Budget cuts, fee increases draw anger of University of California students
Published: Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 07:03
For many high school students, the University of California (UC) system offers the perfect option for higher education. The UC system's appeal, aside from the sunny California weather, lies in the competitive education it offers for in−state tuition fees at a fraction of the cost of a private university for California locals. In light of the recent economic crisis, however, the ability of the UC system to continue to offer financially appealing education is uncertain.
In November, University of California's Board of Regents voted to raise tuition by 32 percent in response to a $637 million cut in state funding, resulting in a series of protests that are still ongoing months after the cuts took effect.
While the hike of student fees has been at the epicenter of student protests, other serious measures have been taken to cut costs. This past summer, 2,000 UC staff and faculty members were laid off. The rest of the staff and faculty are required to take furlough days — or short, unpaid leaves of absence. This has resulted in pay cuts of up to 10 percent, according to a press release issued last July by the Office of the President of the University of California. Class sizes are expected to increase as a result of the layoffs, and programs and classes are being cut.
"Mostly liberal arts related majors have been hit, like philosophy majors," Jihan Batuman, a sophomore at UC Davis, said. "Those are the ones that are being cut the most."
According to Batuman, the tuition increase has had a palpable effect on the UC campuses. "A friend of mine's boyfriend couldn't come back due to the fee increase; he couldn't afford to be here anymore," he said. "We all had to spend more money. Some students had to get jobs … Almost everybody knows someone who is being affected by this."
These changes have been met by protests at the various campuses. UC Berkeley, known for its history of activism — most notably the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and 1965, a response to the university restricting on−campus political activities — has been bustling with student outrage.
"There have been lots of intense protests," Emma Levine, a freshman at UC Berkeley, said. "It's Berkeley, dude."
Levine spoke about the occupation of Wheeler Hall, the largest classroom building on the Berkeley campus. The protest took place two days after the Board of Regents voted to raise tuition fees and lasted for 11 hours. Sixty−six individuals were arrested, according to a UC Berkeley press release.
Protests turned violent last week when a group of students entered a building closed for construction and vandalized it, breaking windows and writing graffiti on the walls. Students clashed with campus police officers and blocked them from entering. Two of the protesters were arrested.
"[S]uch action does incredible damage to our advocacy efforts with Sacramento and with the California public to preserve public higher education. We call on our campus community to work together to express our support for State reinvestment in public higher education in ways that uphold Berkeley's values of peaceful protest and freedom of expression," Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau said in a letter to the UC Berkeley community issued last Friday.
"From a system−wide perspective, I can tell you that in terms of the UC President [Mark G. Yudof], we think the violence was unacceptable," UC spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez said. "The UC President is a staunch defender of students' rights to free speech." Vazquez added that it was unfortunate that students' practice of legitimate free speech was "marred by violence."
The student response to the cuts was similar on the UC Davis campus, according to Batuman. "There were a lot of protests a couple of weeks prior to and a couple of weeks after the Board of Regents voted to raise fees," Batuman said. Fifty−two students were arrested on the day of the vote, according to Dateline UC Davis, a campus news service. "That was the high point of the protests," Batuman said.
In response to these protests and others like them, the University of California Academic Council wrote an open letter last November in which they expressed their concern about the nature of the protests, which have resulted in numerous injuries. "We are especially concerned about group protests in which a number of individuals attempted to move past police barricades, physically threaten and throw objects at police, and surround vehicles to trap those within," the Council wrote.
The Council also said that the role of police in the protests would be examined. "We realize that there may be failures of policy or individual action," the Council wrote.
Student responses to the letter varied. "The [protest] that took over Wheeler Hall disrupted my class that day," Levine said. "I wasn't able to go to class, and this whole thing is about paying for education. I am paying for my education, and was not able to attend class that day. So I think that there are two sides to this whole thing. I understand the protest, but I think there are more effective ways to protest than stopping school." Levine denies that there is truth to the reports of violence from the students, but said that, in her opinion, the police behaved questionably.
"I was watching the protest for most of that day, and I did not see anything violent from the students," she said. "But the police were really violent. They brought in a SWAT team. They were being aggressive toward the crowd watching outside and extremely threatening to the protesters inside. There are still investigations going on around that, and it is still a big topic on campus."
Also of note is the effect these recent events will have on students applying to UC schools in the next few years. "Families are so nervous about all of the bad press that they are hearing in the news, that it may dissuade them from sending a child there," Melissa Palmer, a college counselor at Oakwood School, a private K−12 institution in Los Angeles, said. "For families who are applying for financial aid, they might find that an aid award from a private school makes that school competitive with a UC [school] for tuition."