The outcry was followed almost as quickly by defense from police and calls for the chancellor's resignation.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said she is not resigning. However, she did call the video images "chilling" and said she was forming a task force to investigate the police action. Two UC Davis police officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave.
A law enforcement official who watched the clip called the use of force "fairly standard police procedure."
The video shows an officer dispassionately pepper-spraying a line of several sitting protesters who flinch and cover their faces but remain passive with their arms interlocked as onlookers scream out for the officer to stop.
The protest was held in support of the overall Occupy Wall Street movement and in solidarity with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley who were jabbed by police with batons on Nov. 9.
As the footage circulated widely on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter on Saturday, the university's faculty association called on Katehi to resign, saying in a letter there had been a "gross failure of leadership."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.