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Racism Motivated Tree-Sit, Chancellor Tells Donor

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 09:43:00 AM

“[R]acism against our minority student athletes ... underlies much of the opposition to our student athlete high performance center,” declared UC Berkeley Chancel-lor Robert Birgeneau in a letter sent to two major donors to the school. 

That allegation in a June 27 letter stunned the recipients, Berke-ley residents and long-time university donors and supporters Thomas and Janice Boyce. 

The appearance of the letter, given to this newspaper by a third party, comes as the campus is launching the public phase of a $3 billion endowment fund-raiser, with Birgeneau in the lead. 

The chancellor’s letter followed earlier letters from the couple questioning the university’s handling of the tree-sit protest at the now-leveled grove at Memorial Stadium, as well as the expense of rehiring campus police chief Victoria Harrison. 

Stephan Volker, one of the attorneys who challenged the university’s plans to level the grove to build the four-level high-tech gym and office complex, called Birgeneau’s claim “beyond bizarre.” 

“It seems the university will leave no stone unturned to smear anyone who disagrees with their policies,” said the attorney, who briefly attended the school himself and whose spouse and a son received Cal degrees. 

“Birgeneau went off my list right there,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Betty Olds when told of the chancellor’s allegation. Olds had been a tree-sit supporter and ascended the branches briefly early in the 21-month-long fight to save the grove of coastal live oaks, redwoods and others trees. 

“That was absolutely stupid,” Olds said of Birgeneau’s remark, “And to say that here in Berkeley!” 

The Boyces are dedicated supporters of the university and have donated extensively to the university. Janice Boyce has served on several fund-raising boards, including those for the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the Anna Head campus. She declined comment beyond noting that she would like to see the campus devote more of its energies to undergraduate education. 

”The letters speak for themselves,” she said. 

Birgeneau’s letter to the couple did acknowledge that “you have been generous donors to our university.” 

Volker said the allegations of racism against tree-sit supporters seemed ironic, given the fact that three of the final four tree-sitters who surrendered to campus police were Latinos and the very first tree-sitter, Zachary Running Wolf, is a Native American. Native Americans also appeared at the grove repeatedly to support the protest, with more than 100 on hand for one event. 

The correspondence between the Boyces and university officials began on May 6, with a letter from the couple protesting “the compensation shenanigans by the University of California at Berkeley,” including what they de-scribed as the “unscrupulous and perhaps illegal action” in the rehiring of Harrison after her retirement. 

Turning to the tree-sit, the couple said the university had “totally mishandled this protest” by criminalizing the protesters rather than approaching them with respect. 

“Perhaps we should take a few moments to recognize that as we pass out compensation rewards, and enlarge administrative costs, we are making it more difficult to consider people’s legitimate concerns about the University,” they wrote. “Student tuition increases as our library system and our language departments are being cut without giving thought of system waste and distribution.” 

Though the letter was addressed to Birgeneau, Vice Chancellor for Administration Nathan Brostrom responded on May 16, beginning with blaming the press for “numerous inaccuracies”—though none was specified—in reports on the tree-sit and Harrison’s rehiring. 

He wrote that Harrison had retired as associate vice chancellor for public safety and campus police chief on June 30, 2007, but had been rehired immediately because “we needed to ensure continuity in our commitment to campus safety ... due to unusual conditions we face (and continue to face),” while “a lengthy and expensive search for a replacement at that time was simply not a prudent course of action.” 

But the rehiring at an annual salary that reached $194,000 on top of her retirement buyout package of $2.1 million and an additional $552,000 to be paid out over ten years drew fire from state legislators and resulted in a new UC-wide set of standards on rehiring adopted a week ago (Sept. 18) by the Board of Regents. 

While Brostrom said UC guidelines then in effect “suggest retirees work no more than 46 percent of the time,” official policy didn’t mandate the limit, and “I felt it was imperative that we have a full-time police chief,” he told the Boyces. 

The Boyces replied in a May 26 letter that they had been told the 46 percent limit was not a guideline but official policy. 

The real reason for their correspondence, they wrote, was that “as solid alumni, we are questioning the mission priorities of our public university.” 

Brostrom responded in a June 24 letter, reaffirming that the 46 percent figure was not an official policy, and offering to answer their question by phone. He also said he had forwarded their original letter to Birgeneau. 

Then came the letter from the chancellor himself. 

“I understand that you remain dissatisfied with the clear and compelling explanation” Brostrom had provided for the police chief’s rehiring. “I can add nothing more to his response.” 

As for their other concerns, the chancellor wrote, “UC Berkeley is operated with the highest ethical standards by administrators whose compensation is far below that which they would have received at peer public and private institutions” and run, according to “a recent study by one of our private peers,” as “the single most cost-effective major teaching and research institution in the country.” 

In the next paragraph, Birgeneau leveled the racism charge. 

“I am surprised that you advocate for criminal trespassers who use their own feces and urine to harass our staff while, at the same time, ignoring the racism against our underrepresented minority student athletes that underlies much of the opposition to our proposed student athlete high performance center.” 

The final link in the chain of correspondence came from the Boyces in a letter sent to Birgeneau on July 14. 

“Your strong words were rude, condescending, appallingly accusatory, unresponsive to our questions, unbecoming to a Chancellor of the University of California and without precedent,” they wrote. 

Noting their decades-long support of the UC campuses in Berkeley and San Francisco, the couple wrote that “[f]or many alumni, your bullying tactics would be effective. You will not alienate the generations of Berkeley graduates and professors of the stalwart Boyce Family through intimidation. Our campus and its alumni are greater than an individual. Not because of you, Robert Birgeneau, but in spite of you, we remain resolute and loyal to our alma mater. 

“We are not expecting any further response. We have asked MISSION questions you apparently do not want to answer; thus, we are sending copies of our correspondence to others who will be responsive to our concerns.” 

The final item in the letter noted that copies had been sent to UC President Mark G. Yudof, Regent Chair Richard Blum, Attorney General Jerry Brown “and other interested parties.” 

Running Wolf, the first of the tree-sitters, was reached Monday outside Berkeley’s Pacifica radio station KPFA, where another tree-sit began Wednesday morning challenging that station’s policies. 

He said Birgeneau’s raising of the race issue “is reaching really low into the bag. They’re trying to pit colored against colored.” 

Sylvia McLaughlin, a nonagenarian and the oldest of the tree-sitters, whose late spouse served as dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Mining and as first dean of the College of Engineering, said she found Birgeneau’s racism allegation laughable. 

“I don’t care what color athletes are. We just wanted the building to be located somewhere else.” she said.