Open Letter: UCSC’s Student Activists Stand Up to Chancellor’s Criminalization of Activism


Last week on May 30th, UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal sent out a message containing threatening language that targeted campus activists. He threatened students, staff, faculty members, and all other campus affiliates with disciplinary consequences for engaging in direct action. This message seemed to be a response to two recent and very successful actions.

On May 1st, UCSC students shut down the campus in solidarity with International Worker’s Day. The strike specifically served to spotlight the ways in which the UC exploits its workers while also celebrating the heritage of Latinx migrant workers. During the strike, students were informed by the campus laborer’s union that the action was very beneficial for them, as they were in the process of bargaining their labor contract.

Then on May 2nd, UCSC’s Afrikan/Black Student Alliance reclaimed Kerr Hall, the campus’s administrative building (home of the Chancellor’s office). The reclamation lasted for only two nights before the administration agreed to meet A/BSA’s demands, which included housing guarantees for all Afrikan/Black students and the instatement of a mandatory in-person diversity training for all incoming students. A/BSA’s statements and other news on the reclamation can be read at those links.

On the heels of these two extremely successful actions, Blumenthal’s statement reads like the words of a sore loser, who doesn’t realize that the victories of activists mean that everyone wins. Here’s his full statement (bold added by me for emphasis):

“Our campus has a long and proud history of challenging the status quo. We do it through research, through teaching, and through activism. The exchange of ideas—sometimes done quietly, sometimes not—helps to move society and our campus forward.

Over the years we’ve made many changes on campus after hearing thoughtful and reasoned arguments from students. We are ultimately here as a university to support them, and it’s essential we remain attuned to their needs. A university is a dynamic environment. I want to be sure our services, programs, and policies are serving students.

For that reason, we have staff across campus committed to working directly with students to ensure that their voices are heard. They can connect students with the appropriate administrators, guiding them to the proper avenues to effect change.

Our Division of Student Success, overseen by interim Vice Provost Jaye Padgett, offers a host of services that aid our student body: Those include our Office of Campus Life and Dean of Studentseight Student Success Centers, and six resource centers.

Additionally, Teresa Maria Linda Scholz, our campus diversity officer for staff and students, is available to meet with those who have concerns about our campus climate.

However, I want to be clear: While I support First Amendment rights, I do not endorse efforts to halt the normal work of the university, such as blocking campus entrances or taking over a building.

Such actions are not protected speech under the U.S. or California constitutions. They can keep students from learning, faculty from conducting research, and staff from performing the essential business of this university.

Moving forward, people who choose to engage in conduct that obstructs or disrupts teaching, research, or other university-sponsored activities violate university codes of conduct and will be subject to discipline under our student handbook, employment or other applicable policies. Disciplinary measures can include warnings, suspensions, or—in the most egregious of cases—expulsion or dismissal.

We also must strive to be respectful and civil in our dialogue, as described in our Principles of Community. Allegations of hateful remarks directed at certain groups by others in our community are deeply troubling. That behavior is at odds with our goal of having a welcoming and open campus.

I ask our campus community to keep these expectations in mind as we move ahead.

The all-inclusive campus community we aspire to takes work, but it is something I believe is eminently achievable if we adhere to our principles. They allow us to respectfully discuss our differences while also acknowledging our common humanity.”

Of course the use of such openly threatening language sent a shockwave through the campus. With this statement, Blumenthal positioned himself against not only the Black and Latinx students who protected their communities last month, but also anyone wishing to stand up to the administration and ask for what they deserve through a means that could actually secure a response. A/BSA had requested meetings with the Chancellor for years prior to this action, as have countless other groups on campus, without getting any real response to their needs. Unfortunately, direct action has in recent times proven the only way to get the administration to listen and respond to the needs of students, staff, faculty, and other groups.

To protect our right to direct action, a group of student activists, including myself, wrote an open letter to Chancellor Blumenthal in response to his statement. I presented the letter to him yesterday at an awards ceremony. Here is what we wrote:

“Dear Chancellor Blumenthal,

We are sending you this letter in response to your email titled “Community expectations.” As you may have heard, this email ignited a great response within the student activist communities here at UCSC. We are expressing this response to you clearly and publicly in order to bring to light the threats and contradictions your words communicate to us.

We are disturbed to read a communication intended for the campus community which so baldly condemns the actions of campus activists as grounds for serious disciplinary action. When you write, “People who choose to engage in conduct that obstructs or disrupts teaching, research, or other university-sponsored activities violate university codes of conduct and will be subject to discipline under our student handbook, employment or other applicable policies,” you inherently criminalize the important and necessary actions of student activists, as well as those of campus unions and laborers. These words display blatant hypocrisy when you simultaneously champion UCSC’s activist spirit with your campaign slogan, “The original authority on questioning authority.” If we are not allowed to question your authority without being targeted for our actions, how will you keep up UCSC’s activist reputation?

We reject your threats to students, staff, faculty members, or anyone else. These threats create an even more polarized and uncertain campus climate, and directly contradict the concern you seem to express in your email.

We believe that you fundamentally misunderstand these actions and the needs of the communities forced to organize them. Campus activists are not organizing merely for the sake of interrupting learning, research, or university business. Students organized the May Day strike to bring light to the ways the university exploits its workers and to celebrate the work and heritage of Latinx migrant workers. A/BSA students reclaimed Kerr Hall only after making repeated requests over several years for certain demands which you subsequently ignored or dismissed. In short, campus activists organize out of necessity because these actions are often the only effective way to receive the appropriate and necessary response from your administration. Clear injustices exist on this campus which seriously hinder or endanger the lives of students, faculty, and staff, and Black and brown lives in particular. Actions such as the ones you have chosen to address in your email are at times the only means we have available to us in order to see proper responses to our varying needs, as seen in the success of the A/BSA reclamation this past May.

We assert that your requests for students, staff, and faculty to follow “community expectations” and recognize our “common humanity” must be coupled with administrative accountability. Organized actions must be met with understanding and listening rather than discipline. Better yet, the University administration can preempt these actions by fulfilling their responsibility to listen and respond to the requests of our campus communities. Because of UCSC’s size and influence, you and your administration are accountable for the many ways your actions – or lack thereof – affect the lives of students, campus workers, Santa Cruz residents, and others. This means you must be willing and available to discuss and negotiate with all affected parties when a group expresses its needs, especially when those parties are comprised of those with marginalized identities, including but not limited to Black, brown, LGBTQ+, low income folks, Muslim folks, and those with disabilities. We know you are capable of addressing students’ needs from your responses to groups on campus such as Slugs for Israel. However, it is blatantly apparent that not all groups on campus have access to this type of necessary communication with you, particularly the students and groups who are most discriminated against on this campus.

We agree that organized actions are disruptive. They are meant to be precisely because it is these actions which prevent your administration from shirking their responsibilities to the greater community. We hope you recognize that these actions are a means made necessary by the lacking responses from your administration. We also hope you will understand that meeting these actions with disciplinary measures will only further exacerbate the issues these actions are intended to address and contribute to greater unrest on campus. In light of the recent scandals regarding the state audit of the University of California, including $175 million in hidden funds and survey data that was altered by your office, administrative accountability and campus activism are both more important now than ever.

Your email sets forth a new precedent of threatening and aggressive action perpetrated by the administration against the campus community. Furthermore, it proves to discredit and eliminate the important work that activists and organizers do for this campus to create more equity. Political times like these characterized by rising hate crimes, assaults, and aggressions on and off campus especially call for the need of student activists and organizers.

The activist’s role on this campus, and more largely in any community, is to ensure all peoples receive visibility, equitable treatment, and justice. Our value shall not be disreputed. The activist’s role in the livelihood of our campus community should not be diminished by threats and fear mongering as conveyed through your email. We will continue to do the very important work of protecting the rights of marginalized campus communities and our greater Santa Cruz community as a whole. We will not back down from fighting for the principles of justice and freedom which we stand for and we hope that you can stand with us.

Sincerely,

Representatives of UCSC’s
Student Activist Community”

Not included are the student and organizational signatures that were on the document given to Blumenthal.

Handing this off to Blumenthal in the midst of an awards ceremony was an experience in itself. I was the last student to get called up to get my certificate, and as I did, I spoke to the whole room, saying thank you for the award and then telling everyone that I was presenting Blumenthal with an open-letter response to his email. I informed everyone that they could read it online on City on a Hill Press. It went off without a hitch, and afterwards a few faculty members came up to ask me about it and thanked me and my co-authors for making a response.

It’s currently circulating around the campus via social media and email, but I wanted to post this here with both Blumenthal’s message and our response, because I think people outside UCSC and outside of the realm of higher education need to know how authoritarian college administrations are trying to be. His attempt to quash protesting will not work, but does signal that campus activists need to be more prepared for the legal ramifications the university may thrust upon them. Blumenthal’s actions coincide with a larger trend toward criminalizing political protests and dissenting actions, from Trump’s infamous arrest of journalists to Indiana’s recent “commerce-block” bill.

We can’t stand for this y’all. We have the right to protest, we have the right to not be okay with what’s happening in our country and our world, we have a right to our voices. Let’s use them.

With love and defiance,

Madeleine

Photos: 1. May Day protest blocking the base of campus, 2. A/BSA students holding hands and celebrating after their demands were met, surrounded by crowd of student, staff, and faculty supporters at Kerr Hall

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