Why Are UC Administrators Such Bad Letter Writers, And Why Should We Care?
Ask around, and you’ll find it has become a UC-wide habit to disregard letters from the UC administration. I don’t know whether this is the case for the administrators themselves—there is a rumor circulating that Chancellor Birgeneau, for example, did not in fact write the notorious “not nonviolence” letter to which he signed his name. (The claim is that an underling did.) I choose to ignore that rumor, not because it might not be true, but because it’s magnificently irrelevant. He signed his name to it, he allowed it to be sent from his account, and he must be held accountable for the messages he sends to the campus community. The question of authorship is purely, ahem, academic. If we grant someone else writing in his name as a mitigating circumstance, we become complicit in the cataclysmic devaluation of communication between the administration and the university. That devaluation has become a defining feature of President Yudof’s tenure as UC President.
President Yudof’s First Principles Of Language and Management, In His Own Words
Let’s begin with President Yudof’s now-infamous remarks to the New York Times following painful pay cuts:
NYT: Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs,” to use a buzzword.
MY: Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.
NYT: The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?
MY: Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.
NYT: How did you get into education?
MY: I don’t know. It’s all an accident. I thought I’d go work for a law firm.
To sum up: to illustrate how well he listens to his faculty, President Yudof first compares them to corpses, then boasts that he agreed to let them call their salary cuts “furloughs” if that would make them happier. All the while criticizing them for refusing to hear what he is saying. Oceans of contempt, all wrapped up in three short sentences.
Listening to President Yudof
That’s what President Mark Yudof describes in his own words as good management and good listening. I want to note that before proceeding. I’m writing this post partly to show President Mark Yudof that despite his sense that “no one is listening” to him in the cemetery he manages, several of us are. We heard his complaint, we took it under advisement, and we are listening, very carefully, to everything he says.
Here, for example, is President Yudof’s statement on November 20, the same day that over 60,000 people signed a petition for UC Davis Chancellor Katehi to resign. Here’s what he said on Twitter:
It’s a bold stand. Encouraging, hopeful. If you want to know how it turns out—how all that power translates to any kind of concrete change, however minimal, fast-forward to the end of this ridiculously long post.
If this were a different day, I’d shrug this off as just another administrative lie. I might even joke about it, the way countless people in offices do every day. But it dawned on me today that this is not an office. It is not a corporation. Not yet. And we just can’t laugh darkly about it all anymore. We can’t sigh at the contradictions that come from these offices, because their consequences are grave, and there are real bodies involved.
So here’s a brief history of the President and the Chancellor as told in their own words, words I will respect even if they do not.
A good starting point is President Yudof’s response to the events of November 9, when students and faculty were beaten and arrested, including 70-year old former poet-laureate Bob Hass and his wife, who was knocked to the ground. In addition to many statements broadly in support of free expression on campus, it contains this sentence:
“Like Chancellor Birgeneau, I was distressed by what I saw, both as a parent and as president of the University of California.”
As a careful reader, you might well wonder exactly how distressed Chancellor Birgeneau was by what he saw, since President Mark Yudof is (in a stab at solidarity) equating his distress with the Chancellor’s. To understand Yudof and the entire system he has fomented, then, we need to first understand his underling.
Chancellor Birgeneau at UC Berkeley
Let’s start with Chancellor Birgeneau’s first letter, the one he wrote in response to those same November 9 events, written before he realized anyone cared. In the following two excerpts, note the use of “we”; Chancellor Birgeneau is aggressively aligning his viewpoint with the police, and making it clear that he is part of the “we” that carried out those actions:
“We regret that, in spite of forewarnings, we encountered a situation where, to uphold our policy, we were required to forcibly remove tents and arrest people.”
We regret that, given the instruction to take down tents and prevent encampment, the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy. We regret all injuries, to protesters and police, that resulted from this effort.
Stern use of the first person plural, full of paternalistic “regret” that the students forced the police to use their batons. It’s the speech parents give to their children after a spanking. Tough love. The Chancellor is counting himself among the “we” who encountered a situation where “we” were required to forcibly remove tents and arrest people. He was there—that pronoun implies—like any good parent (or administrator) would be, watching the situation unfold and determining, based on all the facts, that this was the appropriate course of action.
Putting the Chancellor on pause for a moment, briefly recall that President Yudof said that Chancellor Birgeneau was “distressed” by what he saw. I invite you to comb through Birgeneau’s letter for signs of distress. To me, claims of “regretting” being forced to use batons notwithstanding, it reads more like grim approbation.
To what, then, is President Yudof be referring, when he likens Birgeneau’s distress to his own?
He’s referring to Chancellor Birgeneau, v. 2.0: Shocked, Saddened, Surprised.
The Chancellor’s second letter was issued in response to widespread shock and extremely unfavorable media coverage as videos of the beatings at UC Berkeley went viral. In this second edition, the Chancellor goes to great lengths to insist that the “we” that he employed so authoritatively in his earlier letter did not, in point of physical fact, include him. He was out of the country, he says. Moreover, he had not even bothered to watch the footage of police officers yanking tenured faculty by the hair to the ground before writing his letter approving of all they did. Here’s that confession:
While away, I remained in intermittent contact with Provost George Breslauer and other members of our leadership team and was kept informed, as much as possible, about the Occupy Cal activities on campus. However, it was only yesterday that I was able to look at a number of the videos that were made of the protests on November 9. These videos are very disturbing.
Let’s be absolutely clear about what happened: in the first letter, Chancellor Birgeneau spoke in the chiding tones of a disappointed father who was deeply interested in his children’s welfare. He and the police were contiguous, indistinguishable agents–“we” did this, and “we” did it in your own best interest.
He concludes that first letter like any good father would, with a plea, again voiced as coming from both himself and the police:
We urge you to consider the fact that there are so many time-tested ways to have your voices heard without violating the one condition we have asked you to abide by.
In light of the second letter, this is an astonishing piece of chutzpah.
No, no it isn’t—there’s the temptation to joke again. To be sarcastic. To refuse to take this seriously.
To beat your already beaten campus with that pronoun, to blame them, and then admit you were doing it without cause is not bold. It is not funny. It is astoundingly irresponsible.
Word choice seems trivial much of the time. “We” or “I,” “distress” or “regret.” But this use of “we” is not to be taken lightly. It is not a mistake to be cosmetically airbrushed out of the record. It is a persistent, unapologetic use of that pronoun “we” to drive home that he was in full control of what had gone on, and that he approved of it. It’s a rhetorical choice, the utter baselessness of which is revealed, in that second letter, through the admission that he had exactly none of the information he claimed to have carefully considered when making his first assessment of campus events.
This is a dead horse worth beating: the Chancellor of UC Berkeley unapologetically authorized the police action against faculty and students and unapologetically supported that decision, claiming both responsibility for the action and knowledge of the circumstances: he represents himself as part of the “we” that “encountered” a situation that forced police to use inexcusable violence.
You don’t get to walk away from that particular kind of mendacity, no matter how many letters you issue. Here’s why: it’s symptomatic of an institution whose checks and balances are sick, whose appeals processes are broken, and whose administrators appear to speak only in terms of what makes good or bad press.
It’s likely that the Chancellor wrote that letter, not maliciously, but carelessly. That does not make it better; it makes it worse. It reveals that this is a practice that isn’t limited to one Chancellor or to one day—it’s a pattern, a habit, a system. He wrote with the easy knowledge that he would be believed, that his was the definitive word, despite his distance and ignorance from the events in question. He wrote while distracted, assuming that no one who mattered was likely to question his account. (Students would know the truth, of course, and so would faculty—but they don’t matter much when it comes to PR, and they were probably asking for it anyway.)
The narrative the Chancellor produced was that he was supervising his campus security, that he had the students’ welfare at heart, and that he had rigorously checked all the facts before determining that quality control, when it came to campus policing, was top-notch and no serious review was necessary.
His situation is in fact precisely analogous to this one:
President Yudof Responds to UC Berkeley Beatings
So how did President Mark Yudof respond to this embarrassment? Here’s his statement again, which you can read in full if you’re so inclined. After his students’ rights were flagrantly violated and his chancellor publicly admitted to real misconduct, what steps did the President take?
At UC Berkeley, a process is in place to review the violence of last week.
That’s the only action mentioned in the statement. “A process is in place” which will “review” the violence of last week.
I’m amazed that it takes a lowly blogger writing at 1:00 in the morning to point this out, but that is not a response. That is a euphemism swaddled in the passive voice. It is a set of words which, strung together, responds to none of what it purports to address. What it does communicate is that we are to take it on trust from this administration that they will “review everything” and come to the correct conclusion—this despite the fact that our Chancellor, who will doubtless be involved in selecting the “reviewers,” made a catastrophic error in judgment that he had no problem communicating to the public until he was forced (by bad publicity, not through ordinary channels) to reconsider.
(I doubt I need to explain why the phrase “a process is in place” is meaningless, but just in case, here are some initial questions one might ask: what sort of process? Overseen by whom? How are conflicts of interest being handled? On what timeline? What precisely is being investigated? The relevant facts are on video and have been widely “reviewed.” Several faculty and students have written firsthand accounts. The facts are out and do not require laborious reconstruction. The question is, how will you move forward in light of those facts?)
However, having assured us that there will be a review of something at some point, President Yudof gives the chancellors their due:
Whether there or elsewhere, I have absolute confidence that our chancellors will do what is right and necessary to ensure that the campuses where our students live and learn provide an environment for robust but peaceful discourse.
He may have absolute confidence—that is of course his prerogative.
The campus community does not share that confidence, and that is the material point—a point whose significance the President seems to miss.
To put it another way, the President may hold the opinion that his chancellors will do all that is good and true despite clear evidence to the contrary, but his opinion in no way trumps university-wide outrage.
That he thinks it does and behaves accordingly is, again, symptomatic of what happens when the president of a public university starts thinking of himself as a CEO. This university is not a corporation. Yet.
I submit, moreover, that the campus community’s judgement is demonstrably better than President Yudof’s, given that Chancellor Katehi defended the UCPD using military-grade pepper-spray on seated students less than a week after Yudof’s letter was written. More about UC Davis in a moment.
Whatever his personal response may have been, President Yudof’s professional response was laughably inadequate. (No. No no. Again, no one is laughing.) A responsible administrator’s response to an objection which can be roughly paraphrased as “you have publicly admitted to refusing to take our concerns seriously” cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be “we will take your concerns seriously this time no really we will we promise.” Not unless that administrator sees the university he is administrating as (for example) a cemetery full of corpses that can be pacified by substituting the word “furlough” for what are in fact “salary cuts.”
It’s not entirely surprising that an administrator who paraphrases his faculty’s objection to their salary cuts as an objection to the title of the cuts rather than the cuts themselves would consider the phrase “a process is in place” to be a commensurate response to his faculty’s broken ribs. President Yudof, who was essentially hired to privatize the University, is already running it as he would a corporation, paying lip-service to the mission statement but proceeding along different, rather more pragmatic lines that only he and the trustees (er, Regents) have any real right to know.
There are environments in which he would be right. That kind of protocolese would be perfectly appropriate in a corporate setting. It’s unfortunate for President Yudof, however, that one of several rather important differences between corporations and universities is that some people who work at universities are notorious for paying way, way too much attention to language. (Hello, English Department!)
To him, the difference between “furlough” and “salary cut” is purely cosmetic; to the faculty who made that suggestion, that difference actually had meaningful content. Even if some of those faculty are from (for example) West Philadelphia with dads who, like Yudof’s, were electricians, they nevertheless reached adulthood recognizing that the words you use do matter.
The Case of Chancellor Katehi and UC Davis
Leaving Chancellor Birgeneau aside for the moment and turning to Chancellor Katehi, the case for bad governance is perhaps even easier to make. If you’re unfamiliar with what happened at UC Davis, you can start with my review here, although I recommend visiting Angus Johnston at studentactivism.net, whose account is much more thorough and amply sourced. Start with “Ten Things You Should Know About Friday’s UC Police Violence.” Then read Xeni Jardin’s interview with a student who had to remain anonymous because he feared expulsion for reporting on his own pepper-spraying.
The students elected to prove their non-violence to Chancellor Katehi in this way, which is one of the most chillingly effective protests I have ever seen.
Here is Chancellor Katehi’s response to the events on her campus. Notice, again, the Chancellor’s royal “we,” and how similar her response is to Chancellor Birgeneau’s. Perhaps there is a template:
We are saddened to report that during this activity, 10 protestors were arrested and pepper spray was used. We will be reviewing the details of the incident. … We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.
In what is perhaps the smallest compliment I have ever paid, I congratulate the Chancellor for saying that she has not yet reviewed the details of the incident, and on refraining from using the extraordinarily condescending language that peppered Birgeneau’s first missive.
Like Birgeneau, it became clear, thanks to the bad publicity and not to the discontent of the campus community, which was already very apparent, Katehi realized she needed to write a Second Letter from the Chancellor, which is rapidly becoming its own genre. (Perhaps someday Chancellors will swap stories on writing their first “Oh, There Was Video!” letter.) Here it is. An excerpt—note that just as in Birgeneau’s case, she has switched from the magniloquent “we” to “I”:
In the aftermath of the troubling events we experienced, I will attempt to provide a summary of the incident with the information now available to me.
There’s the admission that the first letter was written with insufficient information, though made less damningly than Birgeneau:
The university police then came to dismantle the encampment. The events of this intervention have been videotaped and widely distributed. As indicated in various videos, the police used pepper spray against the students who were blocking the way. The use of pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this.
Again, the use of pepper spray was not “chilling to us all” in the first letter. In particular, it was not chilling to the Chancellor, or to the “we” from which she wrote. There is a major revision here, and once again, it is a revision based on the fact that the Chancellor was forced to actually examine the evidence on which she had been earlier pronouncing.
What We Can Learn About The Administration From Their Letters
I’m dwelling on these letters because the two sequences highlight the extent to which this facile, irresponsible handling of outrageous events on campus is not accidental or reactive, but procedural. Putting them next to each other is instructive: we can see how two absolutely unacceptable events were handled. Twice. In the space of two weeks. On two different campuses. With two different chancellors.
The only thing they have in common is the University of California President, who has set the tone for an entire UC administration that issues boilerplate statements to quell dissatisfaction until there is no danger of a spotlight.
Or, in the words of @reclaimuc: “UC Davis’s Chancellor and its Police Chief both reacted as if this were an unpleasant routine, until it became a news item.”
It is a pattern the UC community has grown to accept with hunched shoulders.
Not anymore. We are not deaf, we are not a cemetery; we are listening, and we are watching. As a member of that community, I apologize to the administrators and to the public for not doing I could personally to draw attention to this entrenched pattern of rhetorical duplicity and incompetence before. Many tried, I know, but a combination of complacence, resignation, hopelessness, and an inability to make themselves heard shut them down. Still, we all should have tried harder.
So, What Will Mark Yudof Do With All His Power As President?
I started this post with President Mark Yudof’s promise to do “everything in his power” as President to protect the rights of students, faculty and staff.
Here is the full text of his note on Facebook, with my responses as I read in bold:
Sunday, November 20, 2011
I am appalled by images of University of California students being doused with pepper spray and jabbed with police batons on our campuses. [Kudos for “jabbed” rather than “nudged.”]
I intend to do everything in my power as President of this university to protect the rights of our students, faculty and staff to engage in non-violent protest. [Excellent!]
Chancellors at the UC Davis and UC Berkeley campuses already have initiated reviews of incidents that occurred on their campuses. I applaud this rapid response and eagerly await the results. [Applause is neither warranted nor appropriate. Moreover, the “reviews” in question are standard operating procedure and not one has resulted in a single concrete change, despite multiple instances of police violence on campus.]
The University of California, however, is a single university with 10 campuses, and the incidents in recent days cry out for a system-wide response. [Yes. Bravo.]
Therefore I will be taking immediate steps to set that response in motion. [Mounting excitement. Maybe this time things will be different.]
I intend to convene all 10 chancellors, either in person or by telephone, to engage in a full and unfettered discussion about how to ensure proportional law enforcement response to non-violent protest. [Good!]
To that end, I will be asking the Chancellors to forward to me at once all relevant protocols and policies already in place on their individual campuses, as well as those that apply to the engagement of non-campus police agencies through mutual aid agreements. [YES! This is exceptionally good—especially since Alameda County Police are not subject to UCPD rules when brought in through mutual aid agreements.]
Further, I already have taken steps to assemble experts and stake-holders to conduct a thorough, far-reaching and urgent assessment of campus police procedures involving use of force, including post-incident review processes. [What are “stake-holders”? What experts? This does not sound like an external review, which is the only appropriate response at this stage, and the only response the campus community is likely to take seriously, given the administrators’ habit of disseminating misinformation.]
My intention is not to micromanage our campus police forces. The sworn officers who serve on our campuses are professionals dedicated to the protection of the UC community. [Fine.]
Nor do I wish to micromanage the chancellors. They are the leaders of our campuses and they have my full trust and confidence. [They should have your full confidence–it’s apparent that the philosophy guiding their responses is yours, since the procedures in question are a problem across multiple campuses which have been shaped by your administration. The chancellors are a problem, but it would be a mistake to lay the blame on them as individuals.]
Nonetheless, the recent incidents make clear the time has come to take strong action to recommit to the ideal of peaceful protest.
As I have said before, free speech is part of the DNA of this university, and non-violent protest has long been central to our history. It is a value we must protect with vigilance. I implore students who wish to demonstrate to do so in a peaceful and lawful fashion. I expect campus authorities to honor that right.
I finished that note feeling somewhat heartened. Some of that language is specific, some of it recognizes real problems, and it seems to be just a touch more personal a communication than the prepackaged statements I’ve come to expect from my university administrators. It shows evidence of some actual attention, some care.
Then the meeting between President Yudof and the chancellors took place. Here is the full text of the UC report. Galvanized by all the public attention his University has received, promising to do “everything in his power” (and he has a huge amount of it), I read this report with the expectation of bold action—something that would fulfill the interesting direction the President’s letter lays out. Something other than his earlier vague promises of “reviews” and that famous “process that has been put in place.”
Here are the three bullet points for future action:
• Examine recent incidents involving use of force on UC campuses.
• Organize a thorough examination of police procedures, protocols and training.
• Put in place a structure to assemble recommendations for longer-term practices to ensure the safety of members of the UC community engaged in peaceful protest.
The report promises that details will be released at some point, and I will be very interested to see what those are.
In the meantime, note how distant the “practices” (i.e., the concrete policies) are in that third bullet point from the process Yudof and his ten chancellors have offered to produce them. That sentence is a beautiful reduction of everything this administration does: it won’t act, it will develop “longer-term” practices. But first it will assemble recommendations for longer-term practices. And before that, of course, a structure needs to be put in place that can assemble those recommendations.
By the time we put in place a structure to assemble recommendations for longer-term practices to ensure the safety of the UC community, years will have passed, the urgency will have died, and the President and his Chancellors will be back to business as usual.
President Yudof, that is not a response.
Your Facebook note was the first hopeful thing we’ve heard from you. We look forward to the concrete details of your plan, which will be transparent, which will include an external review in a timely manner, and which will recognize the faculty as more than children and more than corpses in a cemetery where no one listens.
We are here, and we are listening.
[UPDATE: Chancellor Birgeneau has apologized. The text of that apology is here.]
[SECOND UPDATE: Yup, Chancellor Birgeneau was lying all along–see this e-mail transcript of Chancellor Birgeneau and his staff making up an account of protesters misbehaving and praising the police for the “professionalism”, all written the day before the protest happened. This was during the protests in 2009.]
[THIRD UPDATE: Here is President Mark Yudof’s latest note, which includes an external review of police procedures.