UC Protesters Return to Wheeler Hall

By Raymond Barglow
Tuesday December 08, 2009 - 09:07:00 AM

Having barricaded themselves in Wheeler Hall on Nov. 20, on the last day of a three-day strike, UC Berkeley students who oppose cuts to public education in California returned to Wheeler Monday night, Dec. 7.  

As part of "Live Week" at UC Berkeley, students plan to transform the hall, the site of the Nov. 20 occupation on campus, into a 24-hour open university. According to organizers, the plan is to have a university not just for the public, but "by the public." They propose to "open the space for anyone in the community to come and go as they please, to organize study sessions, teach-ins, concerts, forums, club meetings, dance parties, and anything else our creative minds dream up." 

But this time they said that they were appropriating the space for educational purposes rather than “occupying” it. The avowed intention of the protesters this week is to show that the university should rightfully be governed and run by those whom it directly affects: the students who learn in it, the faculty who teach in it, and the staff who provide services and maintenance.  

This campus community has “shown the world that we can shut this university down,” the protest announcement says. “Now, we show that we can run our public university the way it should be—by the public.” The current aim is to transform Wheeler Hall into a “24-hour open university” during a week on campus that has traditionally been called “dead week”—a time at the end of the school term when students prepare to take their final examinations and hand in their term papers. 

This most recent action began on the steps of Wheeler at 2:30 p.m. That evening, Professor Meister from UC Santa Cruz addressed the students in Wheeler auditorium. He talked about the way that UC is representing its financial situation to the world, “The administration is telling us that the problem is so big, so determined by global factors, that nothing can be done.”  

Meister says, though, that research he and other faculty have done into university finances indicates that the crisis has been manufactured by the UC Regents themselves, and that there is no assurance that revenue from the hikes in student fees will be used to restore classes, jobs, or services that have recently been eliminated. On the contrary, says Meister, student fees may be used to securitize bonds that will pay for the future construction of new buildings.  

In his talk to the students in Wheeler, Meister said that UC is adopting the pricing model of private universities: education will be a commodity purchasable on the market like any other. But what this means, in Meister’s view, is that UC’s Master Plan will abandon its commitment to affordability. The university has never fully lived up to that commitment, he points out, but now it proposes to repudiate it entirely. Only students who are wealthy enough to pay for their own education will receive one, Meister says. As at Stanford, so at UC. 

Meister sees a possible solution in the raising of taxes on California’s highest income earners. The barrier to doing this, he says, is political: “Those 2 to 3 percent of the population run things in California. They are also the people who contribute disproportionally to political campaigns, and they are represented on the Board of Regents.  

Meister issued a challenge to advocates of public higher education, asking them to democratize the regents, to make the university’s finances transparent, and to restore public trust that the university will serve all Californians. “I do not think that there can be higher taxation without higher trust," Meister said. "One of the problems of UC is that is that it has lost public trust … . Unless UC is accountable for its own money, it cannot ask the public for more support.” 

Following Meister’s talk, those inside Wheeler auditorium were ordered by UC police to leave. The group discussed whether or not to comply with this demand, and voted to stay. A widely shared sentiment was that “This building is really our building—it should serve those of us being educated, not the police or the administration—so we should be able to remain here.” 

Near midnight on Monday, the police backed down on their threat to take action against the students, and so about 70 of them bedded down for the night in the space that they are calling an “open university.” They invite the entire university community to share this space with them, and they intend to hold it open 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday of this week.