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Walkout, Rally Hailed as Rebirth of UC Activism

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:16:00 AM

Hundreds of University of California employees, including both faculty and hourly employees, have vowed a work stoppage today (Thursday) to protest low pay for campus workers and higher fees for students. 

And, on a deeper level, many of the activists say they’re fighting the privatization of the public university system and the corporate values which, they say, favor profits over people. 

The action, endorsed by the American Association of Univer-sity Professors, the University of California Student Association, UC Berkeley Graduate Assem-bly, the Associated Students of the University of California, CalSERVE and campus unions, is being heralded as the return of broad-based activism to the campus that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement. 

“I’ve been here since 1972, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said George Lakoff, Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at UCB. 

“I tell my students that you are here at the moment when a new educational movement is beginning, a Free Education Move-ment,” said Lyn Hejinian, the poet and English professor who chairs the Solidarity Alliance organizing events which began with a Wednesday night teach-in. 

“I’ve never seen such cohesion,” said Tanya Smith, president of Local 1 of the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) in Berkeley. “I’ve worked at Berkeley for 22 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

The day’s action was scheduled to begin at 7:15 a.m., with members of UPTE and the Coalition of University Employees throwing up a picket line at the campus. 

Then, at noon, comes the main event, a rally in Sproul Plaza. Union pickets are promising to allow anyone to enter the campus who wants to attend the event. 

Similar actions are planned at other campuses in the University of California system and campuses of California State University. 

The target of much of the outrage is UC President Mark Yudof. 

“He’s a CEO, not an educator,” said Anthropology Professor Laura Nader. “The provost sent a message to us urging us to watch an address he made, promising it would be informative. It was anything but.” 

The UC Board of Regents granted Yudof emergency powers over the summer to take measures in response to the state budget crisis. Fee increases, staff furloughs, pay hikes for administrators and other measures followed. 

Under the proposal discussed by regents earlier this month during a meeting which featured the arrests of 14 protesters, UC undergraduate fees would rise to $10,300, 44 percent above the sums paid in 2008. 

Hejinian said that when she asked a class of 99 students how the increased fees would affect them, “about a third said they would probably not be able to continue.” 

For Ignacio Chapela, corporatization of the university has been a central issue. Chapela was denied tenure after he emerged as a strong critic of the since-discontinued 1998 funding agreement between the university’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and Novartis International AG, a Swiss agropharmaceutical conglomerate.  

“I am very excited and happy to see that the university community is finally waking up to what has been happening for the past two or three decades. This is not about money,” he said. “It’s about the privatization of the university.” 

Charlie Schwartz agrees. 

An emeritus UC Berkeley physics professor, Schwartz has been tracking university finances since his retirement in 1993, “just when we were starting to feel the impacts of budget cuts and fee increases. I started to come up with facts and figures to challenge some of the crap coming down from on top.” 

Schwartz, who tracks the money at his website,, said the current crisis has enabled regents and administrators “the impetus to push in the direction they feel they want or have to go, in the direction of privatization.” 

Key components of the administrative agenda, he said, are a fast rise in fees, an increase of out-of-state students who pay higher fees, and the sacrifice of “all that’s good in the institution.” 

“This uprising is a great thing,” he said of the current burst of protests around the system. “It’s been a long time in coming.” 

Schwartz’s views find confirmation in the writings of Jennifer Washburn, who holds the Frederick Ewen Academic Freedom Fellowship at New York University and is the author of University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. 

Of the recent developments in California, Washburn said, “I wish I could say that I was surprised, but this part of a longer-term trend of growing privatization and commercialization of the nation’s public universities. 

“University priorities have shifted away from the traditional public mission of the advancement of knowledge through pure research and teaching,” she said. With legislatures and taxpayers less willing to fund education, more faculty members are holding adjunct positions, teaching larger classes for less money and receiving poor or non-existent benefits. 

“All this comes on the heels of a generation of students already saddled with massive student loan debt. Undoubtedly today’s students will have to incur even more debt of the kind no older generation would have tolerated.” 

University administrators have already conceded that the UC system will be taking in fewer poor and minority students from California, in part because of recent past and planned future reduction of in-state admissions and in part because of lack of funds. 

Yudof’s office, in an apparent move to counter the pro-walkout sentiment, e-mailed a Sacramento Bee op-ed from two UC Davis professors who oppose the walkout. 

Jonathan Eisen and Wider McConnell wrote that 65.7 percent of the members of the Davis Faculty Association who voted on the issue opposed the walkout, which the two faculty members called a disservice to their students. 

At Berkeley, Academic Senate Chair and law Professor Christopher Kutz wrote faculty members that “The Berkeley Senate Divisional Council shares the deep concern of all faculty, students, and staff about the terrible effects of the budget cuts imposed on the public teaching and research mission of the University. However, after discussion, the Divisional Council also recognizes the diversity of faculty opinion on the merits of a walkout. 

“We therefore neither endorse nor oppose a walkout, regarding participation in it as a matter of individual faculty conscience, and knowing that faculty will meet their obligations to their students.” 

Executive Vice Chancellor George W. Breslauer wrote students that classes would continue during the walkout “unless your instructor has informed you about an alternate arrangement.” 

Breslauer and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau have also stated that “University policy does not permit taking a furlough day on a teaching day,” and directed that “Any instructor who does not plan to teach during the scheduled time or location is urged to communicate with the chair in a timely manner and, as a courtesy, provide advance notice to the class of alternative arrangements.” 

Participating in teach-ins and public demonstrations apparently don’t qualify as educational experiences, through that’s not the opinion of Charlie Schwartz. 

“This fall marks the 45th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement,” he said. “That was my kindergarten into the world of reality.” 

The board of the Free Speech Movement Alumni Association, known as, has endorsed the actions and urged any members near the campuses to take part. 

Today’s Berkeley rally participants will include students and staff from state and community colleges throughout the region, Hejinian said. “Several high school teachers have said they may bring their students, and one teacher is teaching about the walkout as a section of a class on poverty.” 

The noon rally is scheduled to feature speakers from the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, seven faculty members, union representatives and participants from other UC campuses as well as campus workers and lecturer.