Protesting Students, Striking Faculty

As the student loan debt in the United States surpasses $1 trillion for the first time in the nation’s history, thirteen courageous students from six California State University campuses will be engaging in civil disobedience in the form of a hunger strike until university leaders agree to freeze tuition, roll back excessive executive salaries, and make a genuine effort to ensure the quality of education. Students for Quality Education (SQE), the student activist organization, will begin the fast at midnight (May 3) with student supporters from across the state including those from the Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Long Beach, Northridge, Sacramento, and San Bernardino campuses. The students demanded to meet with representatives of the Board of Trustees but were rebuffed.

The CSU faculty union, after nearly two years of bargaining in good faith to reach a labor agreement with the university’s management, has voted overwhelmingly to authorize the California Faculty Association (CFA) to call for rolling strikes. A whopping 95 percent of the faculty on all 23 campuses voted to approve rolling two-day strikes if CSU Chancellor Charles Reed refuses a fair contract and stands by his «take-backs,» which would undermine shared governance with the faculty and weaken a host of faculty rights. Like the hunger striking students, the faculty strike actions will be aimed at bringing public awareness to a CSU administration that has shown itself to be wholly out of touch with the needs of its students and its faculty (as well as the public interest).

The strike vote could produce a shut down in the fall of the nation’s largest public university system, which would be the largest strike in the history of American higher education. The CFA president, Lillian Taiz, who is a Cal State Los Angeles history professor, noted: «The faculty of the California State University have had enough of executives putting themselves above the needs of the students, and of the public university. Enough of managers using budget cuts as an excuse to destroy the quality of students’ education.» «We do not want to strike,» she added, «but we will if that is what is necessary.» The faculty has simply «run out of patience.»

The hunger strike by students is a desperate measure that illustrates a desperate situation. Young people are being told that the only way to make it in today’s job market is to get a good education. Yet the same elders who lecture them on the necessity of a college degree are making it more difficult for them to attain one. Chancellor Reed and the Board of Trustees Chair Bob Lisncheid have so far ignored SQE’s «Open Letter» of April 27th formally requesting a meeting with them. Meanwhile, the dire conditions facing tens of thousands of CSU students continue with wave after wave of budget cuts, tuition and fee hikes, as well as an enrollment freeze that will deny 16,000 students access to public higher education in California.

Students have «tried just about everything to prevent the dismantling of our public university system,» Donnie Besson, a graduate student at CSU Long Beach points out: «We’ve lobbied our state legislators, we’ve mobilized thousands to our state capitol, and we’ve presented new strategies to our Board of Trustees.»

Both the student hunger strike and the threatened faculty walkout raise the question: Is the CSU a public educational institution or a multinational corporation? Chancellor Reed (and apparently the majority of the trustees) have telegraphed their philosophy of management. Through contracting out to exorbitantly-paid consultants (who receive about $4,000 per day while bargaining is going on) and pursuing aggressive «take-backs» from articles that have been hammered out in earlier contracts, the chancellor and the trustees’ stance toward the CFA looks more like that of a 19th century steel baron than people who have been entrusted with supervising a vital public good.

If a hunger strike by CSU students and a landslide strike vote by the faculty cannot get the attention of the administration in Long Beach then it’s hard to imagine what will. A student activist from CSU, Sacramento, Yeimi Lopez, described the fast this way: «Our classes have been cut and our programs slashed. We are thus taking the torch and are escalating our direct actions. We are taking a stand as students of California, for our sisters and brothers at the community colleges and K through 12.»

American college students used to undertake fasts to bring attention to off-campus issues like the dangers of nuclear weapons or apartheid in South Africa; today they’re doing it for basic fairness in a society that appears to be eating its young. With or without a college degree, young people are confronting a dismal job market that will affect their life-long earning potential and their ability to pay future taxes. Is anybody listening to them?

For years the CFA has been fighting alongside students to maintain the quality of education at an affordable cost, especially for working-class families enduring our current economic malaise. Andy Merrifield, chair of CFA’s bargaining team, told the news conference announcing the strike vote: «A fair contract will allow us to support our families, do a good job as educators, and help our students succeed.»

Another battle that involves both students and faculty aims to counter the effects of the CSU administration’s incessant moves toward the failed «for-profit» model of higher education. As faculty salaries have stagnated and the number of temporary professors with little job security has exploded, the administration has taken advantage of the crisis in California’s economy to aggressively pursue «take-backs» from earlier labor contracts that have little to do with teacher pay and more to do with administrative control. Chancellor Reed and the trustees have shown that they’d be perfectly happy running the CSU system in a fashion similar to the for-profit «colleges» where faculty have zero rights, no shared governance, and no job security.

And what are the teaching conditions like in the for-profit «college» sector with which the CSU management seem to be so enthralled and want to emulate? Here is just one paragraph from an email from a former graduate student of mine who is now an «instructor» at one of the local for-profits:

«After just a few months this school began writing my syllabus for me and forbidding me from showing films to the class. They threw out my own homework assignments and put in place standard ones based off our standard textbook which a computer could automatically grade, and fed them into a central grading database which determines the students’ entire grade; I have virtually no say in this anymore. Worst of all, they recently took freedom of research paper grading away from me and instead put in place a strict criteria for all teachers to follow which we are not allowed to deviate from. As a result I have been forced to fail perfectly good students for not meeting this criteria, forcing them to take the class over again.»

These are the kind of working conditions that exist in the for-profit higher ed sector and it’s this model that the CSU faculty is determined to stop the administration from imposing on us and our students. This slide toward «for-profitization» at the CSU makes the sumptuous salaries for CSU executives all the more galling. The managers reap the financial rewards while students, staff and faculty endure eroding quality, stagnating wages and the proletarianization of the academic workforce.

The CFA strike has as much to do with non-economic power grabs that the central administration in Long Beach is demanding than it does with addressing any given salary issue. Stripping the core curriculum from the academic departments at some CSUs and placing it in the hands of people hand-picked by administrators has become so extreme that even bedrock American History courses have been targeted. The for-profit model still reigns supreme among administrators throughout the CSU system despite the avalanche of evidence showing that it exploits students (saddling them with ever more student loan debt), micro-manages faculty through standardized curriculum and serves primarily the financial interests of a tiny number of privileged executives who reap the benefits. The for-profits also have graduation rates and student-debt ratios that are abysmal when compared with the CSU.

Both the hunger striking students and the striking faculty are engaged in an epic long-term struggle to save the CSU from the privatizers and profiteers who want to turn it into a business. We need Californians to join us in the struggle to protect this precious institution’s integrity as a public good and reestablish the idealistic goals on which it was founded.

Joseph A. Palermo: Protesting Students, Striking Faculty.

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