Emails reveal potentially tense relationship between administration, legislators

Spokesperson relays apology from Birgeneau for remark that Skinner and Hancock 'only know how to do damage'

Dean Ignacio/File
Nancy Skinner speaks at the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.

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Recently obtained email exchanges between campus officials regarding the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal protest suggest that the UC Berkeley administration may have tense feelings about the role of two state legislators in encouraging past campus protests.

In a Nov. 8 email, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer wrote to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau about a forum where state Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and state Senator Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, spoke on campus. About 35 UC Berkeley students attended the forum, during which the two legislators expressed their support for the Nov. 9 protest and encouraged student dialogue about state funding for higher education.

“Tomorrow will definitely be a challenge,” Birgeneau responded to Breslauer. “As usual Skinner and Hancock only know how to do damage.”

The email was one of about 140 emails sent during the November protests received by The Daily Californian in March from UC Berkeley’s public records office.

“It was an unfortunate remark that the Chancellor regrets,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email on Monday. “He has offered apologies to both of them.”

The email thread reveals that campus administrators paid close attention to the  Nov. 7 forum Breslauer referred to — which was sponsored by the ASUC external affairs office — and questioned the legislators’ role in influencing the protest.

Skinner wrote in an email last week that she imagined she would “be receiving an apology from Chancellor Birgeneau.” Spokespeople in Hancock’s district office in Oakland declined to comment on Birgeneau’s remarks.

After Birgeneau announced on March 13 that he would step down as chancellor at the end of the calendar year, Skinner responded the same day with a press release, thanking him for his service and dedication to UC Berkeley and the UC system.

“At a time when it is increasingly difficult for students to meet the financial burden, Chancellor Birgeneau has been an eloquent voice advancing the debate on higher education funding,” she said in the press release.

Skinner, who was the first UC Berkeley student to be elected to the City Council in 1984, and Hancock, former mayor of Berkeley, have a history of encouraging students to talk about the budget problems California has faced in recent years.

For instance, in reaction to a September  2009 universitywide walkout against student fee increases and budget cuts, Hancock said at the time that students should organize “town-hall type meetings” to educate the community and students about how to pass a budget in California and how budget cuts take place.

Birgeneau and the two legislators have similar positions on some of the issues that have garnered major public attention in California in recent years. For example, all three have opposed  Proposition 8, supported the California DREAM Act and expressed desires to combat decreased funding to the university.

Yet the emails suggest that the campus’s relationship with the two legislators may be strained.

“Regretfully, there hasn’t been the best communication with the chancellor and Berkeley’s local or state elected officials,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

In the Occupy Cal emails, some campus administrators seemed to suggest that Hancock and Skinner meeting with students and urging them to organize and publicize their message — sometimes with protests — was not always a positive endeavor.

“Unfortunately, Hancock noted that without the Wheeler Hall takeover, the issue of funding higher ed would not have been on the front page of the newspaper,” said Kieran John Flaherty, state government relations director, in another email thread.

Flaherty declined to comment on his statement.

“I think … it was going to be a difficult day for Birgeneau and for administrators,” said Jeremy Pilaar, chief deputy of state affairs for the ASUC external affairs vice president. “Anyone who is encouraging the days of action and protests … would probably be annoying for that reason.”

Betsy Vincent covers academics and administration.