The tricky thing about viruses is that it’s impossible to know where they might spread next or what damage they might do if they mutate. The same could be said of “viral” protest movements like the one that started in California months ago.
Talk of a series of March 4 demonstrations across California  began in October, and since that time a loosely connected cyber network of angered faculty and students have planned their own protests across the country. What has emerged is the promise of the collective angst of cash-strapped public education -- from K-12 through the college sector -- bubbling over in hot spots from sea to shining sea.
They may face different levels of budget cuts, hail from different institutions and reside in different states, but these activists are all saying -- in one way or another -- “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” While that’s a message that many college administrators may privately embrace, since they too feel increasingly shortchanged by the state's budget-setters, the fervor of the protest movement presents a delicate dance for campus and system-level leaders trying to promote their agendas and keep the peace at the same time.
Signs that read “Support Higher Ed”? That sounds good. Taking over buildings and throwing stuff at cops? Not so much.
“Do we support building occupations? Do we support campus shutdowns? No, not at all,” said Jesse Cheng, the University of California’s student regent designate. “But do we support campus activism and funding for UC? We definitely do.”
Cheng is a student at California’s Irvine campus, but as a regent appointee he concedes that “it’s kind of touchy for me to participate in these actions.” That being the case, Cheng will spend a fair amount of time Thursday at his Irvine office, where he and a team of nine interns will be writing throughout the day on the UC Regent Live Blog  about developments across the state.
Messages from the University of California’s president, regents and Berkeley’s chancellor have all hinted at the careful balance administrators are striking with regard to the protests.
“Planning for the March 4 event seems to be fluid at this point, and it’s still not clear exactly what activities will occur,” said Peter King, a spokesman for the University of California. “Hopefully, they will be peaceful and on point. We’re
there in spirit with any effort to preserve public education in California and across America.”
In spirit, but not likely in person.
Recent media reports  suggested that President Mark Yudof and the regents had embraced the March 4 protests at a January meeting, but Cheng, who attended the meeting, said system leaders were actually endorsing a formal -- and presumably more contained -- annual day of lobbying in Sacramento March 1. The March 4 events, on the other hand, have so many variables and tentacles that even those who support the central theme of enhanced education funding are ambivalent about what may occur.
In a recent letter to Berkeley's campus, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was at pains to support the premise of the pending demonstrations without signing on to every slogan that may be chanted. While Birgeneau asked faculty to be flexible about student absences March 4, he noted there may well be daylight between the administration and the gathering throng.
"Demanding the state of California reinvest in public higher education is a goal that we share with our students," he wrote. "However, we want to make clear that we cannot endorse demands for 'no fees' and 'no layoffs.'
"Student fees, besides providing essential operating funds, are also a redistributive mechanism for subsidizing the living costs of low-income students."
The fact that administrative interests may not always align with those of faculty and students has presented a series of political challenges for Birgeneau and others, as they work to harness the energy of protesters whose anger is sometimes directed as much at campus and system leaders as lawmakers. 
Consistent with its history, Berkeley has been the site of some of the most intense demonstrations associated with budget cuts in the state. Protests Nov. 20 at the campus pitted police in riot gear against students , prompting allegations of excessive force and a subsequent investigation into the law enforcement response. While the investigation is not concluded, a spokesman for the campus said officials have worked with student groups to encourage peaceful demonstration in future.
“We’re engaged with the students; we’re talking with them,” said Dan Mogulof, executive director of strategic communications. “We’re going to keep a careful eye on this, and the one thing that unites us all is [a desire] not to have a repeat of the events of Nov. 20.”
Grass-Roots Phenomenon Grows Online
While none can predict the size of the demonstrations expected March 4, the lead-up is already being touted as a feat of social networking and viral organizing. Facebook, Twitter , Google groups  and custom-designed Web sites  have all played a role in a movement that promises demonstrations on dozens of campuses across California, as well as regional rallies in major hubs like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento.
The activist interest promoted on the Internet has spawned demonstrations beyond the March 4 date, as organizations and campuses plan other events throughout the month. Indeed, the movement is so decentralized that no single person or organization has a handle on what the other groups are doing or even when they’re doing it.
“I figured why not just embrace the chaos,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association (CFA), a union representing 23,000 faculty members in the California State University System.
The diversity of the movement has placed the CFA -- affiliated with the National Education Association, the American Association of University Professors and Service Employees International Union -- alongside representatives from elementary and secondary education in advocacy efforts. That’s notable, given the fact that the various sectors of public education often find themselves fighting each other for limited funding.
“We’ve never ever done things with this level of unanimity, this level of commitment,” said Taiz, a professor of history at California State’s Los Angeles campus. “Normally we talk about the future of public higher education; now we’re talking about the future of public education -- pre-K through Ph.D.”
The United States Student Association is among the groups trying to pull the disparate pieces of the movement together. Representatives of the organization have used social networking tools to spread the word about events, and field organizers have been sent to individual campuses to help with preparation.
Jake Stillwell, communications director for the association, said the November student protests against tuition increases  in California have created a domino effect.
“The cool thing about it is it’s been incredibly viral and organic,” he said. “It did originate in California, but the national arm came in response to California, and was sort of inspired by the massive protests that happened during the tuition hikes.”
Hence a gaggle of twenty-somethings on the West Coast found themselves connected to Bill Bateman, an out-of-work construction laborer in Providence, R.I. Bateman, coordinator of the Rhode Island Unemployment Council, is helping organize a March 4 rally in his hometown in support of education. The council has joined forces with an ad hoc group called the Save Our Schools Coalition, which was founded amid talk that budget constraints might lead to elementary and high school closures.
For Bateman, the preservation of schools is about the preservation of jobs.
“We’re probably talking easy 15,000 (unemployed) in the city of Providence,” he said. “We need jobs. Put us to work repairing the schools. Fix ‘em.”
Bateman said he heard about the March 4 protests through a Web site called bailoutpeople.org , and after that he and others worked to sign people up for participation in a rally to coincide with the movement. To generate interest, however, Bateman isn’t using all the modern social networking tools of his millennial counterparts.
“It’s been a little more of the old fashioned way, with a clip board,” he said. “That’s really how we got going on it. It was grass roots -- students, parents and teachers who signed up and got the ball rolling.”