May 1, 2010
An Educated, Escalating Movement
By Clarissa León
Ramon Quintero could be, in many respects, a poster child for today's student movement. As a 32-year-old single parent, Quintero deliberated over his decision to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley, from Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California. At one time, Quintero, a senior studying geography and ethnic studies, was living in his RV. At another, he slept couch to couch. In the two years since his decision, he has amassed over $25,000 in student loan debt.
"I could have gone somewhere else because it was cheaper," said Quintero. "But I didn't know it was going to be a 32 percent increase. Then they cut my Pell Grant, and not only tuition increased but housing--housing is 60 percent of student expenses."
On March 4 Quintero took to the streets of California to participate in the National Day of Action to Defend Education. He was one of tens of thousands of students coast-to-coast who, according to StudentActivism.net, held more than 100 actions in thirty states. At dozens of schools the catalysts for the protests were massive layoffs, reductions in class offerings and the downsizing of graduate programs.
For instance, the City University of New York (CUNY) students rallied outside Governor David Paterson's office in opposition to his proposal to allow universities, not constituent-bound legislators, to raise tuition at their own discretion, says Doug Singsen, doctoral student with the CUNY Graduate Center and activist with the CUNY Campaign to Defend Education.
"As long as the economic crisis goes on we are going to keep seeing cuts," said Singsen. "At first, they threw some kind of stopgap measures at them, but the cuts keep happening because the stopgaps keep running out of juice."
Jacob Greenberg, graduate student and teacher's assistant at the University of Washington, became involved with the University of Washington student protests after the school began cutting custodian swing shifts and privatizing elements of student service. Then when he began teaching a larger class size, his personal research hours began to drop. When March 4 came around, he found that his university was, for once, bringing out a high turnout of students to its protests, a success for his school.
"After March 4 did we put more money into the coffers?" Greenberg said. "No, but we did get hundreds of new people who recognized the problem on campus. This is a movement that is building and so, in terms of concrete examples [of success]--people getting jobs back, classes being reopened--it's hard to say in the middle of the year. But the only way we will truly get those victories is through mass movement."
The biggest, best-organized and most dramatic actions reported all took place in the Golden State. In part, that's a reflection of the depth of the crisis facing California higher education, but it's also a reflection of the head start that California campuses have on the rest of the country in organizing savvy.
For the organizers of March 4, the stories are endless and the fight is nowhere near over. "It did spark a lot of good feelings, it sparked solidarity," said Waseem Salahi, a second-year UC Berkeley student studying rhetoric. "It was really cool, but where do we go from there? It's just sad that kind of energy is not found in bureaucratic elements of the state. You don't see that solidarity at the institutional level."
On March 30, President Obama did signal some institutional support when he signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which among other provisions will double funding for Pell Grants and end fees paid to banks handing out student loans. The money saved--nearly $68 billion in eleven years--will help fund the Pell Grants and help students pay outstanding loans. (For more explanation, read Nation senior editor Richard Kim's "Student Loan Reform Clears Senate.")
Still, state spending cuts loom heavy over thousands of students and workers, and the changes may not come in time for many students. In the UC System, students are still fighting proposals for a 32 percent increase.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Las Vegas, students avoided budget cuts that would have left higher education in a state of financial exigency. The legislature eventually passed a 6.9 percent cut, leaving UNR officials to now consider cutting the entire College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources and the entire French department.
On March 4, Quintero was behind the wheel of his RV, which was featured in Time and the New York Times. Quintero and other students turned his beloved RV into a mobile mural with words: "¡Sí se puede!" and "The People's Education of California," and the media picked it up as a powerful symbol of student discontent. He named the mobile mural Santa Rita, after the saint for lost and impossible causes. But is Quintero's plight--and the thousands like him mired in student debt with an uncertain future--a lost cause?
It's easy to question the efficacy of March 4, as many legislative sessions are over and the verdict on tuition hikes is still out. But for many, March 4 was only the beginning of the student movement. Now, others have joined the cause, including workers unions, immigrant rights activists and, of course, a greater number of students.
As to where the movement is heading, many say just wait. "We were really encouraged by March 4," said Greenberg. "But it's only the beginning--it can't be only the beginning."