Thousands of students across the 10 campuses of the University of California (UC) system are planning to walk out of classes and continue occupations of campus buildings on Monday, November 24, in defiance of a stunning 30 percent tuition hike over the coming five years.
The increase is the brainchild of newly appointed UC President Janet Napolitano. Fresh from overseeing the Obama administration's increase in deportations as Homeland Security Secretary, Napolitano wasted no time in "earning" her $570,000 base salary at UC by adding to the crisis of affordable and accessible public higher education in California.
Her proposal would increase tuition by 5 percent for each of the next five years, for a cumulative increase of 30 percent by the end of that time. The average cost of a UC resident would increase to $15,564 per year by the fall of 2019--and more than double that for out-of-state students.
Today's day of action is part of an eruption of protests that began Wednesday, November 19, after a sub-committee of the UC Board of Regents approved Napolitano's proposal. That evening, more than 200 students and community members stormed Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley, the system's flagship school. Within a few days, the angry demonstrations had spread to other campuses.
Sadia Saifuddin, the student representative on the Board of Regents, aptly expressed the anger on UC campuses in an op-ed article for the Daily Californian:
Since 2008-09, the UC system has raised its residential undergraduate tuition from $6,202 to $11,160, a whopping 80 percent increase in four short years. Tuition increases have major ramifications as well; although the university prides itself on the number of Pell Grant recipients who attend college here (UC Berkeley alone has more Pell Grant recipients than all of the Ivy League combined), the pressure often falls on the middle class. In the absence of scholarships and grants, many students are forced to find other sources of income to fund their education, often resulting in multiple jobs and loans with exorbitant interest rates that only deepen the student debt crisis.
After several days of rallies in the lead-up, there were protesters on hand when the Board of Regents met Wednesday morning at UC San Francisco's Mission Bay campus.
The demonstrators attempted to enter the building to present their concerns to the Regents directly. Facing a line of police holding the building's entrance shut from the inside, the students were suddenly pushed up against the doors from the outside by a police barricade, slamming them into the building's side and shattering the glass entranceway. After a scuffle, UC Berkeley student Jeff Noven was arrested, charged with vandalism and inciting a riot, and taken away in handcuffs.
When the results of the Regents' vote were released, students from several UC Berkeley groups and community organizations gathered outside Wheeler Hall at 7 p.m. to plan the occupation--from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., students and community members streamed into the building's lobby. At 10 p.m., a UC police officer announced that the building was closed and asked students to leave. The occupiers refused to do so and held their first General Assembly.
After discussing their experiences from the day, the occupiers split into working groups, including one dedicated to developing a set of demands to be voted on later that night. After several hours of deliberation, the demands approved by a majority vote around 3 a.m. were: one, cancellation of the tuition hikes approved by the Board of Regents; two, full UC budget transparency, as outlined in California Assembly Bill 94; and three, all charges dropped against Jeff Noven.
The next day, the Wheeler Hall occupation grew larger as word of the action spread to other students. Police remained present but non-confrontational throughout the day. One officer quoted in The Daily Californian said, "If there's a life threatened or hazardous conduct, we'll intervene. But short of that, we'll let the students do their thing."
Later that afternoon, the full Board of Regents voted 15-7 to confirm the tuition hike, further raising the temperature among occupiers. As night fell and sleeping bags began lining the hallways, police discovered graffiti tagged on the walls of several floors of the building, with such statements such as "Fuck Napolitano" and "From Mexico to Berkeley, let the fires burn." Students discussed how to respond in a meeting held in the newly occupied Wheeler Auditorium--taken over because the number of occupiers exceeded the main lobby's capacity. A proposed apology letter was discussed but eventually set aside so students could focus on future actions.
By Friday morning, the movement had spread to other UC campuses. Hundreds of students and community members marched outside of UC San Diego's Geisel Library. Cornel West visited with protesters at the newly occupied Humanities and Social Sciences building at UC Santa Cruz--West talked to students about how their struggle for public education was connected to the struggle against police violence in Ferguson.
UC Davis student activist Melody Yee described the reaction on her campus:
There was a rally on the Quad on Tuesday, November 18. Several hundred students came out to both protest the tuition increase and commemorate the anniversary of the pepper-spraying of student demonstrators during the Occupy movement in 2011. We marched through the Memorial Union, the main student center on campus, and then around campus to the administrative building, Mrak Hall.
Chancellor Linda Katehi was on the steps with her entourage. We engaged with them for a few minutes and then went into the building. The decision was made to march on campus again, and the group came up with 10 demands. When we came back, the administration was waiting for us. Many students thought it would be good to let administration speak, but some of us were so frustrated that we left the building and caucused outside.
We came back in a few minutes later to call a mic check and announced that we would meet outside for those who wanted to create real change instead of simply talking to the administration. About 30 to 45 people walked outside with us. We decided there to occupy Mrak for the night.
Back at UC Berkeley, protesters continued to occupy Wheeler Auditorium. During the course of the day, solidarity letters from Syracuse University's student body; from university students in New South Wales, Australia; and from students and faculty in Cairo, Egypt were read aloud.
The students organized teach-ins for the weekend, and the movement's name was changed "Occupy Wheeler" to "Wheeler Commons" to eliminate any colonial connotations. The day ended with a presentation by two Palestinian organizers on the relationship between the struggle at UC and the Palestinian struggle. Later, occupiers broke out into an impromptu dance party and welcomed an unexpected appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges.
Regents and campus administrators are hoping that the holidays will demobilize the protests. But a loophole in the Regents' vote has set up a fight that will take all spring to play out.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who is also a member of the Board of Regents, played good cop to Napolitano's bad cop by voting against the increase. Meanwhile, Brown and the supermajority of Democrats in the state legislature have refused to restore state funding for public education. Yet Napolitano's tuition hike could be undone if Brown and the Democrats allocate extra money for the UC system.
The student walkout on Monday will be the next step in the struggle, which seems poised to grow through the coming months to demand that the Regents and Napolitano rescind the tuition hikes--and that Brown and the Democrats restore funding for public education.