It’s no secret that the students of the UC System are angry over California’s mounting fiscal crisis. It’s directly affecting their college careers, and ultimately their lives. Student protesters can be seen in front of their administration buildings chanting words of anger and disapproval, placing witty signs to draw peoples’ attention to the issue, administering rallies with people sharing their personal stories about how these cuts have affected their college experience. But do all these tactics really work? Can student protestors’ actions make a difference and influence policy? In lieu of the Regent’s approval of a 32% increase in tuition, many student activists are taking even more action in unprecedented numbers since the protests of the 1960s. Evidently, people are angry and frustrated, but how far are they willing to go for reform?
The University of California, Irvine, alone is cutting $77 million dollars ($800 million dollars across the UC’s total) to help the state balance its budget, which means we can expect to see layoffs, furloughs, bigger class sizes, shorter library hours, and the quality of education in general declines. Ultimately, it is the students who pay the biggest prices in their education, and not just monetarily. Students are experiencing cuts to athletic programs with the loss of five water sports so far, the UC’s are accepting fewer admissions for incoming students, forcing them to explore other alternatives. The once widely accessible and respected public institution in the United States, which, upon its foundation was dedicated to a near free education, is more and more beginning to resemble a private institution in terms of its fiscal demands.
Defend UCI is a collation of faculty and graduate students formed in June in response to the furloughs and organized a walkout on the first day of the fall quarter of 2009. According to the Los Angeles times, the turnout had been estimated at a 1,000 roughly, at UCI’s noon-walkout. Despite having such a positive turnout across all the UC’s in response to the budget crisis, the Regents still passed the 32% fee increase in tuition. When asked if the rallies, walkouts, and all these forms of protest mattered in the Regent’s decision-making, Defend UCI’s John Bruning said that “I don’t think that the turnout mattered… nothing short of putting a gun to their heads would have changed the vote. I think this is because the Regents really don't care what students think, and students really aren't their largest constituency.” ASUCI’s Sarah Bana, however, felt the protests on the day of the passage of the fee-increases held some significance, “…the turnout mattered in showing the Regents that this is clearly a student issue and needs to be addressed. It puts pressure on the Regents to work with the state legislature. I also think that the amount of media attention that was brought to the public because of the great amount of student protestors will make an impact on the state legislature and its decision making.”
I attended a teach-in that ASUCI held on November 19. It took place a packed classroom; all desks were filled with students with their own personal stories. One student contested “I work three jobs and I’m a double-major.” Sarah Bana told me she now has to share her apartment room with two other girls, in which there are only two desks in the room to study. At the end of the meeting, the class was instructed to join a letter-writing campaign in which grievances would be mailed to the Governor Shwartznegger. However, one must ask if merely picketing and letter writing to state legislators is enough to truly make a difference and incite change. From the results we have seen, it hasn’t. What has been working, however, is building occupation. As John Bruning pointed out, “The library occupations have been the only actions thus far to win concessions… they aren't so much about leveraging demands as they are about expropriating buildings for student use and management. I would like to see 32% of UC buildings occupied by students in response to the fee increase.”
John Bruning may just get his wish; starting December 4th in the afternoon to the very next day, the students at UCI will be staging a “study-in” at Langson Library. Roughly 1,300 students will be attending and counting. They demand longer library hours and putting an end to the threat of lay-offs that looms over the library staff. The event is titled “Liberate Langson Library” and students are encouraged to bring blankets, food, and of course study materials.
But no one is giving up on rallies just yet; another rally outside the administration building will take place at noon, November 24, in which slightly over 2,000 students are expected to participate.
The level of participation in past events and the participation expected for future events demonstrates the frustration UC students feel over these imposed fee-increases and the extent to which they will do all they can to fight back and be heard. Forms of resistance vary greatly and come in different styles and techniques. Whether it’s letter-writing to a state legislator, or staging an all night teach-in at a library, the important thing is that an action took place, and that’s the first step in obtaining the desired policy. According to ASUCI participant Shacole Hamlett, ““we need to empower students; we need everyone to make a stand because things don’t change when people don’t take action.”