Thursday, May 2, 2024

Failed Leadership

Posted By and on Thu, May 2, 2024 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge Protesters sit outside the barricaded entrance of Siemens Hall, interlocking arms, on April 22, in an effort to prevent officers from attempting to enter the building. - PHOTO BY ALEXANDER ANDERSON
  • Photo by Alexander Anderson
  • Protesters sit outside the barricaded entrance of Siemens Hall, interlocking arms, on April 22, in an effort to prevent officers from attempting to enter the building.

In the week leading up to the moment when hundreds of police officers from throughout the state descended on the Cal Poly Humboldt campus before dawn on April 30 to forcibly remove about two dozen protesters, we heard lots of voices.

We heard from the protesters themselves, who said they felt compelled to take a stand for Palestinians facing what they see as an attempted genocide and a humanitarian crisis that seems to grow more dire by the day. We heard from members of the local Jewish community, some of whom expressed solidarity and others who voiced concern about some of the sentiments and slogans coming from the protest. And we heard from campus faculty, who expressed grave concerns about administration's handling of the situation.

Unfortunately, a voice the community may have missed — at least those without a paid subscription to the Times-Standard — was that of CPH President Tom Jackson Jr., the one that should have been loudest and clearest throughout.

But it should be in no way surprising that Jackson chose not to speak to protesters directly, or even send a message via email, social media or a recorded statement to the campus community, even as this painful chapter in the university's history unfolded and students saw their semester abruptly cut short by an order to close the campus. It seems he rarely speaks with anyone, at least anyone who may have a viewpoint that differs from his own.

Consider: In the days leading up to the April 30 clearing of campus, Jackson received a letter from Arcata City Councilmember, Sarah Schaefer, the city's former mayor and the co-chair of the Equity Arcata board, who starts by noting the two had never met in the four-plus years of Jackson's presidency. The letter goes on to implore Jackson to "hear what your students and faculty are saying and to work with them, actively, to find a peaceful solution."

"I have stood with and talked with the students on the quad, why haven't you?" Schaefer wrote.

It's a fair question.

Also consider the letter signed by hundreds of faculty and staff at CPH asserting that Jackson's decisions regarding closing the campus and shifting coursework online were made without consultation with faculty, which is not just poor management practice, but also violates the university's espoused principles of shared governance.

Or consider the resolution passed by the Humboldt chapter of the California Faculty Association's executive board, which says Jackson's ill-advised response to the protests comes from an "unfamiliarity with the Cal Poly Student body." Again, he's been on campus since the fall of 2019.

Also consider the open letter from Fourth District County Supervisor Natalie Arroyo, signed by a host of elected officials in tribal, city and county government, noting that administration's response to the protests "has included very few civil leaders," despite their deep concern for the welfare of all involved. Should local officials have to reach out by open letter to "strongly encourage" a university president to work with community leaders to avoid in a situation that is capturing national headlines? Of course not.

And this lack of communication has layered, reverberating impacts. Not only is Jackson not hearing from the voices of those he's tasked — and is paid just shy of $400,000 annually — to lead, he's also not hearing from the rest of the community directly impacted by his choices.

Consider that Mad River Community Hospital went into a partial lockdown the afternoon of April 26 because it had not been in direct communication with the university. Instead, trying to read the proverbial tea leaves, the hospital feared a police enforcement action might be looming that could lead to a massive influx of injured people to its emergency room. Its lockdown sent teachers and administrators at the adjacent school scrambling to close campus early.

But let's circle back to the one bit of communication the community did receive from Jackson, and perhaps the only thing that seems to evidence he was even on campus last week: the interview with the Times-Standard. Because what he said is deeply problematic.

In an interview on campus on April 26, Jackson told the paper the people occupying Siemens Hall and the surrounding area were "not staying in there for noble causes. They're criminals." As a university president should know, language matters, and this is Jackson not just saying his students have committed crimes, which it seems at least some almost certainly did, but they did so for ignoble reasons and that's the sum total of their character.

Now, let's be clear that vandalizing a building — particularly a school building — is not OK. It is a crime. But we have seen absolutely no evidence that the folks who attempted an open occupation on Siemens Hall did so for any reason other than a deep concern about a war in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000, many of them civilian women and children, according to local health officials. If Jackson has some evidence there was an ulterior motive he'd do well to share it.

Let's also be clear that protest, civil disobedience and lawlessness are not the same thing. Protest is simply a statement of disapproval, and the university understandably has rules governing where and when it's acceptable, with the goal of assuring equal space and opportunity for all groups and maintaining an environment in which students can learn. Civil disobedience, meanwhile, is a nonviolent action in which someone refuses to obey a law or rule for moral or philosophical reasons, and is willing to accept the consequences that may come. Lawlessness is when people simply act without regard to laws or rules.

While all this is important to keep in mind and think about it, we see it as missing the largest takeaway from this sad ordeal.

When protesters entered Siemens Hall on the afternoon of April 22, as we understand it, they did so peacefully, looking to raise awareness to and discussion of an issue they care deeply about. This is far from unheard of in Humboldt, where protesters occupied the Native American Forum for 35 days back in 2015, and the local occupy movement got its first footing back in 2011.

But this time, rather than administrators engaging them in discussion and giving them space to make their statement, they treated the situation as a terrorist threat, evacuating classrooms and offices, and calling in the police. Things unsurprisingly escalated from there.

And so it is we are left to wonder what might have been. Perhaps some engagement would have led to unique educational opportunities that both raised awareness of the death and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and applied pressure on power brokers to end it. (We're reminded of the time Siemens Hall's namesake, former university president Cornelius Siemens, who penned a letter to President Nixon noting the unrest on campus caused by concern over military action in Cambodia, as recently noted by Bob Doran, a former staffer of this paper.) We also wonder if a different approach could have fostered a better understanding of those who feel passionately about what's happening in Gaza that Palestinians are not Hamas, just as Israelis are not the Israeli government, and nor are people of Jewish faith.

Perhaps the protesters were hellbent on destruction and vandalism was the primary goal of the day, but it seems unlikely. Unfortunately, we'll never know what would have happened if administrators sought to engage and de-escalate, rather than simply call the cops to crack down on students practicing civil disobedience.

The costs of the CPH administration's handling of this are massive. Students have arrest records, the campus has lots of damage to repair (more than $1 million, it says, though it has offered no accounting of that sum), students were left to finish their semester and finals online, sports teams had to cancel what would have been seniors' final home games and commencement — a crowning moment for many families — may not be celebrated on campus. Then, of course, there's the astronomical cost of paying hundreds of officers from agencies throughout the state overtime to come clear a couple dozen protesters from campus.

But there's also the cost of lost opportunity — of failing to engage in an important dialogue, of failing to lead.

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About The Authors

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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