- Parisa Esfahani
fourth-year student at UC Davis studying women and gender studies, Middle East and South Asian studies. She was part of the 36-day sustained sit-in of the fifth floor of Mrak Hall, where Chancellor Linda Katehi’s office is.
- Kyla Burke
fifth-year environmental science and management student at UC Davis.
This week, University of California President Janet Napolitano placed the chancellor of University of California, Davis, Linda Katehi, on investigatory administrative leave, pending an investigation into a number of infractions, including her decision to spend at least $175,000 to try to scrub the internet of criticism following the 2011 pepper-spraying of student protesters by campus police. The school made national headlines after the video showing police spraying seated students directly in the face at close range went viral. Earlier this spring, students at the University of California, Davis, occupied the office of Chancellor Katehi and staged a 36-day sit-in calling for her resignation, to protest her handling of student protests and allegations of conflicts of interest. Democracy Now! recently spoke with Parisa Esfahani and Kyla Burke, two of the students who took part in the sit-in.
AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road in Tucson, Arizona, as part of our 100-city 20th anniversary tour. We begin today’s show looking at student protests here in Arizona and in California. Earlier this spring, students at the University of California, Davis, occupied the office of school chancellor Linda Katehi for five weeks, calling for her resignation over her mishandling of student protests and allegations of conflicts of interest. Well, this week the students won a victory of sorts, as the University of California President Janet Napolitano placed Katehi on administrative leave, pending an investigation into a number of infractions, including allegations of nepotism and her decision to spend at least $175,000 to try to scrub the internet of criticism following the 2011 pepper-spraying of student protesters by campus police. The school made national headlines after this video showed police spraying students directly in the face at point-blank range.
PROTESTERS: Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students!
AMY GOODMAN: In 2012, the University of California reached a $1 million settlement with 21 protesters who were pepper-sprayed. Earlier this month, The Sacramento Bee reported that the UC Davis, University of California, Davis, paid consultants $175,000 to improve its online image, in part by scrubbing negative search results related to the pepper-spray incident. That news came to light while students were occupying the office of Linda Katehi. Well, I was recently on the campus of UC Davis, on this 100-city tour, and spoke to two of the students involved in the five-week sit-in.
PARISA ESFAHANI: My name is Parisa Esfahani. I’m a fourth-year at UC Davis studying women and gender studies, Middle East and South Asian studies. I was a part of the 36-day sustained sit-in of the fifth floor of Mrak Hall, where the chancellor’s office is. We left on Friday. I was there because there are serious concerns that not just us that sustained that sit-in, but many students have, but never feel empowered to voice on our campus. We pay a hefty tuition to be at this school. We are supposed to be the voices and the faces of the university. It’s an institution of education, but it’s become an institution of money making and lack of accountability. And we want our voices to be on the front. And it’s become—oh, we’re tired. We’re tired of like wondering why that’s not happening, and we’re tired of the normalization of the privatization of the university, and we’re tired of the kind of campaign that the university runs.
PROTESTERS: Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Linda Katehi’s got to go! Hey, hey!
KYLA BURKE: My name is Kyla Burke. I’m a fifth-year environmental science and management student at UC Davis. We were calling for the resignation of Katehi and for the process to be changed and democratized so students and workers have an active say in who runs their university. We’re calling Katehi to resign for—there’s a lot of reasons. Recently, there were the three moonlighting scandals that came out, with her working for DeVry and Wiley & Sons textbook and King Abdulaziz University, which all, for different reasons, represent conflict of interest or unethical decisions to work for them. But it’s not only that. There’s a long history of Katehi messing up, going back to 2011 and the pepper-spray incident. Personally, I thought she should have resigned then. But since then, as a student here, I’ve just watched a pattern of administration messing up and not being held accountable. And we wanted to change that and to be involved.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest issue that was uncovered by The Sacramento Bee?
KYLA BURKE: Yeah. So the latest—the latest issue that The Sacramento Bee discovered was that the university had spent $175,000 to try and wipe references to the pepper spray and to Katehi off the internet. And it really shows how concerned—what their concerns are, with like protecting administration and maintaining good PR, and not actually holding anyone accountable or making the changes, after that kind of incident, they should have.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happened in November of 2011?
KYLA BURKE: Yeah. In November of 2011, students were peacefully protesting tuition hikes in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. And they were in the Quad, and the university decided they wanted to remove them. And so, Officer Pike pepper-sprayed students at point-blank range.
AMY GOODMAN: This was the Davis police officer.
KYLA BURKE: A Davis—UC Davis police officer, I believe.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to Officer Pike?
KYLA BURKE: Officer Pike actually received more compensation than the students that were pepper-sprayed, for emotional distress from the incident. So, yeah, I believe he got like—
AMY GOODMAN: How much did the students get?
KYLA BURKE: I think they got—
PARISA ESFAHANI: Somewhere between $11,000—like $20,000 each.
KYLA BURKE: And he got $38,000.
PARISA ESFAHANI: Was that it?
KYLA BURKE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And is he there any longer?
KYLA BURKE: No, he no longer works for the school.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you end the sit-in at the administration offices?
KYLA BURKE: So, we had been in the sit-in for five weeks, and we had reached the point where we thought it was time to do something new. We had done a lot by that point. It had—it was like an in-depth activist training. Everyone who was in there, we created a community and solidarity, and learned a lot about like how to organize and how to work together. And we had brought a lot of national attention. I doubt The Sacramento Bee would have been putting in those records requests and finding out that information, if there wasn’t a 36-day sit-in going on to bring that kind of media attention in. So we thought it was a good point to leave and to try something different and to continue our protest in new ways. We didn’t—we don’t see it so much as an end as the beginning of a new phase.
PARISA ESFAHANI: And now we need to build our relationship to the rest of the student body, because there’s still—most students don’t know what’s happening. They didn’t know that we were in Mrak for five weeks.
AMY GOODMAN: How many of you were there?
KYLA BURKE: So, there was about like, total, I would say about like a hundred students that were involved. There were about 40 students who were like sleeping there regularly and doing shifts in Mrak. I don’t know. I’m not great with like guessing numbers, but that’s—
PARISA ESFAHANI: But our numbers—like, those were people that showed up physically in the space. But on Facebook, for example, on social media, there were like over a thousand students from Davis who were in support of us.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain this first issue of the conflict of interest.
KYLA BURKE: Yeah, so, there are three like conflict of interests or unethical moonlighting positions that Katehi had. The first was with DeVry University, which she broke policy by taking it. She didn’t get the approval that she was required to.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was that position?
KYLA BURKE: For—
PARISA ESFAHANI: Just on the board.
KYLA BURKE: On the board of DeVry University, which, additionally, DeVry University is being investigated by the federal government for like unethical practices and essentially lying to their students.
AMY GOODMAN: This a for-profit university?
KYLA BURKE: A for-profit university. And so, there was that. So it’s like taking—making the choice to be involved with that company that’s being investigated for like unethical practices, for how it treats its students. And additionally, like, she broke the policy and didn’t do what she was supposed to do and just did what she wanted to. And then there was Wiley & Sons textbook, which is a fairly obvious conflict of interest.
AMY GOODMAN: What did she do?
KYLA BURKE: She got a position on the board of Wiley & Sons textbook, which is—
PARISA ESFAHANI: They’re all board positions.
KYLA BURKE: They’re all board positions, yeah—which is a textbook company, which is a fairly obvious conflict of interest, because what’s in the best interest of the students is lower textbook prices, and what’s in the best interest of that company is not. And UCs are like one of their biggest customers, and prices went up while she worked for them. So…
PARISA ESFAHANI: Specifically, UC—John Wiley & Sons is—UC Davis is John Wiley & Sons’ biggest client. And there is another conflict of interest in that Chancellor Katehi’s husband is a professor in chemistry, I believe, and his class used John Wiley & Sons textbooks last quarter. So she’s serving on the board, and he’s making his students get those textbooks. That’s a pretty clear—yeah.
KYLA BURKE: And then, additionally, there was King Abdulaziz University, which is a Saudi Arabian university, that was essentially buying citations. They were paying like prominent professors at universities to, like, include them on their papers, so that they would be—like, show up as working there. So it went from a university that no one had ever heard of to being ranked above MIT in one year, which, as like a prominent research university, that’s like an unethical research practice. So…
AMY GOODMAN: And what did Chancellor Katehi have to do with that?
KYLA BURKE: She was on the board of that, as well, she said, to bring diversity to the school, although we couldn’t figure out what that exactly meant.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Parisa Esfahani and Kyla Burke, two students at UC Davis who took part in a recent 36-day sit-in calling for UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi to resign.
On Wednesday, the University of California President Janet Napolitano placed Katehi on administrative leave. In a statement, she said, quote, “Information has recently come to light that raises serious questions about whether Chancellor Katehi may have violated several University of California policies, including questions about the campus’s employment and compensation of some of the chancellor’s immediate family members, the veracity of the chancellor’s accounts of her involvement in contracts related to managing both the campus’s and her personal reputation on social media, and the potential improper use of student fees. The serious and troubling nature of these questions, as well as the initial evidence, requires a rigorous and transparent investigation.” Those, again, the words of UC President Janet Napolitano, who is the former governor of Arizona.
In a statement released earlier today, student protesters said, quote, “The collective efforts of UC Davis students, faculty, staff, and community members are responsible for yielding this result. It is crucial to note that it was not Janet Napolitano, or University of California Office of the President, who led us to this moment of justice, but our uncollapsing spirit and belief in political protest,” they said. The letter goes on to say, quote, “Katehi is but a cog in the UC machine. We are aiming to scrap the prototype and create a new system that both works for and is run by students, faculty, workers, and the community at large. Until system-wide change takes place, our demonstrations will continue,” they wrote.