I can’t tell you how proud I am of my daughter and her fellow students at UC Berkeley. She was one of the 41 students who occupied Wheeler Hall on Nov. 19 to protest the 32 percent fee hikes, teaching furloughs and layoffs being imposed on higher education in California. She studied hard to get the grades necessary to get into Berkeley and she’s working part time to help pay for it. She appreciates her education, but she fears that the state’s public university system is being privatized. Instead of providing an affordable quality education to any student with the grades to qualify, higher education in California is rapidly becoming an expensive commodity that only the rich—and a handful of poor students with financial assistance—can afford.
University administrators say there’s a budget crisis and students are just going to have to live with crippling cutbacks and skyrocketing tuition. But if this is so, why are administrators giving themselves fat bonuses and expensive perks while telling everyone below them to suffer in silence? My daughter and her friends barricaded themselves in Wheeler Hall to say, “NO WAY!” Hundreds of their fellow students surrounded Wheeler Hall and faced down the police to demonstrate their solidarity with the students inside.
They understand that this isn’t really a budget problem. One of their banners summed it all up: “THIS IS A CRISIS OF PRIORITIES!”
I couldn’t agree more. I have been teaching in the California State University system for many years. Over the last three decades state politicians have used the tight budget as their excuse to freeze faculty salaries, increase class size and allow the cost of a college education to soar like a helium balloon. Yet, during these same years, prison spending tripled and a bloated university administration gorged itself on huge salary increases, juicy bonuses and expensive perks. If the budget is really the problem, why aren’t university executives demonstrating their concern by taking pay cuts instead of bonuses? Why aren’t they enthusiastically supporting Assembly Bill 656 which would raise about one billion dollars for higher education in California by taxing oil extraction in the state? Right now California is the only state in the country that doesn’t benefit from an oil extraction tax.
As angry students realize, the ludicrous, twisted priorities of our system run all the way to the top. In Washington, politicians claim we’ll go broke if we try to provide Americans with universal health care, but they don’t blink an eye at spending billions every month to impose a bloody occupation upon Iraq and Afghanistan. With little debate or discussion they lavished billions of dollars in bailouts upon the same obscenely wealthy financial crooks that ran the economy into a ditch. Yet they claim they can’t afford to build the renewable energy infrastructure we need to prevent climate catastrophe and end our addiction to fossil fuels and transnational petroleum pushers who pump it into our economic veins.
I’m proud to see my daughter and the rest of her courageous companions using their energy and their education to challenge these perverse priorities and to make history, not just study it.
Craig Collins is the father of a UC protester.