Books, Not Bombs

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.

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