California campuses have been rocked by protests this past week, provoked by massive student fee increases voted on by the University of California Board of Regents. After a year of sequential budget cuts, faculty and staff dismissals and furloughs, and the elimination of entire academic departments, the 32 percent fee increase proved to be the trigger for statewide actions of an unprecedented scale. With President Barack Obama's Afghanistan war strategy-which, according to one leak, will include a surge of 35,000 troops-soon to be announced, the juxtaposition of education cuts and military increases is incensing many, and helping to build a movement.
As I traveled throughout California this past week on a book tour, I was, coincidentally, in the midst of the regents' vote and the campus protests. At UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, Cal State Fresno, UC Davis and Cal State Chico, students approached me with stories of how the fee increases were going to price them out of school. Students were occupying buildings, marching and holding teach-ins. At UC Davis, several young women, among the 52 arrested, described to me how they had been attacked by campus police, shot with Tasers. Students there also protested the Saturday closure of the libraries, showing up at the president's university-provided house to study there, since the library was closed. He let them in to study rather than spark a confrontation that probably would have ended with police action and arrests.
Blanca Misse, a UC Berkeley graduate student and organizer with the Student Worker Action Team, was among those who've been organizing. She told me, "We are striking because we care a lot about public education, and we care about another kind of public education, maybe, than the one they offer, a real public education out of the corporate model."
Laura Nader (Ralph Nader's sister) is a professor of social cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley, where she has taught for nearly 50 years. Earlier this year she co-authored a measure approved by the UC Berkeley Academic Senate calling on the school's athletics program to become self-sufficient and stop receiving subsidies from student fees. She is a critic of the increasing power that corporations such as BP and Novartis have over the universities, and she has a long personal history fighting for public education. She teaches general-education classes that attract hundreds of students-noting that students these days, taught to take tests, "are great at choosing answers on a multiple-choice test, but have never heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Her focus on the basics reflects her concern of the attack on public education in this country: "It isn't something that just happened, and it isn't something that was unplanned," she told me. "People really do adhere to the model that this shouldn't be a public good. And if we continue in this direction, there's going to be a two-class system: those who go to college are going to be those who can afford it, and those who don't are going to be the middle class."
The movement's centerpiece is a strong coalition that includes students, workers and faculty. Bob Samuels is president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, the union representing non-senate faculty and librarians of the University of California. Although California is facing a serious budget crisis, Samuels told me the UC system has more than sufficient funds: "It doesn't have to raise student fees. It doesn't have to fire faculty. It doesn't have to cut courses. They're talking about eliminating minors and majors. They're talking about moving classes online. They're doing these drastic things. And what we're seeing is just basically undergraduate students are subsidizing research, they're subsidizing administrators, they're subsidizing things that have nothing to do with undergraduate instruction."
During the Bush administration, military recruiting faced an all-time low. Now, after the economic collapse of late 2008, recruiters are having no problems. President Obama seems committed to increasing the size, and thus necessarily the duration, of the war and occupation in Afghanistan. One of the most popular university professors in California, Anaya Roy of UC Berkeley, offers a summary that Obama should heed: "In this context of inequality, one doesn't need radical instruments of redistribution. One only needs a few things, like decent public education or access to health care or some sort of reasonable approach that says enough of this massive spending on war."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.