Hours after pepper spraying UC Davis students to keep them safe from tents, Chancellor Linda Katehi and her administration launched a remarkable public relations campaign to save their own asses. Countless emails, editorials, letters, interviews, appearances, and town halls have created the appearance of accountability, redress, and faculty support. But this is merely an illusion, as the coming days will show.
Like the many task forces created to investigate the events—as if what happened wasn’t already abundantly clear—the rhetoric employed by the Katehi regime is designed to delay, displace, and eventually dissipate the administration’s accountability for the violence of November 18.
Since that date, UC Davis administration has deployed a therapeutic discourse which seeks to shift the focus from accountability (negatively construed as “blame”) to healing and moving forward.
Katehi’s first email addressing the events (11/18, 9:00pm) blames the intransigence of student protesters and unspecified outsiders for the violence.
The following day (11/19), the adminstration abruptly changes tack and tone after realizing the extent and intensity of public anger and media attention. They immediately begin to employ the rhetoric of healing and moving forward.
11/19. Email from Katehi:
“. . .the events of the day need to guide us forward as we try to make our campus a better place of inquiry, debate, and even dissent.”
11/19. Kristin Stoneking, a minister and director of an organization dedicated to campus proselytizing, was called in by Vice Chancellor Griselda Castro to mediate between Katehi and the student protestors who had disrupted her press conference. The chancellor has never explained why she felt such mediation was necessary, but it’s possible that the use of a minister is part of a preordained crisis-management strategy. Who better than a minister to call for healing and forgiveness? On her Facebook page, Stoneking wrote a statement describing her role. While by no means entirely favorable to the chancellor, the statement’s conclusion, perhaps unwittingly, establishes the coordinates of discourse for the administration’s subsequent statements.
“I pray that the Chancellor will remember her own considerable power in making change on our campus, and in seeking healing and reconciliation.”
Here the chancellor is described as a powerful agent of unspecified change (shades of Obama 2008?). Likewise, healing and reconciliation replace accountability. Stoneking has been critical of the administration; perhaps she will think twice about being used as a mediator and about how the administration seizes upon this kind of rhetoric to shield itself while continuing to advance its own agenda.
11/21. Jeff Gibeling, Dean of Graduate Studies, releases a statement:
“We must unite in our mission of understanding and tolerance as we move forward to heal our campus.”
11/23. Email from Katehi:
“The challenge before us now is to show the world the best of UC Davis, to reunite our campus and make whatever changes are needed in university policies regarding peaceful assembly and overall campus security.”
Like Gibeling, Katehi invokes unity. Like Stoneking, she mentions unspecified change.
11/29. Editorial by Fred Wood, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.
Wood’s editorial, “Weary of Blame,” is a case study in empty rhetoric. Note the heavy-handed use of “heal(ing),” “move beyond,” “look forward,” “make whole,” “integrity” and “understanding.”
Note how Wood extends victimhood from the students beaten, pepper sprayed, and abused by cops to anyone with any connection to the university.
“I am sorry for the staff and faculty, alumni and community members, as we have all been impacted too.”
Note the dishonest use of “we” to mask the fundamental opposition between students devoted to the ideal of the public university and the administrators who violently enforce its privatization.
“At some point in the coming days, weeks and months, I hope we can all find our way to move beyond the blaming, and to instead focus on the healing. We must find a way to heal these terrible wounds.”
For Wood, the abstract “impact” of events on the equally abstract (for him) university community can be summed up as damage to the institution’s image. If he were concerned about actual wounds, like those sustained by students at the hands of the cops, he would advocate some kind of structural change to prevent this from ever happening again. Instead, he invokes the rhetoric of therapy and healing:
“It is my hope that through work and by caring for each individual, the community that is UC Davis will again be made whole.”
He concludes with a vacuous promise:
“I have made a commitment, an absolute promise, to do all that I can to ensure that such an event does not happen again on this campus.”
“All I can” will turn out to be very little indeed.
11/30. Katehi loyalists, led by the appropriately named William
Lameculos Leal, write a letter in support of the chancellor, resorting to—what else?—the rhetoric of healing.
“We strongly believe that Linda Katehi is well-qualified to lead our university through this difficult healing process and oppose the premature calls for her resignation; this is not in the best interest of our university.”
12/1. Email from Katehi:
“We were all shocked by the pepper spray incident on our quad and wish that it had never happened. But it did, and now our community needs to come together, to heal and move forward.”
And so on.
As Dana Cloud has written, therapeutic discourse “substitutes symbolic consolation when material compensation has been demanded.”
“[T]he therapeutic refers to a set of political and cultural discourses that have adopted psychotherapy’s lexicon—the conservative language of healing, coping, adaptation, and restoration of a previously existing order—but in contexts of sociopolitical conflict.”
“[The therapeutic] can admit to the existence of suffering in modern society without having to transform the society publicly or structurally.”
When thought of in these terms, the mendacity of the administration’s calls for healing and unity is rendered visible. Rather than committing to actual structural change like removing police from campus, Katehi and her colleagues offer empty apologies and feigned empathy.
Katehi’s latest gambit is to declare that “the protesters are right.” In the meantime, she continues her stated mission of working to make the university a private good.
Students are not fooled. We will continue to protest and to block the administrative functions of the university until Katehi resigns, the campus police are disbanded, and tuition increases are frozen.
We are building our capacity to manage ourselves. Every day we are joined by more faculty and workers. We are still on the Quad, despite the efforts to remove us. Dutton Hall is now Paulo Freire, the free university in embryo.
We are winning.