UC President Janet Napolitano continued her month-long tour of each of the 10 UC campuses this past Monday, Nov. 4 with a trip to UC Riverside. It proved to be an eventful visit full of meetings and discussions with administrators, faculty members and student leaders, in addition to protests by some of her fiercest critics.
The sky was cloudy and the air still chilly as Napolitano arrived at the Alumni and Visitor Center at 7 a.m., starting her long day of visits by convening with a diverse group of student leaders.
During the talks, a series of questions “ranging from fiscal discussion to social justice causes,” were brought up, according to ASUCR Vice President of External Affairs Kareem Aref, who attended the meeting.
“She seemed to be listening and engaging with the students and I am hopeful to see more actions being taken like her allocation of $15 million to students,” said Aref, referring to the $5 million in non-state, non-tuition funds that will each go toward funding undocumented students, postdoctoral fellows and graduate researchers.
Napolitano’s campus tour was kept low-profile, as she was accompanied by only a handful of aides and her itinerary was not released to the public until the visit.
“She was there to listen, and that’s what she did,” David Chavez, a second-year Ph.D. student said. “Unfortunately, she came 15 minutes late to the meeting and left 15 minutes early, so unfortunately we didn’t get to have a full chance with her today.” In the time the UC president was there, topics discussed ranged from gender-neutral bathrooms to supporting student veterans.
After convening with students, Napolitano met with the UCR administration, including Chancellor Kim Wilcox, and embarked on a tour of the campus proper.
“We talked about the traditions of the past, the values of inclusion that are here (and) the value of academic excellence that we’re built on,” Wilcox said. “She’s here to learn and it’s a great opportunity for us to help her understand what we’re all about here at UCR.”
Following up on a suggestion by a student, Napolitano made a brief, unscheduled stop at Chicano Student Programs (CSP). CSP Director Estella Acuna was in the middle of a meeting when a student stepped in to report that Napolitano had arrived.
“I’m glad she came to visit our space,” Acuna remarked, noting that Napolitano asked questions about the uniqueness and benefits CSP provided students. Napolitano then opened the floor for student questions, but only one student was able to receive a response before Napolitano moved on.
After visiting a variety of additional locations on campus, Napolitano stopped by the School of Medicine Education building, where she spoke with the inaugural class of the school of medicine and had lunch with the 10 deans of UCR. She also met with creative writing professor and California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and eight graduate and undergraduate students.
She exhibited great interest in the students’ academic pursuits, asking them questions such as, “When do you know the poem is really working?” and “What poets are you studying?”
“We invented poetry on the spot, sang it in ‘opera’ voices, and invited President Napolitano to do the same — and she did. This was inspiring — she even rhymed!” Herrera recalled. “The students felt (that) she was a real person, with a love for poetry, creativity and also filled with inspiration like them … I am very appreciative of our Chancellor’s invitation and of President Napolitano’s willingness to have a moment with our marvelous poets of the future.”
The president’s visit to campus was not unanimously welcomed, however. As the day warmed, protests ignited, with some members of the UCR community voicing their opposition to Napolitano’s selection as UC president.
According to campus officials who were present during her visit to the school of medicine, the protests outside “didn’t faze (the meetings),” and that the environment inside was “very calm.”
But outside the building, an entirely different story unraveled.
The demonstration, composed of 30-40 students and campus workers, was in full swing as the sun beat down on protesters voicing their concerns over the appointment of Napolitano.
The students gathered at the Bell Tower before marching to the school of medicine, where the group surrounded the three exits of the building, shouting chants such as, “Napolitan — no! Student workers — yes!” and “Whose university? Our university!”
A familiar topic addressed throughout the demonstration was the record number of deportations that Napolitano spearheaded as the secretary of Homeland Security.
“Napolitano is the new UC president, but previously her position was the chair of Homeland Security,” stated Norman Barrios, a fourth-year ethnic studies and history double-major. “So she’s responsible for 1.5 million deportations (and) a lot of families being broken up. And, so as constituents of undocumented students, we are concerned with her appointmentship.”
Other issues raised by students were that Napolitano would “militarize” and “privatize” the public university system.
“Thousands of students in the community from UCR and the UC system came out and demonstrated against the draconian budget cuts that the UC was putting on an placing in the backs of workers and of students,” UCR student and former ASUCR Vice President of External Affairs Lazaro Cardenas declared through a bullhorn. “Meanwhile, UCPD across the state … was being considered to get armored vehicles; was getting bullet-proof vests; was pepper-spraying students in Davis; batoning students in UC Berkeley and also shooting pellets at UC students on Jan. 19,” he went on.
All the while, staff members from the school of medicine could be seen curiously peeking through the windows from the top floors of the building, watching as the protesters continued with rallies, chants and speeches.
For over two hours, the protests raged on without an appearance by the UC president. One by one, the demonstrators started to disperse. By 3 p.m., with the trees and buildings casting ever-longer shadows, the plaza surrounding the school of medicine steadily silenced as the protesters grew weary of waiting for Napolitano to emerge.
Napolitano concluded her tour of the campus by meeting with members of the community including Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey. As the sun set, Napolitano headed back to Oakland, the headquarters of the University of California.
“Janet Napolitano had a good visit on Monday,” stated UCR Director of Media Relations Kris Lovekin following the meeting.
Before departing, Napolitano spoke with the Highlander, summing up her vision for the UC.
“We want to make sure we’re as affordable as we can be and that our doors are wide open,” Napolitano said. “And I think we also want to support the research aspect. It’s really what makes this university world-famous.”