Students end protest on ledge of Wheeler Hall

Protesters on Wheeler Hall ledge

Students on ledge of Wheeler Hall protest budget cuts to the UC. (Photo by Jean Smith)

After occupying a fourth-story ledge of Wheeler Hall for seven hours Thursday, eight student protesters emerged safely from the building about 9:20 p.m., following hours of discussions with campus administrators.

The students, all from UC Berkeley, were cited and released for trespassing. A ninth protester was pulled from the ledge around 2:45 p.m., and ultimately was cited and released. Although the students’ initial demands were not met, the protest ended after campus officials agreed to arrange for a future discussion with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, offer probation to students still facing conduct charges arising from protest activities in 2009, and issue formal student conduct “notifications” to those involved in yesterday’s activities.

The details of the agreement were worked out between UC Police Chief Mitch Celaya, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry LeGrande, Associate Chancellor Linda Williams, Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard and a student representative appointed by the protesters. Meanwhile, Wheeler Hall was closed at 4 p.m. due to the disruption, which at one point drew a crowd of 300 people and forced the cancellation of about 26 classes affecting more than 1,000 students and of 27 student group meetings.

“While we cannot condone actions that disrupted classes and forced us to expend precious student resources to maintain order and ensure safety,” Birgeneau said today, “we hope that students’ passion and energy will, in the future, be focused on protecting and preserving university funding through advocacy in Sacramento and supporting the proposed ballot measures that will ensure we do not suffer further, debilitating budget cuts.”

In a letter on Thursday, the chancellor appealed to the students on the ledge to come down, and other campus officials met with student representatives out of concern for the protesters’ safety. Six of the activists on the ledge were connected to each other with PVC pipe and tied to ornamental decorations on the building, the other three were untethered.

“You have chosen a method of protest that I cannot support,” Birgeneau said in the statement, which was given to the students and also read to their supporters outside Wheeler Hall. “I am very concerned about your health and safety and urge you to end this unsafe action. In the interest of your safety and that of others, we have closed Wheeler Hall. Please consider your fellow students’ right to attend classes.”

Poullard, who also is the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, said today that the situation at Wheeler “was an exceptionally dangerous one, and we are relieved that we were able to bring it to a safe conclusion.”

Throughout the day, officials and the students on the ledge engaged in back-and-forth negotiations about the students’ demands. The final results of the negotiations provide that protesters from this week’s Wheeler Hall demonstrations will receive notifications that their actions may have violated the student code of conduct and that, if repeated, such behavior will be subject to the conduct process. Students with pending conduct charges from the Nov. 20, 2009, Wheeler Hall occupation will now have the option to accept probation through the end of the semester rather than continue with their student conduct hearings.

“The agreements reached regarding student conduct charges are consistent with how we have handled similar violations of the code of conduct in the past,” said Poullard. “In addition, our offer of probation to students who still face hearings resulting from actions in 2009 is in line with sanctions the code supports in cases of this nature.”

The student on the ledge who was removed in the afternoon by police initially was booked at the Berkeley Police Department Jail Facility for trespassing with intent to damage property, but was cited and released as a result of the negotiations.

Williams said campus administrators were glad to have reached “a constructive agreement” with the protesters to discuss increased student and staff participation in Operational Excellence, a campus-wide program that aims to reduce the cost and complexity of administrative operations and to redirect the maximum number of resources to teaching, research and public service.

“We are pleased that the students’ position changed, and instead of demanding an end to Operational Excellence, they are asking to further participate in it,” she said. “The primary goal of this initiative continues to be our ability to ensure we are spending our limited resources in the classroom – our top priority.”

Student protesters announced at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday that they had reached an agreement with administrators and would be coming off the ledge. They were then cited by police for trespassing, received their student conduct paperwork and walked out of Wheeler Hall just before 9:20 p.m. via the south doors, where their supporters were gathered. Police removed their barricades, and a decision was made to open Wheeler for classes and events as scheduled on Friday.