A short time ago I received a copy of a letter that UC Berkeley professor Catherine Cole sent to university administrators in the wake of this morning’s arrests at Wheeler Hall. I am reprinting it with her permission:

Dear Chancellor Birgeneau and EVCP Breslauer,

I am writing with this urgent request regarding today’s arrest of students at Wheeler Hall. I don’t know why these arrests have happened when it had appeared earlier this week that the organizers of this “soft” occupation/open university had worked so carefully with the administration and police  to have this event sanctioned through Friday. I understand from the news report in the SF Chronicle today that the administration was worried about a public event scheduled for tonight. I hope that all efforts for a rational and civil negotiation with students about those concerns were not only attempted but exhausted before armed police invaded the building this morning and conducted mass arrests of our students who were at the time either sleeping, studying, or writing papers, and then carted off to jail.

Urgently, I am asking that those arrested be cited and released. The administration and UCB will gain no ground by overreacting and holding them in jail, but will rather add fuel to the fire of those who feel the administration does not care about and respect our students, and does not perceive the way in which our students–the best and brightest of their generation, the future leaders of our state and nation–can be enlisted as critical and necessary collaborators in the fight to save public higher education. The UC will not benefit by garnering more stories in the national media like this article from December 4 Newsweek: “Whether you’re an oppressive foreign dictatorship or an American state in the process of committing fiscal suicide, you know you’re losing the public relations battle when encounters between armor-clad riot police with truncheons and college students are broadcast on TV. That’s the sad situation California found itself in last week.”

The UCB administration keeps repeating the line that we should be “shooting outward, not inward.” If I’m not mistaken, the only entity in the crises of the last few months that has done any actual shooting has been the police who aimed significant weaponry at unarmed student protesters in November, which presumably they did with the sanction of our administration.  Those involved in this week’s Wheeler event, the Open University, had very different aims than shooting. They were seeking to build a sense of community and ownership about our university among students, staff and faculty. They transformed unoccupied spaces (those not being used for scheduled classes, study sessions and events) into alternate learning spaces for lectures, planning sessions, film screenings, etc.  Their manifesto: “This university is yours!  We shift competition to cooperation.  We replace stress and anxiety with compassion and joy.  We transform the traditional balance of power of this institution to create an education that includes the interests, concerns, and passions of all of us, and embodies the true ideal of democracy. It’s time to reinvent public education together, So come one, come all to your university!” Organizers of the Open University created a labor rotation among them for custodial duties, for they planned to leave the building cleaner than when they found it, a plan no doubt thwarted by this morning’s sudden arrests. For a perspective from a scholar of student activism on how the Wheeler Open University was being perceived nationally and internationally see this blog.

I attended and participated in two events at the Open University this week, including yesterday’s talk by Prof. Charlie Schwartz which had an unusual attendance of both students and faculty who were there as active, engaged co-learners.  I also presented yesterday on the ways in which protest in the early years of the anti-apartheid struggle was always perceived as a negotiation, one that addressed all participants (from radical leftists to the most extreme supporters of apartheid) as capable of change and rational discourse. “We believed that all men, even prison warders, were capable of change, and we did our utmost to sway them,” says Mandela in his autobiography.

If the administration takes this higher ground, you will be more likely to harness the formidable energies of the over 3.5 million students (most of whom are California voters) enrolled in public higher education in our state (UC=220K, CSU=440K, CC’s=2.8+ million). If I’m not mistaken, that’s roughly 10% of our state’s electorate. This constituency is a formidable–and necessary–ally in the fight to save our university. Treat them that way. Please.


Catherine Cole

Professor, UC Berkeley