Thursday, October 24, 2013

Lack of Accountability in Higher Education: Revisiting the UC Davis Pepper-Spray Incident

People complain all the time about American higher education. They say it is too expensive and the quality is declining. Reports come out frequently that unfavorably compare the skill level of American workers to the skill levels of workers in other countries. Nevertheless, for the past 30 years, the cost of higher education in the U.S. has risen faster than the annual inflation rate.

I contend that a lot of higher education's troubles stem from lack of accountability.  Colleges and universities demand more and more every year, and yet we don't hold college and university leaders accountable for their actions. The UC Davis pepper spray incident supports my point.

You recall what happened. In November 2011, Lieutenant John Pike, a UC Davis police officer, pepper-sprayed non-threatening students who were sitting on a sidewalk as part of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.  The incident went viral, and a You Tube video of the event was visited more than a million times.

The  University of California produced two lengthy reports to examine what happened, one at the campus level and one by the UC system.  Experts and lawyers were hired, and both reports concluded that UC Davis officers acted wrongly when they pepper sprayed students.  In fact, the officers had not be trained how to use the  particular form of pepper spray that was used in the attacks.

The student victims sued, and UC settled with them for about $1 million.  Lieutenant John Pike, the chief offender, was put on administrative leave and later left university employment under undisclosed terms.  The local district attorney determined there were insufficient grounds to prosecute him.

And now we learn that the University of California paid Lieutenant Pike $38,000 in settlement of his Worker Compensation claim.  Yes, Pike filed a claim for unspecified psychiatric and nervous system damages arising from the pepper spray incident that he himself initiated.  Lieutenant Pike should have been fired.  Instead he gets a check for $38,000.

Of course this is outrageous.  And it is also outrageous that UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi was not held accountable for this shameful incident.

UC Davis had already been sued for misusing pepper spray in a 2004 incident in which Timothy Nelson, a UC Davis student, lost sight in one eye after being hit by pepper spray projectiles fired by UC Davis police officers.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that reasonable law enforcement officers would have known in 2004 that it was constitutionally unreasonable to fire pepper spray projectiles at nonthreatening college students.

Apparently UC Davis learned nothing from the 2004 incident because in 2011 UC Davis police used pepper spray again on nonthreatening students--pepper spray UC Davis had not trained its officers to use.

No one was held accountable for this disgraceful event, although President Katehi did apologize. "I feel horrible for what happened Friday," Katehi told a group of students.  "If you think you don't want to be students of the university we had on Friday, I'm just telling you, I don't want to be the chancellor of the university we had on Friday."  Then she lawyered up and appointed a commission to study the event.

So if you want to know why American higher education is in trouble, just reflect on the UC Davis pepper spray incident.  A university president should be held accountable for incidents like the one that happened in November 2011.  Yet President Katehi is still in charge. 

And what is Chancellor Katehi's salary? She makes about $400,000 in base salary, twice as much as the Governor of California.


Christopher Edley & C. F. Robinson 2012). Response to Protests on UC Campuses. University of California.
 Richard Fossey. Nelson v. City of Davis: Campus Police Officers Who Injure Nonthreatening Student with Pepper Spray May be Committing a Constitutional Offense. Teachers College Record Online, October 5, 2012. Accessible at:

Gordon, L. (2012, September 13). UC to pay settlement in Davis pepper spray case. Los Angeles Times (online edition).

Steve Gorman. University of California cop who pepper sprayed student protesters awarded $38,000. Reuters, October 23. Accessible at:

Judy Lin. Linda Katehi, UC Davis Chancellor, Apologizes for Pepper Spray Incident. Huffington Post, November 22,2013.  Accessible at:

Nelson v. City of Davis, 685 F.3d 867 (9th Cir. 2012).

Smith, D. (2012, September 20). Yolo DA won’t file charges in UCD pepper-spraying. Sacramento Bee (online edition).

Stripling, J. (2012, April 11). Scathing report on UC-Davis pepper-spray incident faults chancellor and police.Chronicle of Higher Education (online edition).

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