The Unmanageable University

Remarks from the movement against tuition hikes at the University of California

Before dawn on Tuesday, March 3, a group of six students at the University of California Santa Cruz went to the fishhook connecting Highways 1 to 17. Evoking the practice of highway blockades popularized during the Black Lives Matter movement, they chained themselves to aluminum trashcans filled with cement and blocked traffic for nearly five hours. The traffic jam this caused stretched over the hill to snarl Silicon Valley commutes, an act of peaceful civil disobedience that has since become the most controversial of the “96 Hours of Action” declared across the UC system for the first week of March, in protest against tuition hikes and police violence. After their arrest, the students were informed in jail that the university had suspended them indefinitely, leaving the campus residents homeless and without access to dining plans or healthcare.

Since then, student activists have vigorously debated whether such tactics can effectively build towards a mass movement – all while insisting on defending these six students from excessive and unprecedented punishment. In the meantime, we have been drawn into a difficult discussion with community members and apolitical UC students who fail to see why a protest of tuition hikes and police violence warranted this level of public disruption – and what these two topics have to do with each other in the first place.

Ironically, UC president Janet Napolitano has herself already laid out the political stakes for us, in a recent article for the Washington Post. “Too many states, including California,” she writes, “spend more money on prisons than on higher education.” Such lopsided priorities, which emphasize repressive policing at the expense of our futures, expose the deep hypocrisy of the state’s budget cuts. Even the former Secretary of Homeland Security recognizes that it’s a problem when our society is more interested in locking people up than sending them to school.

Of course, Napolitano did not refer to the highway blockade, let alone the Black Lives Matter movement. Her impassioned defense of higher education wasn’t intended as a critique of the state’s prioritization of incarceration over education – it was part of a process of backroom politicking and closed-door negotiations with the state, in which talk of “university privatization” was used as a bargaining ploy. In November 2014, the UC Regents, an unelected board composed of politicians, CEOs, and investment bankers, voted to raise tuition by 28% over the following five years. This decision was met with widespread outrage, attracting student protest across the state and consistent opposition by Governor Jerry Brown. Yet both Brown and Napolitano have tried to use students as pawns in their game. Their decisions have resulted in a very real crisis at the UC – a crisis of governance.

The Regents have shown themselves unfit to govern our university system; we are not interested in asking them to make better policy decisions on our behalf. An enormous amount of research has shown that student debt could be practically eliminated through a minor tax increase. Despite the fact that a couple generations ago, public education in California was free, the logic of austerity has made it seem politically impossible.

Claiming that the “business” of higher education – in her view, “one of America’s greatest contributions to civilization” – is not in crisis, Napolitano disingenuously co-opts the language of the social movements to pin the blame for the university’s troubles on the austerity policies of the state. Public universities “have undergone a decades-long period of public disinvestment” she writes in the Post, “resulting in increases in tuition and a diminishment of the student experience.” It is the state’s unwillingness to rectify the recession cuts, Napolitano insists, that is to blame: “tuition increases have occurred only to fill the gap left by state cuts.”

While Napolitano has co-opted anti-austerity rhetoric, Brown has pretended to defend our interests from the other side. He has called for flat tuition and condemned the bloated executive salaries at the UC. The UC’s spending practices, recently condemned as “wasteful and deceptive” by a subcommittee of the California State Assembly, have led to runaway inequality at the institution, with the number of administrators growing rapidly despite a steadily decreasing faculty-to-student ratio – leading to overcrowded classrooms and a squeeze on staff and precarious academic workers. Despite his usual devotion to fiscal conservatism, Brown has managed to masquerade as a defender of the public interest.

Cynically using students and their futures as bargaining chips, Napolitano and Brown have bewildered the public, obfuscated the real issues at hand, and undermined the voices of the anti-privatization movement. They have also skillfully masked the serious damage their respective visions would do to the UC’s constituents.

“We hear constantly about part-time baristas with $200,000 in student loan debts,” Napolitano whined in a keynote address last fall. She tried to dismiss this concern by claiming that most students don’t have quite so much debt, and that in fact over 50% don’t pay any tuition at all. The UC has tried to hide behind these figures in order to portray privatization as a minor annoyance that doesn’t affect working-class students. This obscures the urgent need for much more aid to be extended to lower-income students, who are saddled with many costs beyond tuition – including campus fees, health insurance, lodging, transportation, and textbooks.

At UC Berkeley, for example, where administrators claim that rising tuition is a “Robin Hood” arrangement that redistributes wealth to lower-income students, tuition is in fact less than half the total cost of attendance. The cost of the remaining ”self-help component,” which has grown significantly in the past decade, is borne by students and families, who often have to take out unsubsidized loans not included in the calculation of student debt. And the stark reality is that student debt is growing at the UC: in 2012-2013 the percentage of seniors graduating with debt was the highest it has been in 14 years, and during the same period the debt burden itself increased by 15%. Napolitano’s attempt to cover this up with her enthusiasm for research is disturbing, and indicates that she is truly out of touch with the needs of students and families.

Brown represents the reverse problem: hiding underneath his opposition to tuition hikes is his commitment to turning the UC into a more efficient factory, by shifting to online education, prioritizing teaching over research, and pushing students through as quickly as possible. The call for faster graduation, first of all, is an insult to students who have already taken on full-time jobs to pay the bills, and are forced to cut corners to keep up. But what’s more, as the growing adjunct and graduate student unions across the country have argued, these issues of quality of education are also labor issues. The kind of factory speed-up Brown proposes would limit the capacity of faculty, adjuncts, and graduate teaching assistants to devote one-on-one time to their students, and would reduce more academic jobs to precarious labor.

Our organization, Autonomous Students, came into being to support labor unions of campus employees, including AFSCME 3299 and UAW 2865, during a turbulent year of contract negotiations. Our coalitions were powerful because they brought student organizing models together with the mass base and institutional knowledge of organized labor, and helped form a strategy that won workers better contracts. We are one organization that has participated in the broader opposition to austerity and university privatization, and we maintain a strong commitment to the mass movements that emerge on our campus. Our role is to participate in these movements, learn from their actions, and build a space for collective antagonism against those who exploit us.

When the tuition hikes were announced in November, student unrest erupted in a week-long building occupation, carried out by a broad, self-organized coalition. The anger of the students did not revolve around the complicated math of budget proposals, but the autocratic control of the Regents and their total disregard for the everyday struggles on the campus. “We will be unmanageable until such time as there are no managers,” declared the opening communiqué.

During that same week, the Ferguson grand jury announced the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, and resistance to police violence flared up on a national scale. Many of us took trips to participate in massive street demonstrations in Oakland, as well as in nearby Salinas, where four Latino men were killed by white policemen between March and July last year. We also focused on developing our own forms of political education, with the hopes of producing new forms of solidarity on our campus. In a reading group on the history of anti-racist movements in the US, we worked on thinking through the differences between the obstacles presented by factionalism, and the possibilities for collaboration with independent groups.

The 96 Hours of Action – organized by a variety of groups including Students for Justice in Palestine, alongside unaffiliated collectives – represented an attempt at this kind of organizing. We have drawn on this rich legacy of strategic thinking to guide our practice, above all considering the tension between what Ella Baker, writing on the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, called “group-centered leadership” versus “a leader-centered group pattern of organization.” We have also confronted the uneasy dynamic between direct action and repression, which, as Ken Cockrel of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers put it, poses the constant risk of reducing movements to “defense organizations.” Truly overcoming repression, for the LRBW, meant nothing less than “the dismantling of the present state mechanism”: “the primary thing that can be done to prevent the occurrence of repression is for those of us of the oppressed classes to take over, to take power, to run every goddamn thing in this country, to run everything, this world – and certainly to start out by running everything in this city.”

Along these lines, the student movement against privatization is advancing new demands to realize the goal of a free education. Our strategy should be oriented towards putting the UC in the control of the people who work, study, and send their children there, instead of the bankers and bureaucrats who play games with our lives and futures. The slogans of self-management that emerged in the student movement suggest a concrete transitional demand: that control over the UC budget be transferred to a democratic council of workers, students, and community members. This does not mean forming a token committee that the Regents will politely humor before proceeding with business as usual. It means initiating a process of structural change that will allow us to collectively imagine a totally different kind of university, and indeed a different California. We invite parents and public school teachers to join this movement, since it is their children and students who will be hit the hardest by privatization.

The recent explosion of student strikes and occupations in the Midwest and North Eastern seaboard – as well as internationally in Cape Town, London, Toronto, Quebec, and all across Mexico – signal the resonance of this fight. These movements are raising questions of money and management, crushing debt and college administration. Between the Great Recession and 2014, tuition nationwide rose some 20% – though this number doesn’t account for non-tuition related fee hikes, which total thousands of dollars per student in some states. Just as in California, student money is being leveraged in risky financial investments, bond-funded construction projects, and an ever-expanding layer of administrative bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, grassroots student initiatives are often channeled into dead-end lobbying efforts, photo-ops for the Democratic Party, and free PR labor for the University. Jerry Brown and the Democratic supermajority in California’s legislature demonstrate that those strategies do not work. The most successful instances of student opposition – Chile, Puerto Rico, Quebec – all have one thing in common: student unions. But those organizations took decades to build, and the efficacy they now enjoy are in part the product of their historical legitimacy and institutional recognition. On campuses without this organizational history, there is an urgent need to build independent spaces from which mass movements can emerge. This means campus-wide assemblies, open strike committee meetings, and a multiplicity of forms which allow students and workers to develop collective agency and collaboratively self-determine tactics and strategies in their own interests.

A couple days after the highway blockade, campus was shut down by an early morning picket line. The University administration sent out a mass text as early as 5:30 in the morning, announcing that campus was closed and warning that for safety reasons, everyone should stay away. A group of high school students did not receive this warning, and showed up for a campus visit. They took in the scene for a little while, clustered around their teachers. As they were about to leave, one student asked to make a statement. He said: “This is my future, and I want to thank you for fighting so that I can go to college.” If there is any hope for the future, it will come from all of us fighting together.