Free Speech on Campus graphic

After punishing students for sit-in, UC Davis accused of selectively enforcing free expression policy – January 2018

Davis, CA

In January 2018, about 50 University of California, Davis students — led by the school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — protested proposed tuition increases by occupying the lobby of an administrative building on campus. Six of the students faced disciplinary hearings for occupying the building overnight, which invited comparisons to past demonstrations after which disciplinary procedures were not enforced. Many on the university’s board of governors joined students in their stark opposition to the tuition hikes, which were ultimately delayed.

Key Players

The University of California (UC) Board of Regents is the governing body of the entire UC system, and comprises 26 voting members appointed by the governor of California. The board includes the UC president, currently Janet Napolitano, and the California governor, currently Democrat Jerry Brown.

Gary May is the chancellor of UC Davis. His predecessor, Linda Katehi, was the object of student protests and resigned in August 2016.

Students for a Democratic Society at Davis is a chapter of a larger left-wing student activist movement dating back to the mid-twentieth century. The chapter’s self-described focus is “improving education rights, workers’ rights, and putting an end to racism, patriarchy, war and imperialism,” according to its Facebook page. Many of the student protesters in January were affiliated with SDS at Davis.

Further Details

In January 2018, the UC Board of Regents proposed a tuition increase for the entire UC system. The proposal would have increased baseline in-state tuition and fees by 2.7 percent, from $12,630 to $12,972. It also included a 3.5 percent increase to the supplemental tuition costs that out-of-state and international students pay; with this 3.5 percent increase, the additional fees that out-of-state students pay would rise from $28,014 to $28,992. The $978 increase in supplemental fees for out-of-state students would bring their tuition from $40,644 to $41,622, representing a 2.4 percent increase overall in their total tuition fees. The board was expected to meet on January 24 to confirm the changes.

UC Davis students began protesting the tuition hikes on January 23, having learned of them just days before the Board was to vote. Students had previously protested rising tuition costs in 2009 and 2011, and in the latter instance photos of campus police using pepper spray on student demonstrators went viral.

On January 23, approximately 50 protesters assembled outside the Memorial Union before marching with signs to Mrak Hall, the primary location of the UC Davis administration, reported The Davis Vanguard. Students occupied the first-floor lobby of Mrak for three days and two nights, according to The Sacramento Bee. SDS at Davis, the organization that spearheaded the protest, had apparently been planning the demonstration for several days. In a January 19 Facebook post, it wrote, “Students cannot take another tuition hike. We are sitting in on Mrak Hall.”

Only six of the student protesters maintained the sit-in overnight. Administrators collected student identification numbers from them and notified them they were violating UC Davis policy by occupying a university building after regular business hours, said Zachary Markham, one of the six. They were told they would face disciplinary proceedings for their actions.

The university emphasized that the students were not being disciplined for their participation in protests, but rather for their violation of the university policy about after-hours occupation of a campus building. UC Davis’ student expression guide notes that students “may not engage in an occupation/sit-in of an office or other non-public space in a university building in violation of the university’s time, place and manner regulations. If you do, you may be subject to student disciplinary action or arrest for trespassing.”

Students argued the disciplinary hearings levied against the six protesters represented a selective enforcement of the student expression policy. In spring 2016, some two dozen students had led a five-week sit-in outside of then-Chancellor Katehi’s office in Mrak Hall. Protesters were concerned that Katehi’s positions on multiple corporate boards created a conflict of interest for her. Katehi held seats on the boards of both textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons and for-profit educational company DeVry Education Group, which faced a 2016 suit from the Federal Trade Commission for its exaggerated claims about alumni employment rates and income prospects.

During the 2016 protest, students took shifts occupying the fifth-floor lobby outside of Katehi’s office. The demonstrators received warnings, including a formal letter threatening disciplinary action. However, they were not disciplined and were even allowed to store food in a staff refrigerator during their protest. The lengthy sit-in preceded Katehi’s August 2016 resignation.

That protest and Katehi’s consequent resignation drew national media attention. Some speculated that this spotlight led the administration to show leniency toward that group of student protesters.

“An administrative response during such a high-profile case could cause irreparable damage to the university’s image if the public viewed it in a negative light,” wrote the editorial board of The California Aggie, UC Davis’ student newspaper, in an April 2018 editorial. “Now, when faced with a protest that hasn’t had as much media attention, the administration has begun to enforce the campus policies it overlooked during 2016.”


Students for a Democratic Society hold a public meeting with UC Davis chancellor

In the days after the protest, SDS at Davis held a public meeting with Chancellor May and other campus administrators. In this first of a series of meetings, SDS discussed the proposed tuition increases, in addition to housing and food insecurity, issues with campus police, and other tenets of its advocacy. Subsequent meetings shifted away from discussion of the protest, focusing especially on the alleged militarization of the UC Davis campus police instead, reported the Aggie.

UC Regents indefinitely delay vote to confirm in-state tuition hikes

In the wake of the protest at Davis, the UC Board of Regents announced on January 24 that it would delay its vote on the proposed increase of baseline tuition until May. However, on March 15, the board approved the 3.5 percent increase on the supplemental tuition fees that out-of-state and international students pay. Then, in April 2018, the board delayed the vote on baseline tuition indefinitely, in hopes that the state legislature would provide greater funding to the UC system, which would render the tuition increase on in-state students unnecessary. As a result, out-of-of state and international students in the UC system experienced a $978 increase in their tuition; in-state students have not yet faced a tuition increase this year.

Six students who occupied Mrak Hall overnight face censure and probation

In April 2018, the six student protesters who occupied the building overnight faced a public disciplinary hearing, led by the Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs. It included members of the Campus Judicial Board, a body of students appointed by the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs to handle cases of suspected student misconduct. On April 26, the undergraduate student senate passed a resolution condemning the charges against the six student protesters.

According to several of the student protesters who faced the hearing, all six were found guilty of violating university policy. Several of the students reported being placed on disciplinary probation and now have disciplinary records with the university. The terms of probation can include restrictions on students’ privileges and eligibility for activities. Violation of the probationary terms or other misconduct during probation can lead to more serious consequences, including suspension or dismissal.

The disciplinary measures can also limit eligibility for on-campus employment, and at least one student claimed to have lost on-campus job opportunities because of the charges.

External References

UC Davis student sit-in comes to quiet end, The Sacramento Bee

FTC Brings Enforcement Action Against DeVry University

UC and CSU prepare for another year of tuition hikes, The Sacramento Bee

Students Protest Proposed Tuition Hike by UC, The Davis Vanguard

UC Davis Student Expression Guide

UC Davis Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs

UC Davis allowed takeover for weeks in 2016. Students now face discipline after 3 days, The Sacramento Bee

Tuition hike delayed as UC takes up budget fight at Capitol, The Sacramento Bee

Student protesters deserve genuine university support, The California Aggie

UC Davis Administration Allegedly Selectively Suppresses Freedom of Speech, The Davis Vanguard

Students for a Democratic Society meets with chancellor to address food, housing insecurity, budget mismanagement, tuition hike. The California Aggie

UC Regents approve nonresident tuition hike, The California Aggie

At third meeting between students and administration, students discuss solutions to UCPD militarization, racialized targeting, The California Aggie

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded June 6, 2018