Open Letter to Chancellor Katehi on the UC Davis student vote to divest

Dear Chancellor Katehi,

I write as an alumnus of the University of California, and also as someone who supports the effort to stop the investment of public funds in firms that engage in activities deemed illegal by international law, the Geneva conventions, and international human rights conventions and covenants. Any profits made by such investments are contaminated utterly by their unethical origins.

Your communication to the UC Davis community has been widely shared. I wish to comment upon two key paragraphs. First, you write,

“This [vote] however does not reflect the position of UC Davis or the University of California system. The investment policy for the University of California system including UC Davis is set by the UC Board of Regents. The Board and Office of the President issued a statement regarding student resolutions that urge the Board to divest from companies doing business with Israel. The statement reiterates the Board’s position that this type of call to action will not be entertained.”

You are of course correct, and you as an administrator are acting as expected to distance your administration from the student vote and to stand by the UC policy. What is troubling is the way you then move to the next paragraph:

“We recognize that this is a sensitive topic for many on our campus one that is very personal and emotional. It is for this reason that we must exercise sensitivity restraint and respect in relation to the issue. Prior to the debate last night those in attendance were reminded of our Principles of Community. We affirmed the right to freedom of expression but also affirmed our commitment to the highest standards of civility and decency toward all.”

For many of us reading the document this seems an utter non sequitur. Again, it is clear that you are acting to make sure the public understands that you did all you could to maintain “civility and decency,” but the tone is not a little condescending and presumptuous, and casts a light of condemnation on the subsequent vote. It is as if the vote were somehow suspect and therefore illegitimate, and arrived at without civility or decency. It was in fact a resounding vote, democratically arrived at.

One would not necessarily expect you to congratulate the students on their passion for justice, their investment in reasoned debate and due process, the time and energy they spent on investigating the issue thoroughly and by rational means of persuasion convincing the great majority of those voting to vote as they did. But it is deeply regrettable that you seem to wish to void the vote of any symbolic weight, which it surely has, regardless of the University of California’s lack of willingness to answer a call for justice.

Sincerely,

DAVID PALUMBO-LIU

Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University

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