Jerika got another lesson in the price of speaking truth to power. The comments section below the article quickly filled with truly ugly, vicious remarks about her and threats against her. The editors disabled the comment feature "due to abusive behavior by some commenters." Soon after, Jerika's personal email account began filling up with threats and derogatory statements.

With the story of the hallway confrontation all over the local news, Jerika received a sudden slew of phone calls and emails from people around the Chancellor asking for an immediate meeting, and they insisting Jerika had only contacted the Chancellor's office twice. When Jerika replied that she had documentation of all her calls, she received an email from Karl M. Engelbach, the Chancellor's Chieff of Staff, stating that he would:

be conducting a review with staff in the Chancellor and the Provost's Offices to determine what transpired with the other calls you placed to our offices. To assist me in that review, I would welcome any additional information you may have about the dates and times of your calls or any other information that you believe will assist in this review. 

Thus to the five investigations of the pepper spray incident already underway, a sixth investigation was launched to determine what happens to communications from students once they arrive at the Chancellor's office. It is my understanding that five people work in this office. Hopefully it will not require too much tax payer money to get to the bottom of this.

Jerika immediately helped them out with the following email:

The  phone records on my own phone and on the phone I use at home (my roommate's cell) contain all of the days I called. In December alone I called:
            Dec 2 @ 10:08
            Dec 5 @ 11:30
            Dec 6@ 4:17
            Dec 7 @  2:42
            Dec 7 @ 3:40
            Dec 9 @ 8:54
            Dec 12 @ 12:47
          Dec 14 @ 9:09  <---- that is when Allison recognized me from my many calls, said there was nothing more she could do for me and that she has passed the messages along and that she didn't know why no one had called me back.

Yesterday, Jerika finally got her meeting with the Chancellor, including the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor Fred Wood, Jerika, and myself (attending at Jerika's request). The administrators listened respectfully as Jerika explained what it was like to have no family, work two jobs, get straight A's, and worry that rising tuition costs would force her to drop out and spend years paying back loans on a degree she never received. She asked questions about university funding which the administrators did their best to answer.

The Chancellor wondered exactly what number in the vast university Jerika had been calling and why the messages had not made their way to her. Jerika replied that the number was listed as that of the Chancellor's office on the Chancellor's web page,. She said she spoken over and over with a woman named Allison. The Chancellor claimed that no Allison worked in her office.

But when the discussion turned to the events of November 18, the Chancellor noticeably tensed. In her respectful yet determined manner, Jerika started down a list of prepared questions. Had the Chancellor seen the video of police violence on the Berkeley campus the week before the events at Davis? Had the Chancellor known the police would be armed with rifles? What would the Chancellor have done if Jerika or another students had been killed? These were difficult questions for someone at the vortex of five investigations, and Jerika was unrelenting. Finally the Chancellor stood and announced, "This has become an interrogation. This meeting is over."

Jerika was offered that she could come back to continue the meeting some other time, but the Chancellor refused to commit to a day and time, and Jerika left unconvinced.

Moments later, a genuinely befuddled Jerika found herself outside on the sidewalk, trying to fathom how an undergraduate living on $100 a month after making tuition and rent had seemingly intimidated the Chancellor of a major university with a base pay of $400,000.

The next morning I called the number that appears so often in the 'previous calls' list on Jerika's cellphone. A woman named Allison answered, "Chancellor's office..."