Sunday, November 20, 2011

A further installment of "Read a Memo": Chancellor Katehi's UC-Davis memos

The header to this blog reads Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press. It's time to add one more to these someone high-flown categories listing the obsessions of Tinfish's editor. The new category, which has been touched on more than once before on these virtual pages, is that of "administrative memos." As far as I can tell, the most widely read of my posts was one I wrote in October 2009 in response to a memo from the President of UH, M.R.C. Greenwood, who lamented the UH faculty's refusal to sign a contract that would have cut salaries with no promise of pay-back. What struck me most strongly about that memo was the president's use of pronouns. Where naively faculty think of the "we" of the university as its students and faculty, President Greenwood used "we" to denote the administration: "The university is disappointed in the UHPA vote to reject our contract offer." UHPA is the faculty union, and the vote (hence) was that of the faculty. That sentence let us know that "we" were no longer the university, but that--like children--we had disappointed the parental "we" of the university's administration.

This past week has seen "Occupy" demonstrations across the country. After one at Berkeley resulted in a confrontation between police, students, and two prominent poets, including Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass, the latter a former US poet laureate, students at UC-Davis demonstrated. A flurry of protests must needs garner a raft of memos, these from Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. Once again, the content of the "we" is at issue.

The first memo, dated 11/18/2011, is written to ask students to take down their tents by 3 p.m., a request that comes only after several paragraphs of administrative prose, asserting at once a desire to support free speech, and the need to shut it down. As later discussions of what would happen that day at Davis revolve around questions of responsibility, I will quote the paragraph in which the Chancellor invokes that word:

However, we also have a responsibility to our entire campus community, including the parents who have entrusted their students to us, to ensure that all can live, learn and work in a safe, secure environment without disruption. We take this responsibility seriously. We are accountable for what occurs on our campus. Campus policies generously support free speech, but do include limited time, place and manner regulations to protect health, safety and the ability of students, staff, and faculty to accomplish the University mission. If an unfortunate incident occurs as a result of violations of these limited regulations, we are all responsible.

I'm not sure who the "we" is here, although I gather it must be an administrative--rather than (or as!) a royal--we. The responsibility is that of guardians of the children of parents who send those kids to UC-Davis, and it's a responsibility that includes the oft-bruited "health" and "safety" rationales used by many of the nation's mayors in recent weeks. Hence, "we are accountable for what occurs on our campus," sounds at first blush like a claim by administration to bear this tough, adult, weight. But the last sentence blurs the "we" into another realm, that of the students: "If an unfortunate incident occurs as a result of violations of these limited regulations, we are all responsible." The "we" has grown to include the student body here. We administrators are responsible for your health and safety until such time as you are not healthy or safe, when it's also your responsibility . . . Rather than take down their tents and patiently await what the Chancellor referred to as, "continued productive and peaceful discourse moving forward," the students held their ground. Many of them locked arms and sat on the sidewalk, while others encircled the area.

What happened next is all over youtube, facebook, and other media, namely the actions of one aptly-named Lt. John Pike, who sprayed seated students with pepper spray as if they were roses infested by bugs, or maybe just bugs. The outcry was immediate, and so was the administrative response.
Another memo emerged, also dated 11/18. In it the Chancellor wrote much the same thing she'd written in the first memo. The prose was as if stirred in a large pot, with notions of "health" and "safety" and responsibility to parents circulating with only slightly more agitation than in the first memo of the day. But this prose does not serve as advance warning, which includes a notion of administrative responsibility; rather, it serves the purpose of removing responsibility from the equation, at least from Admin's point of view. Hence, the re-word "responsibility" comes to be replaced by the re-word, "regret," as in: "We deeply regret that many of the protesters today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested. We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal." In this sentence, "we" are back among the administration, but this "we" is not responsible, but somehow sad that their responsibility came to naught. If regret replaces responsibility for the administrators, then responsibility must be given over to "the protesters," many of whom--she writes--are not from UC-Davis at all, but from the "outside."

The ethical continental divide comes in the sentence after the one about "protesters" who "chose"--active ones!--in the next sentence: "We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpire to facilitate their removal." It was not Lt. Pike who removed them, in large part by spraying chemicals in their faces and then having them forcibly taken away, it was "the events that transpired." These events transpired not to remove them, but to "facilitate their removal."

Student response to these memos and the actions ordained, excused, and then displaced by them, was brilliant. Students surrounded the building the Chancellor was meeting in. When she finally emerged from the building, she was obliged to walk several blocks to her car in the dark, surrounded by students seated (as their pepper-sprayed colleagues had been) on the ground. No one made a sound. This use of silence was beautiful, and also politically effective. Silence carried a weight that was spiritual (both for the chancellor forced to examine herself on that walk, and for the students who were as-if--or who were--meditating together). Silence was the fullest of possible reponses. See video of her walk here.

The OED tells me that "responsibility" means:

1. Capability of fulfilling an obligation or duty; the quality of being reliable or trustworthy.

But it's more than that; the word "responsibility" includes within it the word "response." Responses are of many kinds, but responsible responses are, if we follow Steel's argument (after the parable of the Samaritan), neighborly. Suffice it to say that the police response to students at UC-Davis, was not neighborly, even if it was a response. Yesterday, I wrote about Leonard Schwartz's discussion of "little anger" and "big anger" in his new poems and in conversation. I'd like to transpose the "big anger" that shows itself not as anger but as something else (whether it's carnival or silence) into Steel's reading of neighborliness, while acknowledging that neither Brecht nor Schwartz are Christian, nor Steel necessarily angry. But if our (and I use "our" advisedly) anger is to be creative rather than corrosive, we need to transmute it into something like neighborliness. Let that be a responsibility between peers, not between parents, their proxies in university administration, and the rest of us children. Those kids last night were not much seen or heard, but their message was eloquently delivered.

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