At least 30 of the 41 pro-Palestinian students who took over UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall in April have decided to face official student conduct hearings rather than accept a probation deal from the university, according to student leaders.
“I don’t feel I need to plea bargain if I’m innocent,” said Roberto Hernandez of Students for Justice in Palestine, which led the April occupation that attempted to win university divestment from Israel.
Refusal to accept a settlement means students will face penalties approved by Dean of Students Karen Kenney after formal hearings. Student conduct boards, made up of pupils, faculty and staff, can recommend penalties up to and including expulsion, though Kenney will have final say.
The university is offering students a one-semester probation if they choose to skip a formal hearing. Students who make it through the probationary period with no further violations would receive marks on their records but would not face suspension, expulsion or any other penalty, Kenney said.
Kenney said a “handful” of the 41 protesters have accepted the probation offer. SJP leader Hoang Phan said he is aware of only two students who have taken the deal, and would not release their names, citing privacy concerns.
But Neil Rajmara, the university’s director of student judicial affairs, said the number is greater than two, and added that he expects more students to accept probation in the coming days.
Most students have until Wednesday to decide if they will take the deal or go to a full hearing. University officials hope to wrap up all cases by the end of October.
The 41 students are among 79 protesters arrested by UC Berkeley police after occupying Wheeler Hall April 9 and demanding that the nine-campus University of California system divest from Israel.
The UC Board of Regents, which governs the system, has come out against divestment.
The Alameda County District Attorney dropped criminal charges against the “Wheeler 79” in June, but the university continues to pursue student conduct charges.
Most of the students face four conduct charges: unauthorized entry onto university property, disturbing classes, disturbance of the peace and failure to comply with the directions of a university official.
At least one of the protesters, Hernandez, is also charged with physical or verbal abuse. Hernandez allegedly assaulted a UC Berkeley police officer April 9, but was cleared of criminal charges.
Phan said the students will exercise their right to request public hearings.
“We’re going to call for a public hearing because students have a right to know what the university is doing to student activists,” he said.
The chairperson of a conduct hearing, under university regulations, has a right to close the hearing to maintain order or protect the privacy rights of students involved – including any that might appear as witnesses.
University officials declined to speculate on whether a closure might be necessary in the case of SJP hearings. But Kenney confirmed that, in the past, chairpersons have closed proceedings before they began when there was word of a large-scale protest that might disrupt the hearings.
Phan argued that, in pursuing student conduct charges, UC Berkeley is lashing out at SJP for its political beliefs.
“The sanctions have nothing to do with the content [of SJP’s speech],” Kenney replied.
Officials have long held that they are pursuing student conduct charges because the Wheeler Hall activists, in disrupting classes, interfered with UC Berkeley’s core mission: the education of its students.
Activists have countered that the disruption was minimal and that educating students was the central purpose of the takeover.
Six of the 41 students who face charges were seniors last year, and the university has withheld their diplomas pending the completion of the student judicial process.
The purpose of the policy is to prevent graduates from leaving the university, diploma in hand, without facing student conduct charges, Kenney said.
But Anne Weills, one of several lawyers representing the students, argued that the withholdings are actually an attempt to “chill free speech.”
“The university always tries to suppress students who go against the grain,” Weills said.
Hernandez is among the six graduates, and UC Berkeley has accepted him to a doctoral program in comparative ethnic studies. Because he does not have his diploma, Hernandez is not officially enrolled, although the ethnic studies department is allowing him to take courses.
Hernandez said his real concern is a university fellowship and loans, worth about $22,000 per year, that are on hold as the judicial process plays out.
“If I don’t receive my fellowship, I don’t have the means to stay in the program,” he said. “I’m down to my last $156.”
Kenney said she could not comment on individual cases, but noted that the university plans to conduct hearings for the six graduates first.