The Backstory | What’s Behind UCSB’s Wall of Silence?

Some Institutions Are Too Big to Fail — Others are Too Big to Talk

Credit: Matt Perko

Hi, everyone. I’m back from paternity leave and reviving my newsletter, except now it’s called The Backstory, a column about the things that sometimes get hidden between the lines. Thanks for reading.

My head is killing me. Not from all the caffeine. Not from the jackhammer next door. Not even from worrying what kind of world our boy will grow up in. (That’s more of a heartache.) No, my head hurts from banging it again and again against UCSB’s wall of silence.

The wall, to be fair, doesn’t block all information equally. UCSB’s Office of Public Affairs, which has 14 writers and staffers and qualifies as one of the biggest “newsrooms” in Santa Barbara County, publishes an article or two a week about the research university’s latest accolades and breakthroughs. Communications about sports, arts, and lectures are also constant, and the alumni association never misses a chance to reconnect.

Where the silence hangs heavy is around three subjects UCSB would rather not discuss and so simply does not. Some institutions are too big to fail; others, I guess, are too big to talk. Today’s topics non grata are Dormzilla, last month’s triple-fatal car crash, and a broadside allegation that Chancellor Henry Yang was involved in a hit-and-run with a skateboarder on campus.

For two months now, I’ve been trying to get inside the Munger Hall Mock-Up, a full-size reproduction of a section of the proposed dorm with kitchens, common areas, and those infamous windowless bedrooms. The $2 million model was quietly constructed a few years ago within a Los Carneros warehouse, where donors and a few select others were allowed a tour. The Daily Nexus recently reported on its existence, writing that it was housed behind a rusted sign of the building’s former occupant, Mammoth Moving & Storage.

Since being publicly outed, UCSB says it’s now offering guided tours of the space, though besides a handful of campus allies and a select group of students, I’m not sure who has actually been granted entry. I know I haven’t. My phone calls and emails are either ignored or met with a “We’ll let you know.” I was extended an “off the record” walkthrough, but when I said I’d be showing up with a camera and questions, I got ghosted again. Two Independent interns, both UCSB students, also asked and then were also shined on.

Maybe the administration is bitter that our dumb “Dormzilla” nickname went viral, then stuck. Maybe the tours were never really meant for the public and are instead performative PR triage after the Munger concept was greeted with a hurricane of condemnation. Or maybe you’ll have better luck and will find the structure not all that bad. But how would we know? Try emailing and tell me how it goes.

In recent weeks, I’ve also tried in vain to get more information on that brutal crash at El Colegio and Stadium roads that killed three people — 20-year-old UCSB student Sebastian Gil, 28-year-old Santa Barbara resident Jose Hernandez, and 20-year-old Daniel Razo of Yorba Linda. The university itself has been oddly silent about the incident, even though it happened on its property and claimed the lives of one of its own.

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Graduate student Salvador Escalante expressed in a letter to the editor the angry bewilderment felt by many: “I was expecting some sort of email from Chancellor Yang — or from somebody — acknowledging this had happened, calling for collective empathy, if not solidarity,” he wrote. “I get emails when there is a new campus sustainability manager, but not for this. Not for mourning.”

The radio silence has extended to the UCSB Police Department leading the investigation. It’s been more than four weeks and we still don’t know what happened, who was at fault, what speeds were involved, and so on. Questions to the department are forwarded to Public Affairs, who say they can only release the information the PD provides them. It’s a highly efficient feedback loop of deflection that would be impressive if it wasn’t so maddening.

But I can’t take the brush-off personally this time. As another local reporter wrote in an article days after the bloody collision: “UCSB’s refusal to give out even basic details about the crash is at odds with how most law enforcement agencies deal with crashes that involve serious injury or death.” Once again, how is the university helped by building a wall of suspicion? No idea.

Now we come to UCSB’s masterclass in “no comment.” On the morning of May 20, we got an anonymous tip that claimed Chancellor Yang had “hit a student with his vehicle, and then left the scene.” They even provided a link to the UCSB Police Department’s Daily Crime Log that stated a hit-and-run had occurred on May 16 at 2:30 p.m. on Channel Islands Road, right near the chancellor’s home overlooking the campus lagoon. “The University and the UCSB Police Department are actively withholding this information from the public,” the tipster insisted.

More details eventually emerged from a second anonymous message ― the student, whose hip was reportedly injured in the incident, was in a crosswalk when they were allegedly struck, and Yang’s wife was in the car at the time and supposedly “shooed” the student out of the road before the couple drove off.

Our first calls and emails were to the PD. For two weeks, we got no response. Then, finally, their spokesperson wrote back explaining that “Due to conflict of interest, the California Highway Patrol took over this investigation.” Why? “The parties involved and their association with UCSB.”

Public Affairs then provided us with a statement. “The university is aware of a report regarding a minor incident potentially involving a skateboard and an automobile,” it said. “We understand that the matter is being reviewed externally. We want to withhold making any additional comments until the review is completed and more information is available.”

To me, that whole lotta nothing says a whole lotta something. The university could have responded with an official, unequivocal “no, these allegations are false,” or maybe a firm, off-the-record “you guys are barking up the wrong tree.” But they chose not to. They wouldn’t even clarify if the statement was an acknowledgement that the chancellor had been involved in a traffic accident. “We have nothing more to add,” we were told. It’s hard not to make leaps into such a void.

No additional comment ever came from Public Affairs, and the CHP ― which admitted it’s “extremely” rare for the UCSB Police Department to forward them cases ― says their investigation is pending. So far, a spokesperson explained, they haven’t found any evidence of a crime. When we finally tracked down the skateboarder, he said only, “At this time, I’m not speaking to anyone.” Maybe he’s hired a lawyer, because that sure sounds like legal advice.

So we’re left to wonder what actually happened that day on Channel Islands Road. I’m still struck by what isn’t being said and who isn’t saying it, and UCSB seems content to let the mystery linger. But eventually, one of us will crack ― my head or their wall. Luckily, I have a lot of Advil on hand.

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