Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interview With an Activist: “With undergrads you’re having your classes cut, tuitions going up so your paying more and more for less than you were."

By: Saeideh Golji

In a blink of an eye times have become tough, money is tight and effective decisions need to be made. The UC system is under great pressure to provide the same service and quality as before while reconciling the how many million-dollar budget deficits. At the same time students and staff are under financial and emotional pressure, people’s careers and futures are hanging on a string.A few are fighting for a more effective solution, one of whom is John Bruning, a UCI graduate student involved in the union UAW 2865 and a student group known as The Radical Student Union. Recently he's found himself protesting the budget cuts, both physically with the hundreds who marched recently, and virtually as one of the bloggers on DefendUCI is a blog run by "a coalition of UCI students, faculty, workers and staff" dedicated to undoing the damage of the states deep budget cuts. Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with him and picking his brain.

Q-When did you get involved?
A- So faculty started meeting back in June to talk about the furloughs, that’s when I think they started getting word that they would be furloughed, so especially humanities faculty started meeting once every other week or once a week or so to talk about how the furloughs were going to effect them and also come up with strategies to counter act that. So either oppose the furloughs or at least take some other action to try to mitigate the effect of that, and a few graduate students started going to the meetings, we knew that the budget crisis was happening, it started unfolding last year so we started to get involved to build bridges between different groups on campus. I was one of those graduate students that started going and for about two weeks before that actual walkout happened the meetings started turning more towards how to organize that, like how to turn out students and other groups on campus, just planning the logistics of it. So I got more involved that way, and then the guys from press started contacting Catherine Liu who is in the humanities faculty, she is like the original press contact she started getting overwhelmed with that so I stepped in to kind of help her out with that.

Q- What groups are you trying to build bridges for?
A- Generally between faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, workers and staff. Campus is divided with the different roles that different people take on in a university setting so basically try to incorporate everyone in the university.

Q-What is the radical student union? What do you guys do?
A-We started about a year ago to try and address the lack of activism on campus. There was one group that worked on workers issues, environmental groups, the Muslim Student Union but a lot of those groups don’t really work together and they don’t really address broader issues like democratizing education and gaining student power within the university so we formed this to try to address that. We try to work with the other groups to try and get them interrelated and involved in each others struggles and also we try to address some of the issues like how the university is run and how it functions.

Q- What have you guys done so far?
A- Last year we did a campaign around sweatshops in the university store which was somewhat successful. There was a factory that was producing for Russell that had fired the union organizers which was a violation of our contract with them so also the students at the other schools pressured the UC system to cut the contract with Russell, and they ended up doing that. We have also been involved in some of the struggles around workers rights here and also around the budget. Like right now we are primarily focusing on the budget.

Q- What have you done for the budget?
A- We are part of the defend UCI collision, mostly through that but we also try to do a lot of stuff on our own, we try to educate students and having educational events about it.

Q- What is defend UCI’s goal?
A- Defend UCI’s goal is to bring a little transparency and a little more accountability to the budget process. So even though some cuts may be inevitable at least give people control over the cuts who are going to be affected by them. So even though the furloughs are layoffs are inevitable at least give faculty some say over how the furloughs are implemented or give the workers some options around the layoffs, and give the students some options with the class cuts and increase class sizes and increase in tuition things like that.

Q- What struggles are you guys running into?
A- Partly apathy, apathy is a big one. Students are caring more about the budget then they are about most other issues in the past. Obviously Palestine is a big issue on campus here it gets big turnouts usually but the budget’s a bigger issue than that. Students are feeling it in their pocket books; they are really feeling it they are really affected by it. Even still getting students to care about it is surprisingly tough.

Q- How are you guys trying to move students away from this apathy?
A- Largely through education and also taking the students that are supportive and trying to mobilize them. Ultimately we are never going to have hundred percent of the students on board we may not even have like twenty percent of the students on board but even with the students that we have try to mobilize them and get them involved and give them more of a voice so we can challenge some of what has been happening.
Q- What are you guys doing to counteract the budget cuts?

A- A combination of putting pressure on the administration and also with education. With the philosophy that the more students are educated about it the less able the administration will be to sneak stuff by us. If students are watching what’s happening than maybe some of these cuts wont be happening. Assuming that doesn’t work we are trying to put pressure on the University, direct the pressure to Drake and Yudof and other people in key positions so they can feel how pissed off we are about it and keep us in their consideration when making decisions.

Q- What do you TA for?
A- Intro to Archeology.

Q- What changes have you witnessed because of the budget cuts?
A- Even during last year we saw somewhat of a increase in class size, you kind of get a fluctuation between classes and quarters anyway so its hard to judge that but it seems like the classes are increasing. The teaching loads are also increasing for us, but it’s gotten a lot more difficult for students to get into classes. The class I TA for, we started out with twelve sections and we had to cut half of them, so it went down to six sections. There are probably a dozen or so students who couldn’t make it to any of those sections, like they enrolled in the one section that worked for them and we ended up cutting that. We have done our best to try to accommodate then but it’s a challenge, students can’t come to the other sections because they work, they have family obligations, other classes and things like that. It makes our jobs a little bit tougher to try to work with them but also its just really bad for them. They’re not able to participate on the same level as other students are so they are at the very least disadvantaged within their class. I have also heard from students that they were enrolled in class and during welcome week their class was cut so then they had to scramble and try to get into other classes. Luckily I haven’t had that problem but I can see it through my class.

Q-Who is hurting the most?
A- [he chuckles] Um I’d say definitely undergrads [pauses] the campus workers like the hourly employees, like I think they are bearing most of burden with the cuts right now. With undergrads you’re having your classes cut, tuition going up so your paying more and more for less than you were last year. The campus workers as well because they’re working for very, very low wages and their doing a lot of the core work for the universities. They’re doing the basic work that the university relies on for it to function on a day to day basis and they’re getting pay cuts this year and they are being treated worst than last year.

Q- Are these cuts beyond the furloughs?
A- Well the pay cuts specifically are because of the furloughs for campus workers, a lot of them are also being layoff, which is separate. Most of them are getting their furloughs at state rate.

Q-Do you think this situation could have been avoided?
A-Umm, not entirely, part of the position of defending UCI and a lot of the people involved is that some of these things were sort of inevitable. Like if the moneys not there it’s not there and there’s really no way to fund some of it. But at the same time we do recognize a number of problems with the management of it like within the various ranks and administration where they definitely, at the very least could have handled it better. We also suspect that there might be other money floating around the budget that they’re keeping that, they not willing to cut.

Q- Can you expand on that?
A- Specifically the decisions they made, like which programs to cut, how much to cut things by. Even the way they have gone about doing it. They have had public sessions to discuss the implications of cutting certain programs or cutting staff and implementing furloughs and there have been a few instances with the board of regents meeting where they have cut the meeting short and they cut out the public comment about various topics. There has been a general lack of transparency with where the various founds are going. In general how the decisions are being made, why they are being made.

Q- Do you really think these [furloughs and layoffs] can be avoided though?
A- Umm,, in its entirety no, but I think there are ways that it could be managed a little better, I think there are decisions that could have been made that would result in lower fee increases or less layoffs, things like that.
A- For example there are a number of positions that actually got pay increase this year within the administrations, some of the executive positions. Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill I think yesterday saying that even during the budget crisis Universities could give their executives pay increases. I don’t remember the exact amount but it was something like seven hundred million dollars of payroll goes just to compensation of salaries of administrators. I’m sure that could be cut by a pretty sizable amount and still give them a pretty good salary. If you cut a hundred million off of that, that goes a long way in terms of saving jobs, saving classes,
kind of easing the university through its struggle without so much of it bleeding.

Q-How effective do you think your activism is going to be?
A-I guess it depends on what all happens. The walk out was just the first step for a lot of people. I know a lot of other schools have been doing a lot of other things sense then. Like at UCSC a number of students took over a building there for about a week, I know Berkeley has been contemplating that I know Davis tried to and then weren’t able to. We have some actions that are coming up in the near future, think there is something on the 14th, the 14th is going to be a statewide day of actions. And ultimately its going to depend on how much pressure we can put on the state legislature and the university. In some ways I try to find ways to kind of deepen the crisis even more so that people have to respond to it.

Q- How so?
A- It’s a tactic of more RSU than DefendUCI. I think DefendUCI people would be upset if they were associated with that. It’s the idea of going on strike, it’s like having stoppages, making the effects of the crisis more well known. Right now they are fairly well hidden, you know the class cuts are happening but it doesn’t really confront you quite as much as it could. Things like the walkout, faculty use part of their class time to educate about the budget and then just end class earlier or cancel class. Sort of impeding how businesses are happening on campus, it’s kind of saying that if you’re going to pay us less you’re going to get less from us. Making sure business as usual doesn’t happen on campus.

Q- Isn’t that just more harm to the students?
A- Ya, it’s a fine line to walk. Right now the students are pretty screwed I think. Like people that are coming here as freshmen, by the time they graduate their education is going to be very different from people who graduated last year. The kind of classes they can cover, the nature of the university is going to be very different. Short term it is kind of counteractive but long term its strategy of gaining and building power and being able to mobilize that power to resist further cuts. It’s voluntarily taking a hit now so you can be stronger later.

Q- What kind of changes are the undergrads going to face? How different is it going to be?
A- Tuition is a big thing. Tuition has doubled in the past five years and tripled in the past ten years already, but we are looking at thirty two percent increase for next fall and the following year it’s going to be higher and we are not anywhere near coming out of the crisis. The types of classes being offered being very basic very elementary, so trying to find classes where you can pack four hundred students into the lecture hall rather than having twenty-eight person seminars for even upper level classes. They are losing a lot of the teaching staff, lecturers are being layoff, so that means a lot of teaching responsibility shifts towards graduate students and faculty which takes away from the research mission of this university. The accommodation of the cuts, the vary nature and mission of the University is being forced to change. There is the possibility that the ranking will plummet, especially for the whole UC system. So if you come in as a freshman it’s a pretty well ranked university but by the time you graduate your degree might be the same as, well I don’t want to say that the CSU’s are bad, but sort of that equivalent now.

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