Higher Education Protests Were Inspiring, Disappointing

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On Thursday morning, I knew it was going to be a long day when the first fire alarm went off in the classroom building where I work. As the fire engine pulled up to the building, my eye followed its length and landed on a single word chalked on the back of the building: STRKE. Yes, without the i, because apparently there is no "I" in "strike."

The word STRKE, misspelled, chalked on a classroom building at UC Davis

Unfortunately, this mob mentality prevailed at the University of California, Davis, and what should have been a day of protest that evoked sympathy from the public turned into a day of juvenile pranks and actions that seemed to have no connection, literally or metaphorically, to the central concerns of the nationwide March 4 day of action in support of education.

I'm a huge supporter of public education. Let me show you my bona fides: My parents, and much of extended family, were or are public school teachers and administrators. With the exception of three years of my undergraduate education, I was educated entirely in public schools. Between 1998 and 2006, I earned three graduate degrees from UC Davis. I began teaching undergraduates at public universities in 1999. Since 2006, I have been on the staff at UC Davis, first in academic technology and now in its teaching center. In the fall, I'll become a history professor at Boise State University. In another year and a half, my son will head to public school as a kindergartner. I've invested myself—intellectually, professionally, emotionally, psychologically, and financially—in public education. I'm completely sympathetic on the core issues underlying protests on my campus and elsewhere.

It was with great dismay, then, that I watched the protests at the University of California once again go off the rails. At UC Davis, for example, we had protesters pulling fire alarms, spray-painting buildings with graffiti, and trying to close down Interstate 80 where it passes through campus. Those who were protesting the decline in quality of education spent the day disrupting students' learning by forcing evacuations of classroom buildings and libraries. I was particularly worried about the effect the false fire alarms had on students with disabilities, but I didn't see any marches using assistive devices or service animals, so perhaps such concerns never crossed the protesters' minds. Such juvenile actions didn't win outsiders over to the protesters' cause. For example, as Hazel Watson commented on the Davis Wiki,

The recent and apparently on-going behavior of the students is not endearing me to their cause. [. . .] These college students need to grow up, suck it up and start being part of the solution, not creating more problems.

Jeana Arter, a student at California State University, Northridge, was frustrated by what she viewed as protesters' myopia on her own campus:

Yesterday I was sitting in class listening to a lecture for an exam in two week. All of the sudden a group of girls with whistles and a loud speaker, open our class room door and tell us to walk out. I am angered mostly because these budget cuts have not only caused pay cuts in professors salaries but has decreased the number of class meetings. Therefore, I fail to see how disrupting an valuable class meeting proves a point. These students walked out of a class to protest the lack of classes. Furthermore, the state wide protest was to begin at 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. (this is still not clear) and these students were being disruptive at 11:00 a.m. I even had a woman in my class say to me,

I am not going to class (at 11:00 am) because I am protesting. But will you meet me at 12:15 (when our class ends) and share your notes with me?

Seriously?!!! For one a grown woman should have enough sense to partake in only organized protest that have the potential to make a difference. Second, do not ask for my notes. You made your uneducated choice so stick with it.

Jan in San Fran blogged about the protests, with a photographic focus on the younger participants rallying for K-12. She was disturbed by the media focus on the more sensational protesters' activities rather than the issues of the day:

Too much news coverage that I have seen focused more on a few photogenic incidents of disruption (and violent police response) than on the complex of problems that evoked the protests.

The day of action on college campuses was meant to highlight the systematic and systemic decline of public funding of higher education—a decrease that has been particularly severe in California—and the accompanying privatization of universities in research, administration, and even teaching. I can't emphasize enough how demoralizing this transition has been for faculty, students, and rank-and-file staff like myself at the University of California. Between furloughed or laid off employees, the closure of academic departments or student service units, a shift in governance from faculty and students to administration, the increase in student fees (32 percent this year alone at the University of California), and the decline in quantity and quality of course offerings, it's hard not to feel a sense of betrayal. Those of us who have been involved for years or decades in higher education in California have been shocked to see it collapse so dramatically in such a short period of time.

Complicating the current climate of dismay and distrust, in recent weeks some UC campuses, including my own, have become sites of hate crimes, and particularly of anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racist expression. Not surprisingly, then, the protests grew to encompass not only arguments against privatization but also a repudiation of narrow-mindedness. The anger and frustration so many of us feel in the face of such ignorance and hate spilled over into the protests against the escalating cost of higher education to students and their parents, the decline in course offerings, the increase in class size, the dramatic increase in the number of administrators relative to faculty, and more.

Of course, issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality are connected, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to higher education—there are definitely patterns of exclusion from the ranks of students, faculty, and upper administration, as well as inequity of funding for such departments as women's studies, queer studies, and ethnic studies. That said, some people, mostly those outside the university, don't see the connection, and in their eyes the message of the anti-privatization protests was diluted by concerns of race, class, and gender.

Protesters march at UC Davis on March 4, 2010

To me, many of the issues of the day can be encapsulated by the fact that someone—I'm guessing a student—spray-painted the words "DEFEND PUBLIC EDUCATION" on the back of the classroom building where I work. It's a prime example of how we're failing to teach our undergraduates either creative or critical thinking skills. After all, students' tuition dollars went toward removing that graffiti—and paying for firefighters to respond at least a dozen false alarms all over campus—instead of toward instruction. As class sizes increase dramatically and administrators worry more about "time to degree" instead of quality of instruction, we're going to see even fewer students able to think critically.

For more information on the March 4 protests, check out these resources:

Marilyn Bechtel provides some background on the California budget crisis and how it has impacted the state's three tiers of higher education institutions: the community colleges, the state universities, and the University of California.

The Save My Education page at Facebook aggregates photos and reports from protests in California on March 4.

Jessica T. provides a graduate-student and union-member perspective on the Bay Area protests.

Changing Universities offers a recap of the rallies at UCLA, and Jay Valena has some terrific photos of activism at UCLA.

Axis of Logic compiled reports from across the country, providing an inspiring collection of March 4 vignettes.

Photos and a brief summary of events from a student perspective at UC Santa Cruz News of the protests in Oakland, where protesters took over the 880 freeway through downtown Oakland and 150 people were arrested.

Writing at Oakland North, Ayako Mie offers an interesting perspective on Bay Area protests; she profiles several students from Japanese universities who participated in the marches and compares their experiences protesting in Japan and California.

Sarah Chase offers a view of the rallies at the state Capitol in Sacramento.

Kati Ketz of Fight Back! provides a broader picture of protests nationally, and Yana Kunichoff's reporting at truthout offers a perspective on a couple of Midwestern rallies.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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