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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Thursday, May 7, 2020

UCSC Assistant Professor Letter to Admin: Rescind Disciplinary Action

This is an open letter expressing the concerns of around a dozen Assistant Professors from the Faculty Organizing Group (FOG) at UCSC. The authors would like to encourage all colleagues to share stories of surveillance, intimidation and/or punitive measures taken by university administrations during the COVID-19 crisis with the hashtag #DisciplineAnd Punish. Also please follow the “Ad Hoc Committee of Scholars 4 COLA” on Facebook and on Twitter (handle: @COLASolidarity).

Dear Colleagues,

Assistant professors have been repeatedly asked, both formally and informally, to provide information about how the graduate student wildcat strike (and later, the COVID-19 pandemic) has impacted our research, teaching, and service on campus. Here is our collective response.

Echoing numerous calls from the faculty senate, individual departments, and colleagues at institutions across the United States, we write in the form of an open letter, to call upon the administration to stop their harmful disciplinary actions against graduate and undergraduate members of our campus community.

To our great dismay, what has impacted us the most is not the circumstances created by the strike itself, such as the absence of TAs in our lecture courses, additional grading, and general disruption to our teaching. Rather, the most taxing element has been the emotional, logistical, and material support we have provided graduate and undergraduate students as a direct result of the administration’s punitive responses to the strike. And now, in the midst of a global pandemic, many of us have been working countless additional hours to assist students who have been caught up in a needlessly aggressive disciplinary dragnet because of their involvement in the strike.

We are deeply frustrated by our campus administration’s misguided approach in responding to the strike, particularly the ongoing disciplinary hearings whose only purpose seems to be to intimidate and overwhelm students. These actions traumatize the students involved; it is unconscionable that they continue at a time when students are struggling in the face of unprecedented financial, psychological, and health risks. They also put a disproportionate burden on junior faculty members who have often been on the frontlines (sometimes literally—at the picket) in defending these students from a bureaucratic machine whose punitive actions seem to know no rhyme or reason.

The administration has been carrying out disciplinary proceedings against at least 49 students for strike-related activities, despite the passing of a faculty senate resolution and numerous faculty letters and requests calling for these disciplinary actions to stop. Students arrested at the picket line received interim suspensions; some of these students had been injured by police, and the suspensions impeded their timely access to medical care on campus. Arrested students and those who withheld grades have received warning letters in their files.

Disciplinary hearings have been ongoing, even after the onset of COVID-19, and even as cities and states closed courts and halted criminal proceedings. The administration has refused to halt or revoke any of these measures even after students submitted grades. Perhaps most mysteriously, they have formed a “Demonstrations Operations Team,” whose role remains opaque at best. Ostensibly charged with “coordinating the campus’ specific operational planning and response needs related to campus activism,” we have no information about who team members are and little to no knowledge about their budget, surveillance activities, oversight role, or involvement in issuing summons.

As faculty, our role has involved providing for the physical safety, emotional health, and academic success of our students. We have accompanied them to multiple disciplinary hearings when they were intimidated by disciplinary officers. We have also provided time and emotional support to vulnerable, frightened, and sometimes ill students. We organized a daily faculty march and picket line support group so that faculty observers were at all times at the base of campus to protect students from campus-paid police, and to serve as witnesses should testimonials later be required, which they were. We made donations of money and food to help already-struggling students continue to meet their daily needs. We worked to secure alternative funding and employment for fired graduate students and wrote numerous letters. These included character letters for students as part of the disciplinary proceedings and letters to campus administration expressing our dismay about how these proceedings have unfolded.  We spent afternoons being interviewed by disciplinary officers who were attempting to corroborate police reports with student accounts.

Quantitatively, many of us easily spent between ten and twenty hours a week on these activities during winter quarter (and into the present). This workload has only become more complex and time-consuming in the context of COVID-19, as we navigate the many bureaucratic and procedural inconsistencies caused by moving these disciplinary hearings to Zoom. In total, we estimate that assistant professors have spent at least 2,000 hours engaged in hearings and other activities related to our students’ punishment, intimidation, and dismissal—undoubtedly enough time to publish one or more articles, or even finish first books.

These numbers only gesture at a more worrying reality: the disturbing skill-sets acquired by assistant professors on our campus. We now know the answers to many questions we had previously never wished to ask: What is the difference between the CHP and campus police? What is the correct tone to use when speaking with police officers in riot gear to de-escalate a situation and avoid physical harm being inflicted on students? Where does our academic freedom begin and end when it comes to using Canvas or modifying our syllabi? Is a grade property—and, if so, who “owns” a grade? Should we be worried about our security of employment based on a student’s online report via the administration-provided Canvas widget (dubbed the Tattlebot by faculty)? Might photos taken of us by police at the picket line be used against us in future tenure and promotion decisions?

To offer an example of what this disciplining has looked like, one of us accompanied a graduate student - who had in fact submitted grades - to a hearing. They were being “investigated” for having temporarily moved these grades off Canvas. The charges included “interference with courses of instruction, theft or damage of intellectual property; unauthorized entry to, possession of, receipt of, duplication of, or use of any university services; theft or abuse of university computers and other University electronic resources; forgery, alteration or misuse of any university, state, federal or other government documents; obstruction or disruption of teaching; failure to identify oneself to, or comply with directions of, a university official; violation of any other university policy or campus regulation.” This list can only be read as a concerted attempt to intimidate and harass this student.  This heavy-handed process raises troubling questions—for us  as well as our graduate students—about the potential uses of Canvas for surveillance and discipline.

To offer a second example, another of us supported an undergraduate student who, after being present at the picket line in February, was later investigated for alleged “obstruction of university activities.” This student was one of a large number of undergraduates who had assembled at the base of campus in support of their TAs. That day, a number of faculty saw this student arrested during the well-documented episode of police overreach and outright brutality. During this student’s hearing, the faculty support person saw their student forced to relive the anxiety and lingering trauma from their interaction with police (a condition that has been formally diagnosed by a medical professional) as the student conduct officer posed confusing, leading questions. This student never received the opportunity to review the full evidence held against them, and was only sent piecemeal and contradictory police testimonies.

Many of us arrived at UC Santa Cruz excited about the university’s history of support for radical and progressive politics and intellectual thought. We looked forward to fulfilling the three components of our responsibilities as assistant professors—teaching, research, and service—at a public, Hispanic-serving institution that takes its commitment to undergraduates seriously. One of our primary activities in the past year has fallen somewhere between teaching and service: working closely with UCSC students, helping expand their intellectual horizons and acting as a source of support, as so many mentors have done for us. This role is rewarding but challenging for many of us—particularly for female-identified assistant professors and faculty of color, as we try to establish a balance between caring for our students’ welfare and maintaining our professional role as professors. It is particularly difficult on this campus even during the best of times, as campus services struggle to keep up with the very real problems of food insecurity, homelessness, sexual violence, and expressions of racism that confront our students. As a result, our role is often something between a social worker and a professor. We have no training for the former, nor is this labor particularly valued as we approach mid-career reviews and the always-ticking tenure clock. 

Some will say it was our decision—and not our responsibility—to assume this role. We could have watched from the sidelines as our students were harassed, arrested, and even physically injured. Yet such a position implies that professors’ mentorship and care should be restricted to classroom discussions. Moreover, the Academic Personnel Manual (210) states that, “Mentoring and advising of students and faculty members, particularly from underrepresented and underserved populations, should be given due recognition in the teaching or service categories of the academic personnel process.” Indeed, we see our activities around the strike as fully in line with our responsibility to support the most precarious members of our community.

These activities have continued into the spring. The administration’s present actions continue to undermine the well-being of our students, precisely at a time when their precarity has been heightened by COVID-19. While we worry about the welfare of our community, the administration seems to be undermining our efforts at every turn, continuing to traumatize students at a precarious time. Not only do their actions harm graduate students, they have also been profoundly destabilizing for undergraduates who have been swept up in disciplinary hearings. Indeed, for  all the UCSC administration’s statements of concerns about the impact of the strike on undergraduate learning, the reality is that undergraduate learning has been severely disrupted by such an opaque and inconsistent disciplinary process. It is alarming that as we transition to distance learning, the most immediate connection that students maintain with UCSC is through its disciplinary bureaucracy.

Now that the graduate students have announced that they will collectively submit outstanding fall and winter quarter grades, we believe that it is time to bring this disciplinary process to a close. We ask again that the university halt all disciplinary proceedings, end probationary periods and other sanctions (including the possible loss of housing stipends), and expunge the records of all graduate and undergraduate students under investigation.

We hope that the administration will take seriously our request to halt the disciplinary process and will offer a response to this letter.


Assistant Professors of FOG, UCSC


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