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UC Davis chancellor apologizes for pepper-spray incident

As outrage mounts over campus police's use of the chemical against seated, nonviolent protesters, Linda Katehi tells more than 1,000 students and faculty members she feels 'horrible for what happened.' The school's police chief is placed on administrative leave.

November 21, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga and Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi is escorted from a small stage on the campus quad after she apologized to more than 1,000 students and faculty members for the pepper-spraying of seated nonviolent protesters by campus police.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi is escorted from a small stage on the… (Paul Sakuma, AP )

Reporting from Davis, Calif., and Los Angeles — As outrage mounted over police use of pepper spray on nonviolent student demonstrators at UC Davis, the campus' embattled chancellor apologized for the incident and placed the university's police chief on administrative leave.

During a tense speech Monday before more than 1,000 students and faculty members on the normally quiet Central Valley campus' main quad, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi tried to quell criticism over the incident, as well as how university officials handled the aftermath.

"I am here to apologize," an emotional Katehi said after struggling through the crowd to a small stage where some of the students who'd been pepper-sprayed had just described their ordeal. "I feel horrible for what happened."

The chancellor's appearance drew dueling boos and cries of "Let her speak!"

The Friday incident, captured in videos that quickly went viral on the Internet, has triggered nationwide controversy about the forceful response by university police to student protesters. The Occupy Wall Street movement in recent weeks has spilled onto college campuses, combining with student anger over rising tuition and cuts to higher education to produce protests and sit-ins.

Katehi announced Monday that she had put campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza on administrative leave, an effort to restore peace to the 32,000-student public university. Two officers involved in the spraying, in which students were hit in the face as they sat quietly with arms linked, were put on paid leave over the weekend.

Katehi has said that she ordered protesters' tents removed but had not authorized police to use the chemical spray in the manner shown on the videos. Campus spokesman Andy Fell on Monday declined to comment on who gave that order, saying it would be looked at by investigators.

As she spoke Monday, Katehi, a Greek-born electrical engineer who became chancellor at UC Davis in August 2009, ignored calls from the crowd for her resignation. But her actions and those of the police are sure to be scrutinized in the weeks ahead; UC leaders, state politicians, the American Civil Liberties Union and national education organizations have decried the incident.

"Our university has to be better than it is, and it needs all of the community to come together to do that. We need to work together," Katehi said.

Assistant English professor Nathan Brown, who launched an online petition drive to unseat Katehi, had spotted her in the crowd as he addressed the protesters. Speaking directly to the chancellor, he called her response to Friday's police actions "transparent" efforts to evade criticism.

"There's no place on our campus for administrators who order the use of force against peaceful protesters," Brown said.

But not everyone was calling for Katehi's ouster, and the anger on campus was mixed with sadness Monday. It was an unusual moment in the spotlight for UC Davis, which has been shedding its caricature as an "aggie" school and touting its well-regarded programs in medicine, law, literature, engineering and the environment as well as agriculture and veterinary medicine.  

Julie Sze, associate professor of American Studies, brought her sign-waving 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to Monday's protest. Sze said people on campus were horrified by the police action but that there was no consensus on whether Katehi should resign.

"People feel like she has to show us something," Sze said. "I don't know if there's anything she can say to address the level of concern and high drama."

The UC Davis Academic Senate, the powerful faculty organization that governs many issues, will be conduct its own investigation into the pepper-spray incident, according to its chairwoman, Linda Bisson, a professor of viticulture and oenology.

A faculty investigation is needed, in addition to one being conducted by UC Davis administrators, because "there is a strong feeling that there would be a lack of credibility regardless of what the chancellor's report said — and because of her role in the events," Bisson said.

The faculty leader contended that Katehi was too slow to get accurate information about the incident and then to take disciplinary action against the police. A minority of UC Davis faculty may want the chancellor to resign, Bisson said, but most want her to stay in her post but be held accountable in some way.

The Yolo County district attorney's and sheriff's offices also have said they will review the police response.

Among the most dramatic moments of Monday's rally came as students who had been arrested or sprayed described their pain and fear. They blamed police for the violent turn in what they said began as a peaceful show of support for the Occupy movement, with 25 tents and a cooking area. Police initially said they had acted only after a crowd of protesters had encircled the officers.

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