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Why Is the University of California Punishing Students During a Pandemic?

UC Santa Cruz is pushing punitive measures against student workers involved in wildcat strikes this past winter.

UC Santa Cruz is pushing punitive measures against student workers involved in wildcat strikes this past winter.

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In an experience now familiar to many, faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) logged onto Zoom on May 15 and stared into the online abyss. Hundreds of squares awaited us, some with actual faces, others with initials written on dark backgrounds. The alienation that we have experienced from teaching remotely, and the exhaustion of transforming our classes into an online format, both pale in comparison to the bizarre spectacle we were about to witness. One after another, we asked UCSC’s administration the same question: Why is the university continuing to punish students during a global pandemic? The chancellor and executive vice chancellor did not provide an answer. Instead, they confirmed that the university would continue punitive measures against students due to their peaceful involvement in the wildcat strike this past winter.

Graduate students at UCSC began organizing for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for graduate workers in September. Our students work multiple jobs, experience precarious housing and homelessness, and suffer from food insecurity. Santa Cruz is one of the least affordable cities in the world, where the monthly rental for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,242, which far exceeds the monthly salary of a graduate student worker. The University of California (UC) administration has long refused to address the unlivable conditions experienced by students in a sustained manner. As a result, the situation quickly escalated: Graduate workers announced a grade strike in December, and a full picket began at UCSC in early February. On February 28, the administration sent a “notice of intent to dismiss” 54 graduate students who were stripped of their spring appointments for having “failed to follow directives from an appropriate academic administrator to fully submit grades.” Eighty-two graduate workers were eventually fired for withholding grades.

Understandably, this stoked the flames of student frustration across the UCs. Graduate workers at UC Berkeley voted to go on a full strike in early March, just weeks after UC Davis began a grading strike and UC Santa Barbara embarked on a full teaching strike.

Then came a global health pandemic. Ever since, it seems almost quaint to remember the hundreds of students who rallied peacefully at the base of campus just months ago, upholding the principles of social justice for which this campus is (or was) so well-known. Seventeen students — both graduate and undergraduate — were arrested during the actual protests. Some of these students are also facing criminal charges and many remain ineligible for university appointments this fall, effectively ending their progress to a PhD. Many of their testimonies are chilling and highlight the issues of police brutality and surveillance that we know all too well. In accordance with the demand for police reform made by Black Lives Matter on June 2, students and faculty at UCSC have called on the administration to break their relationship with city police and other agencies with a demonstrated history of racial discrimination and/or violence.

COVID-19 could have been an opportunity for the administration to show our students that their welfare does indeed matter. It could have convinced them that despite spending $300,000 a day on riot police, and using Homeland Security to track the protests, it was not too late to convey their concern for members of the UCSC community. It could have been an opportunity for them to follow the example of courts across the country, and halt the disciplinary hearings for the approximately 70 students who have been convoked.

As one graduate worker, Hannah Newburn, noted, “These disciplinary proceedings, weakly disguised as lessons in ‘community standards,’ are simply the cold enforcement of the UC’s company standards, which — like any efficient corporation — seeks to eliminate non-compliant personnel.” Indeed, some graduate student workers are being accused of temporarily moving grades off of Canvas, a platform that is increasingly being used for the surveillance of instructors, and which we have no obligation to use. Yet inexplicably, the administration claims that the temporary use of Microsoft Excel to store grades constitutes “theft or damage of intellectual property.”

The UAW 2865 union, which represents graduate students, has filed an unfair labor practice charge against the UC regents. It alleges that the university has violated contractual agreements and disregarded mandated protections for graduate workers. Although the University of California is not the only organization using the COVID-19 crisis to curtail the power of labor organizing, punitive measures against our students in the context of a pandemic undermine the very nature of public education. The UCs should not be engaging in the same union-busting practices as corporations like Amazon or Google.

The list of professional associations that have denounced these actions — not to mention the numerous petitions, boycotts and senate resolutions — would take pages to list. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, some of us sent the administration an open letter communicating our concerns, but they did not respond. That correspondence asked for clarification regarding the mysterious “Demonstrations Operations Team,” which claims to be in charge of “coordinating the campus’ specific operational planning and responsive needs related to campus activism.” But we still have no information about who serves on this team, or knowledge of their budget, surveillance activities or involvement in issuing summons.

We see the physical and emotional harm that is being done by these hearings. And yet, it seems that all we can do is to raise an electronic hand on Zoom and try to virtually express our outrage and exhaustion. One thing is now perfectly clear to us, however: The administration has had us on “mute” since day one of this struggle.

Absurdly, the UCSC administration has claimed that these highly traumatic hearings were not meant to “punish” students, but rather envisioned as a “restorative” and “educational” experience. Disciplinary reports use racialized language, employing terms such as “aggressive” or “threatening” to describe people of color. As UC faculty, many of whom teach issues of racial injustice, we know what learning looks like. Using the same vocabulary to describe the hours of lectures we deliver every week, and the current scenes of student despair and anxiety, is nothing short of a slap in the face.

One of the chants that students and faculty shouted together during the strike, when bodies could still convene, was: “Whose university? OUR university.” After COVID-19, this hope seems utterly utopian. Since February, it has become even clearer that the UC system belongs to them — the regents who are political appointees; the UCSC administration that ignores faculty concerns and senate resolutions imploring them to behave differently; and the president of the UC, Janet Napolitano, the former head of Homeland Security who is currently a potential running mate for Joe Biden. As teachers, our concerns are much more humble: the mental and physical well-being of our students. And we are losing.

Will institutions of higher education use the crisis to extend coercive and surveillance measures on college campuses? At UC Santa Cruz, some of our most vulnerable students — students of color, undocumented students and students from working-class backgrounds — are among those who have been most aggressively targeted by the university’s disciplinary apparatus. Because of these disciplinary measures, students risk being suspended and losing much-needed housing stipends. Moreover, UCSC has announced that the cost of family housing will go up yet again next year.

In short, the university’s administration has acted in an increasingly authoritarian fashion. It continues to send summons and punish its students while activists are unable to gather and defend themselves in the public space.

The UC administration and Gov. Gavin Newsom have a decision to make: Will the University of California emerge from the current crisis with a renewed sense of its mission as a public institution dedicated to social justice? Or will COVID-19 be weaponized, used to deliver a death blow to the social and intellectual foundations of this institution? By continuing with these disciplinary hearings and ignoring the voices of faculty and students, the UC administration has chosen the latter option.