Every afternoon last week, students, teachers, and neighbors gathered to hold classes on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Everyone was welcome. They sat on the ground, or on what are now called the Mario Savio Steps. Topics included the economics of debt, the poetry of persecution, and Chilean student movement. There has also been a massage train and a gospel chorus. “There are no walls,” said graduate student Michelle Ty, “And it’s free.” You could call it a public university. The irony, not lost on these students or their East Coast counterparts, is that they’re supposed to already have one.
The University of California (UC) and the City University of New York (CUNY) are both massive public university systems, long points of pride for their respective states. Together they claim over two million graduates. And now, as administrators declare there’s no alternative to austerity, they’re both occupied. Though these occupations draw tactics and momentum from the Occupy movement, their lineage is as mixed as Zuccotti Park’s: international anti-austerity activism, struggles for graduate student unionization and union democratization, student occupations of decades past. As winter—and police raids—set in, universities are becoming an increasingly important face of occupied America. How is occupying a public university different from occupying Wall Street? For one, few of the occupiers want their schools abolished.
UC Davis graduate student Nickolas Perrone recently joined fellow activists on a trip to the Bay Area to visit the private companies, like Bank of America, where the regents of the UC system work. Though the regents (and leading California Democrats) have blamed the current tuition hikes on the Great Recession, students say the regents have been pushing privatization on their public university for a long time.
In the decade leading up to 2007, the UC system’s management positions grew four times as quickly as its faculty. In 2004, the chancellors signed an agreement with then-Governor Schwarzenegger to seek private donations to the system’s budget. Berkeley’s chancellor paid Mitt Romney’s old consulting firm, Bain & Company, $7.5 million to help the university "achieve [greater] efficiency." Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley has called for Berkeley to build more virtual campuses, rather than "bricks and mortar" ones.
Nowhere is the close relationship between California’s public universities and private corporations more apparent than in the UC Board of Regents. UC Regent Richard C. Blum is both the husband of Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Chairman of the San Francisco-based investment firm Blum Capital Partners. Though he has served on the board since 2002, his firm is also the largest shareholder in Career Education Corporation and ITT Education Services Inc., two for-profit higher education companies that have both been under federal investigation. In a 2010 expose, the Sacramento News & Review reported that the UC investment managers invested $53 million in public funds in both companies. Despite these connections, UC officials claim that no conflicts of interest occurred.
“What’s at the heart of the privatization,” says Berkeley graduate student Megan Wachpress, “is a bringing in of the market logic, and the kind of exploitations and the inequalities associated with the market…into parts of life and relationships that we used to see as parts of our responsibility as co-citizens.”