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'Why are we paying for something that doesn’t exist?' | Students file lawsuit against UC Davis after P.E. program canceled

The lawsuit by the students argues UC Davis is unjustly charging them a Student Activities and Services Initiative without the P.E. program existing.

DAVIS, Calif. — In a move that shocked staff and students, UC Davis permanently canceled its P.E. program.

On Sept. 25, 2020, Barbara Jahn, the former director of the P.E. program at UC Davis, sent an email to P.E. staff members, obtained by ABC10, that the program will no longer exist, effective the winter 2020-21 quarter.

“I want you to know that the final decision was made without our input,” Jahn said in the email to the other lecturers in the program.

“Based on my understanding, that felt like an abuse of power,” Daryl Lee, former UC Davis P.E. professor and tennis coach, said.

Lee added the fact they were not consulted on the decision was not just. He hoped fairness would prevail since the P.E. program was part of a 1994 agreement when students voted and passed the “Student Activities and Services Initiative (SASI).” It meant students would pay a fee to help fund sports teams and in return the administration would offer P.E. classes.

The university said SASI and the P.E. program are not actually linked, and there was no written agreement the university would fund and offer P.E. in exchange for the students paying the SASI fee.

“Neither the SASI referendum language nor the Regents’ item that enacted the SASI fee references P.E.,” UC Davis said in a statement.

UC Davis explained in the layoff notice sent to professors the decision to get rid of the program “was made based on several considerations, most important being that enrollment in PE courses has been steadily declining over the last decade despite class offerings remaining largely the same.”

The move is now leaving many professors without a job. Students first heard about the move through word of mouth.

“The students were not informed as a whole for six weeks. Six weeks,” Lee said.

In that email to students, Lee said the administration did not give students a reason for cancelling the program, but then told the UC Davis student newspaper, the Aggie, the reason was because many reviews over the years about the program led to the recommendation to discontinue it.

“The one phrase that kept going through my mind was they were ‘muddying the waters.’ The initial reason was declining enrollment, then suddenly it’s multiple reviews,” Lee said.

UC Davis said in a statement it is the university’s “right to make changes to all courses and programs at any time without prior notice,” even explaining in the university’s program catalog that the changes can happen at any time.

Students of Lee praised the P.E. classes they took with him and how they really helped during the pandemic.

“That one hour every Thursday became my favorite hour every week because it was the only time that I ever saw people that I do not live with on a regular basis. It was also the only class that I was required to attend and it really helped me maintain some sort of structure in my life,” one student said.

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UC Davis baseball

Another student described the classes as something that helped them realize taking care of themselves was just as important as academics.

“I’ve always had the mentality that my academics were above everything, including sleep, eating, relationships and mental being,” the student said. “All these years, I’ve neglected these aspects of my life to get to my goal, but these P.E courses argued differently. I’ve learned that it is okay to be kinder to myself, to pursue other hobbies, to eat better, and to do things that were simply for the purpose of my well-being.”

Despite the information from UC Davis about their right to cancel any class, many students are upset that the university did away with the program and are still charging the students the SASI fee. Students created a petition to try to get the program back and some even filed a lawsuit against the school.

The Lawsuit

Four students at UC Davis filed a class action lawsuit against the Regents of the University of California for unfairly charging them the SASI fee while the school canceled the P.E. program.

“We think this is highly unfair. The school promotes itself as a unique place, they call it 'The UC Davis way' and being 'student first' and this is the last thing that would ever fall in line with that,” lawyer Jonathan Lindenfeld said.

The students filing the lawsuit — Bailey Johnson, Madison Butler, Corrie O’Brien and Urvashi Mahto — are doing it on behalf of all students.

“I’m suing UC Davis because they broke their promise to students. It makes no sense that they should continue charging us for a program that doesn’t even exist,” Madison Butler said in a statement.

Lindenfeld said that in total, students have been providing approximately $10 million a year to the athletics program through the SASI fee.

“We think this is a very important lawsuit,” Lindenfeld said. “More and more you hear about schools, particularly public universities, falling under fiscal pressures and we deeply sympathize with that, but at the same time, students are under pressure with increasing student debt and it’s totally unfair for the schools to charge $400 a year and then pull back services that they’ve agreed to provide.”

The students felt that the P.E. program was important to their college experience.

“The PE program was an integral part of my college experience being a transfer and non-traditional student as well as being a part of student disability, it provided me with a solid and supportive environment that I had not found elsewhere on campus,” Bailey Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson and Butler said that they were devastated when the school announced the cancelation of the program.

“Overall, the school and it’s students would be better off with the program reinstated because it never should have been cancelled in the first place,” Johnson said.

The students aren’t the only ones who want the program back. The Davis Faculty Association sent a letter to the chancellor and provost asking to reinstate the P.E. program.

“There are many students who, for one reason or another, have grown up without the opportunity for much learning and participation in sports broadly defined. Elimination of PE unfairly singles out these, typically less wealthy, students who, for example, are not able to afford a membership and lessons at a golf club, but who can, in a UCD PE class, learn under the tutelage of a Cy Williams. PE courses offer all our students the opportunity to learn, at no cost, new skills as a beginner, and from talented and outstanding instructors,” the letter read.

Right now the lawsuit is still in the early stages, but Lindenfeld says they are on the right side of it.

“I hope to get UCD to fairly reinstate the PE program so that other students can benefit from it in the same way that myself and many others have,” Johnson said. “I hope that if they don’t, they will pull the SASI fees and provide refunds for the quarters in which they unfairly dismissed it.”

She hopes that the program gets reinstated for future students to enjoy the community she came to know and love.

“The one thing I’ve wanted is for UC Davis to uphold their end of the bargain,” Butler said. “Why are we paying for something that doesn’t exist?”

There is no estimate as to when they will get results from their lawsuit, but in the meantime, some students are working to hold another vote on the SASI fee and whether students should have to pay it.

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