New Wave of Student Activism

Are the protests in California the start of a new national movement for access and affordability?
December 3, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Students at California public universities have been staging protests against budget cuts and fee hikes all fall, capturing local and national attention with administration building sit-ins, 24-hour library occupations and large outdoor rallies.

Though they’ve been the loudest this fall -- and in particular, over the last few weeks, as the University of California Board of Regents voted to raise tuition by 32 percent -- California’s students aren’t the only ones organizing to protect their financial and educational interests. As institutions and states take red ink to their budgets and green ink to their tuition bills, students in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York have begun speaking out. Students in Canada, Germany and Austria are also agitating against tuition hikes and budget cuts.

“A new era in student activism has … emerged out of California,” said Victor Sanchez, president of the University of California Student Association (USCA) and a senior at UC Santa Cruz, at the start of a panel discussion here Wednesday hosted by the Campus Progress branch of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It’s the beginning of a student movement. It’s a movement against the privatization of our public institutions here in the United States.”

Angus Johnston, a historian who completed his doctorate at the City University of New York earlier this year and studies American student activism, said he sees “a lot more going on beyond California than most people recognize.” When students go to a state capitol or to Congress to lobby for their interests “that’s not something that makes The New York Times, that’s not something you get on NPR for doing.” Smaller campus protests, he added, aren’t getting much coverage beyond campus and local media.

In California and increasingly elsewhere, Sanchez said, students don’t want to see their state’s public colleges and universities turn toward a high tuition, high aid model that looks less like a public institution than a private one, and there “really is a lot of anger.” There's anger, too, at private institutions, though students haven’t yet galvanized as students at publics have needed to during the recession.

The state of California’s budget -- as well as the institutional budgets of the UC, California State University and the state’s community colleges -- “is constantly being balanced on our backs,” he said, but students are unwilling to see their expenses rise and the actual dollars going toward their educations fall. The same, he added, could be said for students at public colleges and universities across the country.

After several waves of cuts, New York Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, is proposing additional cuts to higher education. Governors and legislators in Florida, Michigan, Iowa and a number of other states have also cut support for public higher education.

In California’s student activism, one problem some see is too much focus on attacking high-level administrators. UC President Mark Yudof, Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau and the system’s regents have borne the brunt of activists’ anger.

That, said Bruce Cain, director of the UC Washington Center and a professor of political science, is a mistake. “I share your pain. Believe me -- I don’t think it’s fair that you guys have to pay more. I worry about how that distorts the careers that you guys are going to pursue…. I think all that has to be changed,” he said. “But you’re not helping us if you’re only going to complain about Yudof and not look at the broader picture.”

Cain’s suggestion to Sanchez and other student activists: take aim at local and state governments, too. “You guys have to be part of the broader political context,” he said. “You can’t simply be focused on the administrators, some of whom, I admit, haven’t made a strong enough case for public education, haven’t been out there. But you guys have to take the larger political context seriously because that’s what’s killing us in the long run.”

Sanchez defended how UC students have been protesting. “The targets need to be the UC administration, as well as the state legislature and the governor, most importantly for us,” he said, arguing that years of mismanagement have gotten the system to where it is now.

Students, he added, haven’t felt like they could work with top administrators in getting their interests heard. “Our relationship has been so fragmented and broken” that it’s difficult for the two sides to come together in putting pressure on the state government.

Elsewhere, the targets have been more mixed. At the University of Maryland at College Park, hundreds of students gathered last month to protest the elimination of full-time position associate provost for equity and diversity position, which President Dan Mote justified as an appropriate cost-cutting measure. Thirty students at the State University of New York at Geneseo spent three days camped out on a campus quad, taking aim at Paterson’s proposed cuts.

Bob Hayes, a junior at Maryland, said he and other activists on his campus are looking toward California and New York as they build their own efforts and plot a path for the spring semester. “I think there is a growing movement of students fighting against privatization, fighting against cost increases, and trying to keep the education as high quality as possible.”

Johnston, the historian, said he’s gotten phone calls and e-mail messages from several student journalists working on stories comparing the situations on their own campuses and in their own states to California. “That news hook is leading to more media coverage in the student media and in the larger media,” he said. “It’s going to give us all a bigger picture of what’s going and what has been going on for years.”

Sanchez said he sees what’s happening as the start of a movement to bring change to public higher education. “This is definitely the early stages of what we are hoping for is going to be a new fight for our generation … the fight for an accessible, quality and affordable university.”


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