Janet Napolitano sat quietly in a room surrounded by some of her staunchest critics on Thursday afternoon, listening as a small group of UC Berkeley undergraduates relayed deep-seated concerns about her status as president of the UC system.
In a tense meeting on the sixth floor of Sutardja Dai Hall, Napolitano met face to face with about 15 undergraduate students, including several ASUC officials and other campus community members. Their remarks were, for the most part, critical and indicative of widely held concerns that students have vocalized throughout the university since Napolitano was appointed last summer.
Speaking one by one at first, various students condemned her record on deportations as Homeland Security secretary, her lack of professional academic experience and the selection process by which she became UC president, among other issues. Eventually, most of them walked out of the meeting before Napolitano could respond to their statements.
“I promise you that, for the next 30 minutes, you will be made uncomfortable,” said an initial speaker, Carmyn Jovel, a student involved with the campus’s Multicultural Community Center and the Gender Equity Resource Center. “Up until now, your campus visits have all been a complete and utter farce … If you really wanted to know just how special our university really is, you would be walking alongside students, not avoiding them — listening to everyone’s story, not ignoring them.”
Napolitano’s visit to UC Berkeley marked the final stop on her systemwide listening tour, which began more than four months ago. And the protests she encountered while here — which could be heard intermittently from inside Napolitano’s meetings with students — were not unique to Thursday’s trip. Demonstrators throughout the UC system have consistently resisted her on the 10-campus tour, which was itself denounced for not being open enough to the student body at large.
The Berkeley visit was not uniformly controversial, however. Earlier in the day, Napolitano paid a visit to the Space Sciences Laboratory and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. And her discussion with graduate students, held shortly after the undergraduate meeting, was markedly different — there, she engaged in a conversation that centered mostly on issues such as mental health, child care, faculty and student diversity and professional development for graduate students.
Still, the tonal contrast between Napolitano’s undergraduate and graduate student meetings is indicative of an overarching obstacle she has faced since taking office Sept. 30. At the same time that Napolitano moves forward on an aggressive policy agenda, she encounters unrelenting opposition from student activists who continue to push for her resignation or removal from office.
Dissent was prevalent in the undergraduate meeting. Multiple students called for Napolitano’s resignation, and many indicated they did not feel comfortable or even safe with her as president. Even though Napolitano allocated $5 million to bolster resources for the UC system’s estimated 900 undocumented students, ASUC Senator Sean Tan — who is himself undocumented — expressed dissatisfaction with that effort.
“In part, this was also a very triggering experience for many undocumented students, seeing that the person that was responsible for the deportation of their families is sitting right next to them,” Tan told Napolitano. “And I could say right here as well that this is a very triggering experience … Even with the $5 million allocation, people have questioned, ‘Did I get bought by the UC system?’ ”
After most of the undergraduates in the room had spoken, Putri Rahmaputri — a member of an undocumented student coalition that has been meeting with the UC Office of the President about Napolitano’s $5 million allocation — lambasted the meeting’s relatively private nature.
“Out there, outside of this building, outside of this room, is the real UC Berkeley culture,” Rahmaputri said before asking the other students to stand up. “This is not the real meeting, the real getting-to-know UC Berkeley students.”
Shortly thereafter, Rahmaputri and most of the students walked out of the meeting, though ASUC President DeeJay Pepito, her chief of staff Austin Pritzkat, ASUC External Affairs Vice President Safeena Mecklai and UC Student Regent-designate Sadia Saifuddin remained.
“I’m sorry the other students weren’t ready to listen,“ Napolitano later told them. “The plain fact of the matter is, I’m here. I don’t choose the selection method; I don’t choose the Board of Regents. But I do choose with my life and my talents to lead this great university, and I think this university is a gem among all the states. And we ought to be thinking about things we can do together.”
Graduate students in Napolitano’s next meeting did not discuss her past. Rather, the graduate students — several of whom were leaders of the campus’s graduate student government — tailored their conversation to a few specific policy issues.
For example, Bahar Navab, the internal vice president of the Graduate Assembly and its former president, advocated for more mental health resources for graduate students as well as better support for student-parents. Navab described how student-parents suffer from both insufficient funding for child care and high costs, saying some students have claimed they would have gone to other schools had they realized how limited the university’s child-care services are.
“We don’t want to start losing people, because we want to be that top-tier university that gets the best grad students, but in order to do that, we need to be able to provide services,” Navab said.
Other issues articulated by the graduate students included their desire to see more resources provided for faculty and students of color and supporting UC graduate students who pursue careers outside academia. Both Napolitano and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks — who was present in both student meetings — engaged in an active dialogue with the graduate students. They frequently pitched in to ask questions or respond to specific points.
“Maybe the language of business needs to be more conversant with the language of the Ph.D.,” Napolitano said. “We have a lot to work on.”
And despite the stalwart resistance that dominated the earlier meeting, both sets of student leaders did indicate willingness to see what Napolitano — who is still only four months into her term — has to offer the university.
“Students understand that it’s not going to all happen overnight,” Pepito, who selected the undergraduate students at the meeting, said after the walkout. “We’re planning on bringing in more concerns and more tangible asks in our meetings with you … but there’s a difference when students don’t feel like they can really publicly see the values of the person who’s leading the whole university.”