July 23, 2019 | 68° F

EDITORIAL: When you can’t let bygones be bygones

UC Davis pays $175,000 to hide pepper spray incident


Right now the University of California, Davis is going through a public relations nightmare — part two. In UC Davis’s series of unfortunate events, university police officers pepper sprayed peaceful student protestors in 2011 at the nascent of the Occupy movement, and now it’s resurfaced with a vengeance. It was discovered that the university tried to hide this particular incident by paying companies more than $175,000 to clean its online presence. With UC Davis being a state university that exists at the time of massive budget cuts, the decision to funnel money to bury a PR issue strikes as obscene.

Universities nowadays care too much about their reputation and how they’re perceived rather than primarily functioning as an institution of higher learning. So instead of investing time, energy and resources into cultivating and challenging the minds of the next generation, they’ve shifted their stance to fundamentally focus on branding and ranking.

It’s natural that universities want to present their best side (don’t we all?), but with tight budgets and rising tuition costs, this means that a university should pare the inessentials and the excesses while continuing to save and sustain what’s truly integral to the institution. By paying so much to scrub its reputation clean, UC Davis demonstrates that its top priority isn’t its current students, but it’s prospective students.

Despite how $175,000 is a drop in the bucket of a typical university’s endowment, that money could’ve provided two, three or four students with a full ride and a life that avoids the crippling burden of exorbitant loans, or a good financial aid package for many others. Another alternative is to acknowledge the mistake of using heavy-handed tactics for peaceful protests and work to make amends with the student population. Money could’ve been put into activities or programs that students care deeply about.

The school thought it could buy off a clean image, but the only way to acquire a positive image and a good reputation is through good actions. Apparently UC Davis’s administration wasn’t aware of that: The school did one appalling thing and then did another. UC Davis says the motivation for paying companies to hide the remnants of the pepper spray episode was that it wanted the public to focus on the achievements of its students and its faculty rather than that glaring blemish on its record. But the issue could’ve been publicly and visibly mended by working with student organizations and finding common ground.

Anyone who has used the Internet before knows that once content is there, then anyone can see it and it’s there forever. No amount of money can actually cleanse the Internet of all traces of history. And at the end of the day, the commotion is over a single video a bystander took of the police officers and the protestors, and there’s nothing stopping the person who filmed this incident from putting that video online again.

Rutgers is one of the many institutions that are profoundly invested in its reputation, and it works to continuously guard and grow it. If the Rutgers administration ever dares to replicate what happened at UC Davis — using brute force to suppress peaceful protestors — then people would lose their minds. UC Davis may have a vibrant activist community, but so does Rutgers. Rutgers students are vocal about what they care about, and if all their rallying deterred Condoleezza Rice and created a ruckus that elevated the Milo Yiannopoulos event to the national level, then the intensity of resistance against the administration would definitely result in someone getting fired or someone resigning.

Protesting is a valuable form of civic engagement, and they’re not only uncommon at universities — they’re inevitable. Administrators might not like it, but there are ways to handle it that doesn’t use violence. Universities need to figure out ways to work with student activists, and especially so if they care about their branding and their ranking.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 148th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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