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UC Berkeley Protesters Return to Wheeler Hall

By Raymond Barglow, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:11:00 AM
Protesters took over UC’s Wheeler Hall again this week and unfurled a giant banner from the balcony.
Raymond Barglow
Protesters took over UC’s Wheeler Hall again this week and unfurled a giant banner from the balcony.

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.  

But this time the activists said that they were appropriating the space for educational purposes. Their avowed intention 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,” enlivening 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.  

According to Meister, 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.  

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.”  

Not everyone agrees with this conception of the autonomy of the learning community. Brian Pujanauski, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UC, objects that “Even with the drastic cuts made by the state government, the UC system still receives a great deal of money from the state, and it’s foolish to think that the state should have no say in how that money is spent.”  

Protesters make the case, however, that a university community that exercises a measure of self-determination serves the public interest better than the Board of Regents does. They say, moreover, that higher education is most likely to yield independently-thinking, creative citizens if it is self-motivated and participatory. 

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.”  

As the week goes on, the “open university” continues to offer lectures by teachers such as Professors Michael Cohen (African American studies) and Steven Lee (English) and review sessions for final exams, along with poetry readings, dance lesions, and discussions of political affairs and other subjects. 

Since the beginning of the “open university” on Monday, the protesters say they have taken good care of the premises, sweeping up debris and keeping Wheeler Auditorium accessible and clean. The UC police have ceased threatening to cite or arrest them for remaining in the building after normal operating hours. 

The campus activists 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.