Dozens of UCSD grad students face possible discipline after labor protest at alumni honors event in La Jolla

UC San Diego academic workers strike in front of Geisel Library on campus in November.
UC San Diego academic workers strike in front of Geisel Library on campus in November to call for higher wages and other demands.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The university accuses protesters of an assault on the chancellor, which the group denies.


Dozens of UC San Diego graduate students are facing disciplinary hearings and even possible expulsion after interrupting an alumni awards ceremony in May to accuse university administrators of failing to live up to the requirements of a union contract brokered in 2022.

According to statements by United Auto Workers 2865, which represents more than 36,000 University of California student researchers, teaching assistants and tutors statewide, 67 students are facing academic discipline after staging the demonstration May 5.

A recorded livestreamed video on social media shows students streaming onstage during the awards ceremony, held outdoors at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.

Though the video is grainy and difficult to make out in several spots, it is clear that students showed up to protest what they considered the university’s failure to abide by a contract that specifies significant wage increases for workers who staged a five-week strike in late 2022, shutting down classes and delaying grading at UC campuses statewide.

Maya Gosztyla, a union organizer and doctoral candidate in biology, said she and many others received letters from UCSD’s student affairs office in early June that allege violations of student conduct procedures, including prohibitions against physical assault and threatening conduct.

Students say they are especially concerned about allegations of assault, indicating that, if sustained, such accusations could result in expulsion.

“At first I thought this was clearly a mistake,” Gosztyla said. “We livestreamed the whole event and nobody came near anybody.”

Gosztyla provided a copy of the letter she received from the university and a copy of an incident report that accompanied the notice. She redacted all but her name from the documents in order to protect the identities of others who have been accused but have not given their consent for publication.

The university has so far declined to discuss the details of specific allegations, citing laws that protect student privacy. But the incident report states that protesters “bumped” UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla when taking the stage. According to the university account, students “took the microphone away” from the chancellor and he “stumbled but did not fall off the stage.”

It is difficult to verify those specific details in the video of the event. However, Gosztyla disputed the statements in the incident report, saying “there was no physical contact at all.” She also provided a photo, which she did not have permission to have published, that shows one protester standing next to the chancellor and speaking into a microphone attached to a podium.

“The report is incorrect in saying that someone took his mic,” Gosztyla said.

“It is clearly an intimidation tactic,” she said. “Being charged with assault even if you know for sure you didn’t commit any crimes, that’s a really scary charge to see, especially for someone like me who’s now four years into my Ph.D. and has about two years left.”

The letters that student protesters received do not specifically list expulsion as the main goal of the disciplinary process. The university’s Policies Applying to Campus Activities, Organizations and Students, which is cited in the letters, lists a range of potential punishments for those found to have violated school conduct rules, ranging from warning and censure to suspension and dismissal. An appeal process allows students to challenge violation decisions.

An emailed statement from the university indicates that students will have multiple opportunities “to tell their side of the story” during disciplinary hearings.

“If at any time it is determined that there is not reasonable cause to believe that a violation of the standards of conduct may have occurred, the student involved is promptly informed that no further action will be taken,” according to the statement.

Regarding the students’ decision to protest, the university said: “If unions or individual union members believe that the university is not in compliance with its contractual commitments, collective bargaining agreements establish orderly processes to file grievances and have them adjudicated. Calculated disruption of official university business is never appropriate.”

According to the incident report, the event, which cost “over $100,000 to produce” featured award winners who “came from as far away as Switzerland.” The event was forced to move inside, where pre-recorded video tributes to recipients could not be shown in their best light “because there was not similar video capability inside the museum,” the report states.

Further, the university narrative indicates safety concerns beyond the allegations of protesters bumping and surrounding Khosla, including “the shock effect the incident could have had on older attendees.”

The event, UCSD’s 44th annual Alumni Awards Celebration, honored four accomplished graduates: land-use and transportation planner Coleen Frost, chemist Ann Tsukamoto, business executive Scott Park and ocean researcher Alfredo Giron Nava.

Asked why union members felt it necessary to turn the event into a labor protest, Gosztyla said the group felt it was being ignored, having tried to go through proper channels for months without result.

“Disrupting an awards ceremony, to me, causes less harm than stealing thousands of dollars from thousands of workers,” she said. “I recognize that maybe some people may have been upset at this event and felt like it wasn’t their problem, but to me, I think that’s just the nature of protesting and speaking out against abuse.”

Union members have said the university has accused a large group of protesters, including more than a dozen who were not at the event.

Adam Cooper, who said he hopes to graduate with a doctorate in chemistry by December, said he received a notice of student conduct violations, including assault, despite not being present. Cooper said a witness identified him in a photo of demonstration participants, but he said he has his own witness and photos proving he was on campus.

Even if the accusations are dropped, he said, he worries about future repercussions.

“Even if it does get resolved, they’ll still stay on my student conduct record,” he said. “I’m concerned it will show in background checks, because I’m planning on applying for jobs that might require a security clearance in the future.”

An online petition demanding that disciplinary proceedings be dropped lists 95 signatures from UCSD faculty members and many more from academics associated with other organizations.

UCSD associate literature professor Sal Nicolazzo, secretary and treasurer of the UC San Diego Faculty Association, said the organization’s board voted to sign the petition June 16.

The association is a membership organization and thus does not represent all UCSD faculty. That duty falls to the university’s Academic Senate — a formal part of the university’s shared governance structure.

The Academic Senate said in an emailed statement that “although we are following these cases closely, the Academic Senate plays no role in issues of student conduct outside of classroom instruction, and for that reason it would not be appropriate for us to comment on the case.” ◆