Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis

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Chapter 3 - The Meyer Era at UC Davis

James H. Meyer must have seemed like a safe choice to replace Mrak as UCD's chancellor. A farming expert, former Marine and Republican, Meyer was the kind of guy who could be expected to guide the campus with a firm hand through an era of anti-war protests and cultural upheaval. Ironically, though, he found himself in hot water even before he officially took over as chancellor because of a crisis that left him at odds with Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan. Meyer's crime was siding with UCD students protesting the governor's handling of demonstrations at UC Berkeley.

The crisis began to unfold less than a month after the University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously on March 21, 1969, to name Meyer as Mrak's successor. On April 20, a group of Berkeley residents announced plans for developing People's Park on a vacant lot where the university intended to put an athletic field. The group planted trees and flowers despite warnings from the university. After negotiations failed, events quickly spun out of control: the university announced plans for building a fence around the lot, a rally organized by park supporters turned into a violent confrontation with many injuries and Reagan ordered National Guard troops to Berkeley. On May 19, police shot and killed a 25-year-old San Jose man after someone apparently threw a stone at police from the rooftop where he was standing.

The death and continued presence of troops prompted protests at UCD that were vocal, but stood in sharp contrast to the violence raging in Berkeley. The contrast wasn't altogether surprising, given UCD's heritage as an agricultural school with a conservative student body. Nonetheless, the response must have seemed strange to an outside world accustomed to tense, often violent confrontations between student activists and authorities on other campuses. At UCD, students, administrators, faculty and staff seemed to walk hand in hand.

"Students, faculty and the rest of the Davis campus community today express their deep concern over the continuing presence of outside forces on the Berkeley campus and urge you to exert your influence to bring this episode to a just and speedy conclusion," Mrak said in a May 21 telegram to Reagan and UC Berkeley Chancellor Roger Heyns. [1] In a joint message Mrak, student body President David Hubin and Academic Senate Chairman Walter Woodfill announced the campus flag would be flown at half mast. "As representatives of the campus community, we are lowering the campus flag as a symbolic act of protest against violence," the message said. [2]

On Thursday, May 22, UCD students protested by gathering in UCD's Quad and marching on the administration building. In his oral history, Meyer says he learned of the protest plans the night before, went over to the Quad the next day as the protestors gathered and walked with them as they marched on Mrak Hall. "Some of them knew who I was, some didn't," he recalled, saying several thousand protestors presented him with a list of demands after meeting with Mrak. [3] Displaying a low-key style that would become his trademark, Meyer, still only the chancellor designate, climbed up on a wall, agreed to some of the demands and said others would need more study. The protestors wanted to boycott classes on the following Monday and Tuesday, and Meyer suggested they go to class and ask their instructors and other students to discuss the underlying issues. "Then when they left, they asked me, 'Are you with us?' And I said, "Yes, I am," Meyer said, indicating he was only expressing sympathy with their concerns and didn't know at the time the protestors were planning a march on the state Capitol in Sacramento. [4]

Also on May 22, Mrak and Meyer sent nearly identical telegrams to Reagan, Heyns and UC President Charles A. Hitch urging them to remove the National Guard troops from Berkeley. "Again today the Davis campus community expressed its deep concern over the continued presence of outside forces at Berkeley," Meyer's telegram said. "Our campus is devoting Friday, Monday and Tuesday to a boycott of regular classes while teach-ins, discussions and dialogues are held about Berkeley and the many problems facing our university today." [5]

During the class boycott at UCD, campus offices stayed open and faculty members were asked to be available in their classrooms for students interested in discussing the crisis. On May 23, Reagan reacted angrily to Meyer's support of a boycott, telling reporters in Los Angeles, "This is the very kind of thing that precipitates more trouble, when those in charge and those with responsibility, adults, can, without any knowledge or understanding of the true facts, further incite this kind of activity." [6] After a May 23 article in the Sacramento Union said Meyer supported a two-day student strike at UC Berkeley, he sought to clarify his position in a letter. "I wish to set the record straight that I made no statement in support of a strike," he wrote. "I support the Davis students in their efforts to exchange information about the problems facing the university, including the Berkeley situation. One method the students discussed was a boycott of classes to hold teach-ins and discussions on the campus. This is not a strike. I did support this concept and still do." [7]

"It really didn't bother me," Meyer said of Reagan's criticism. In his oral history, Meyer acknowledged that UC regents must have been surprised an administrator with his conservative background would side with students in such a confrontation. ``I guess that was the one reason I was named chancellor. I guess they must have thought, 'How in the hell could a former Marine from agriculture and a Republican be so stupid and be on the side of the students,' " he said. [8]

Meyer's stance did pay big dividends, because the rest of the campus stood behind him. "Students and faculty immediately rallied to his support," The Enterprise explained, saying both promised to defend the incoming chancellor against any retaliation from the regents or Reagan. [9] At a crowded meeting of the student body's legislative assembly, a resolution offering support for Meyer was greeted with a five-minute standing ovation, and passed unanimously. On the following day, tenured faculty members gave nearly unanimous support to a motion supporting Meyer during a meeting of the Davis division of the Academic Senate.

During the crisis, Meyer displayed qualities that other administrators, students, faculty and staff came to know well as the years passed. He was an old-fashioned, low-key administrator who was a familiar figure because of his penchant for riding a three-speed bicycle around campus long before Davis earned its reputation as Bike City USA. Faced with a thorny issue, he sometimes would retreat to the library, hoping to find answers while reading the views of others and how the issue had been dealt with elsewhere. He was willing to make tough decisions, but favored a team approach to decision-making, typically seeking out the views of others before making up his mind about what had to be done.

Meyer may be right that the Board of Regents were attracted by his conservative credentials, but they also must have known he would be up to the task because he was an insider who understood the campus. Born in Lewiston, Idaho in 1922, he came to UCD as a faculty member soon after earning a doctorate in nutrition at the University of Wisconsin in 1950. He became chairman of the animal husbandry department in 1960 and three years later was asked to take over as dean of the College of Agriculture.

As the two-day suspension of classes were about to end in May 1969, Meyer addressed UCD's Academic Senate, talking about how universities around the world were changing, pushed by radical students frustrated with society's injustices. He also talked of the Davis Experiment, an effort by students, administrators, faculty and staff to build a better university working together. His remarks were illuminating. As Meyer saw it, his job was to oversee the Davis Experiment. He was the man in charge, but the leader of a team, not an autocrat bent on leaving his imprint on the campus. Thus, he didn't make wholesale changes after he became chancellor. He studied issues, set up advisory committees, and introduced refinements as needed.

In his oral history, Meyer says his management philosophy took shape while he was dean of the College of Agriculture. "You're not presiding over an organization, like I did in the Marine Corps," he explains, noting that managing a university is more like overseeing a process with a momentum of its own. "You influence the direction, you influence the flow--or you can make a mess out of it. You can interfere with it, but if you don't do anything, it's going to do fairly well anyhow, you know." [10] Meyer's philosophy was evident in an administrative plan announced in October 1969 that featured decentralized decision-making as one of its cornerstones. The use of work groups, committees and task forces was to promote participation in decision-making.

Consistent with his philosophy, Meyer set out to build upon the foundation left by Mrak. The new chancellor, for example, set out to re-evaluate and strengthen UCD"s academic programs. In 1971, his administration revised the campus academic plan, placing more emphasis on undergraduate teaching. In 1973, the campus adopted an affirmative action plan and began debating a report prepared by the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. Meyer took the initiative to establish the committee, which made seven major recommendations, including proposals for establishing the Women's Resources and Research Center, providing childcare and improving career development programs for staff.

UCD's penchant for peaceful protest didn't develop by accident. Before Meyer took command, Mrak worked hard at keeping tensions from boiling over, maintaining close ties to students. One means was his open-door policy. Receptionists had standing orders not to frustrate students who wanted to meet with him. Recalled Mrak in his oral history, "I insisted, 'If any student comes here, don't turn him away and say I'm in conference.' If nothing else, I would come out and talk to him for a minute." [11] Bob Black recalled Mrak's popularity was based partly on his down-to-earth personality and a willingness to meet with students on their terms. Mrak also believed in keeping students busy through such activities as intramural sports and chancellor's roundtables, forums where students could ask administrators questions. In his oral history, Mrak also emphasizes he tried to develop an intelligence network that could tip off the administration whenever a protest was in the works.

Among the student activists Mrak had to deal with was Bob Black, a 1965 graduate of San Rafael High School who arrived at UCD as a Young Democrat interested in political science. Soon, however, he became a student radical from the mold of the militant Students for a Democratic Society. The turning point was a speech in the fall of 1965 by a radical magazine editor at a teach-in organized at UCD by the Vietnam Day Committee. The speaker gave Black intellectual underpinnings for his growing opposition to the Vietnam War, and provided campus activists with a call to arms: take to the streets to demonstrate your opposition and confront the Establishment. "Week by week by week, the anti-war movement grew," Black recalled, indicating that Davis probably had about 100 anti-war activists when the fall began. About 140 people joined that fall for the first march through Davis. Later that fall, nearly 150 Davis activists decided to take their crusade to Middle America, for a march through Fairfield to Travis Air Force Base. They found their audience less receptive than on campus. Black recalled people screaming insults, throwing things and aiming their cars at protestors. At the entrance to Travis, the protestors were confronted by a crowd of angry airmen.

Black recalled that Mrak was genuinely taken aback by the student unrest. "He wasn't afraid of anything. I think he might have been baffled by some things, but I don't think he was afraid," Black said, recalling that Mrak's first instinct was to meet with people and try to understand their concerns.

As chancellor, Meyer also quickly showed that he was willing to listen, but also had a mind of his own. Twice in the fall of 1969, Meyer refused requests to cancel classes for Vietnam War protests. "An institutional stand infringes on the rights of individuals. Any position on the moratorium should rightly be an individual decision, not an institutional one,'' Meyer said in an October 1969 statement, pointing out that anti-war protestors could participate in a meeting planned for the Quad or a candlelight vigil planned for a city park. [12]

In April 1970, UCD had what was believed to be its first sit-in, an affair staged by about 60 students at Meyer's office after about 1,500 students had gathered in the Quad to protest against the Vietnam War. Sit-in participants were seeking an end to war-related research and the ROTC program. Meyer talked to the protestors, saying he supported having ROTC on UC campuses as an alternative to military academies. The protestors left shortly after the building's normal 5 p.m. closing time. An estimated 200 students also staged a sit-in at the campus ROTC building. Meyer credited Colonel Max Kirkbride, head of the campus program, with heading off trouble, by taking time to discuss ROTC with the protestors.

How peaceful was UCD? A May 1970 report to the regents gives a clue. While some campuses had major disturbances to report, UCD had none. The report did note, however, that UCD had a couple of problems: a student employee and a Peace Corps staff person had misused university vehicles. In May 1970, about 35 students returned to Mrak Hall to confront administrators after U.S. troops moved into Cambodia and UCD and other university campuses were shut down for two days at Reagan's request following the deaths of four students during demonstrations at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. During the same month, UCD experienced one of its rare episodes of political violence: someone threw two Molotov cocktails at the ROTC buildings, causing damage estimated at $200. Also, student protestors disrupted a ROTC ceremony by throwing themselves in front of marching cadets.

By 1971, UCD was unusually quiet, and local newspapers were wondering why. Meyer offered several clues in a monthly meeting with the press: the war was starting to wind down, the draft was less of a threat to male students and the media wasn't filled so frequently with inflammatory developments certain to get the blood of antiwar activists boiling. The chancellor admitted, though, no one could say for sure.

By 1986, the Meyer Era was nearing an end. In October, Meyer announced plans for retiring the following year. In March 1987, the UC Board of Regents selected his successor: Theodore L. Hullar, 52, the chancellor of UC Riverside since 1985. University officials scheduled the changing of the guard for July 1. Meyer, though, wasn't quite finished yet. Less than three months before his retirement, he had to face a new crisis ignited by the long-simmering campus debate over animal rights.

University police weren't altogether surprised when animal-rights activists vandalized about 10 automobiles in the early-morning hours of April 16. They slashed tires on some, and spray painted slogans on the autos and nearby buildings. Similar vandalism had occurred in earlier years shortly before April 24, a day animal-rights activists set aside each year for nationwide protests. The campus was shocked, however, when at 3 a.m. that morning a three-alarm fire engulfed a half-finished, 46,000-square-foot building known as the John Thurman Jr. Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Police investigators soon discovered evidence implicating animal-rights activists, including letters two foot high painted near where the fire started. The letters spelled out "ALF," the moniker of the Animal Liberation Front, a radical splinter group in the animal-rights movement. Telephone calls and messages to local news agencies claimed the fire and vandalism were the work of ALF. Fire losses on the $10.9 million building were pegged at $4.6 million, but were covered by insurance. Ironically, according to university officials, no animal experimentation was to be carried out in the building.

Tensions remained high as April 24 drew near, and animal-rights activists made plans for demonstrations at UCD and other campuses across California. A group calling itself the Student Chapter of Veterinarians Against Animal Rights Activists put up notices around campus attacking ALF. Seven people were arrested during a sit-in at Meyer's Mrak Hall office. The group's demands included an increase in funding for research that does not require the use of live animals, no use of pets or former pets in research and an end to psychological experiments on animals. About 100 people gathered for a memorial service held in memory of the more than 100,000 animals protestors claimed were killed in UCD labs during 1986. UCD veterinary medicine professor Ned Buyukmihci, co-founder of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, addressed the gathering, saying extremists on both sides of the issue were creating a volatile climate. He urged the crowd to engage in non-violent protests, condemning the fire and vandalism as contemptuous. In June 1987, ALF struck again, releasing several turkey vultures from UCD's California Raptor Center.

In ensuing years, police investigators would say they had a strong idea of who set the fire at the veterinary diagnostic lab, but said no arrests may ever be made in the case. For awhile shortly after the blaze, an 18-year-old former Davis High School student was a suspect, partly because he fit the description of a man witnesses reported seeing near the fire scene. Authorities interviewed the man, but their investigation suffered a major setback when tests failed to show a link between paint smudges inside the suspect's car and paint found inside the burned building.

When Meyer retired in 1987, he had nearly two decades at the helm of UCD. Fewer than six chief campus officers in the U.S. had been at their posts longer. Student enrollment had grown dramatically: UCD has slightly more than 12,500 students when he came on board, almost 20,000 when he left. In his oral history, Meyer said he knew the time had come for a change, recalling how he started questioning whether he was pursuing projects as vigorously as he once had. "I felt that maybe I was not after 18 years and somebody with a different thought process should," he explained, saying every organization needs a leadership change every now and then. Otherwise, a leader can lose the confidence of colleagues. "Anyone who is in one of those roles tries to determine if they've outlived their usefulness. You usually want to retire while they're still smiling. So that's what I did." [13]


Continue to Chapter 4...