At the “Open University” meeting organized by UC protesters last week, art history Professor T.J. Clark spoke of “imagined communities” made up of networks of participants who connect via the newest technologies. Indeed the students who barricaded themselves inside UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall last Friday used cell phones and Twitter to communicate not only with the crowd of 2,000 supporters surrounding the building, but also with those occupying buildings at other UC campuses. This new statewide movement, which brings together faculty and campus workers as well as students, aims to save public education. Can it succeed?
The protesters make a persuasive case that the cutbacks at UC and the radical increase in student fees are not only harmful to education, they are also unnecessary. Professors Bob Meister at Santa Cruz and George Lakoff and Emeritus Charles Schwartz at UC Berkeley have done exhaustive research into university finances, showing that there are alternatives to the regents’ draconian policies.
It’s true that those policies correlate with the financial crisis that faces California and the entire nation. But the way that that crisis plays out—who suffers and who benefits—is profoundly political. The decisions made by the Regents give expression to the political priorities of the governor and of the conservative anti-government forces that support him.
These forces won’t be easily thwarted. Today’s campus activists clearly recognize the magnitude of the challenge that lies before them: the social movement required to reverse the severe cutbacks to public education must be broad and deep. It must galvanize support throughout the California public school system, from pre-kindergarten to the university. Ultimately that movement has to convince the voters in this state that public education is not just a commodity like any other, it is a basic human right and essential to preparing the next generation to think critically, work creatively, and address the problems that endanger the world.
Sophomore Jenny Lu, one of the students barricaded inside Wheeler Hall last Friday, said that protesters will in the future closely coordinate their activities statewide. Indeed they have understood from the beginning that a winning campaign must link the UCs, the California state universities, and community colleges to form a movement capable of taking on the regents, the state Legislature, and the governor. Last week, the protesters marched from UC into Berkeley City College, linking the protest at UC’s flagship campus in Berkeley to the parallel struggle a few blocks away at Berkeley’s two-year college, which is also experiencing drastic funding cuts. Their march expressed more than a symbolic solidarity—it exemplified the unification of efforts that will be essential if the protest is to grow and win over the public.
In a recent New York Times interview, UC President Yudof was asked whether he blames Gov. Schwarzenegger for the university’s financial troubles. Given the UC administration’s alliance with the governor’s office, his answer is not surprising: “I do not. This is a long-term secular trend across the entire country. Higher education is being squeezed out. It’s systemic…. The shine is off of [education]. It’s really a question of being crowded out by other priorities.”
Yudof represents himself as the executioner of an inevitable downsizing and privatizing of the university. Lyle Fearnley, a graduate student instructor in anthropology, says that the Yudof administration regards the university as a business that delivers a private, no longer a public, good: “Students spend four years and invest their time and money in their education, and the payoff is that they get more employment opportunities ... This is a very limited, instrumental vision,” Fearnley adds.
As the CEO of the largest university in the world, Yudof has the institutional authority to implement this constricted view of higher education. He and the regents and governor hold the commanding heights of power in California—a terrain that the protest movement will have to contest in order to win.
The protesters’ teach-ins and marches and building occupations are indeed inaugurating a new “imagined community.” But this community, if it aims to gain not only headlines but substantial social change, cannot sidestep the “long march through the institutions” that German activist Rudi Dutschke recommended back in the 1960s. This march will bring activists to the halls of government in Sacramento, will engage them in the campaign to raise taxes on corporate profits, to elect a progressive governor and state legislature, and to repeal the rule requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass a budget. This campaign will be nationwide as well, insisting that federal resources support public education.
Although the path forward for today’s campus advocates of public education is a challenging one, they will have many of us whose school years are in the past to keep them company.
Raymond Barglow participated in UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in 1964 and is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.