AMHERST - A national teach-in staged on college campuses across the country came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Tuesday when some 800 students, faculty, activists and others met to call for greater equality in America and to oppose policies advanced by conservative politicians.
The "Fight Back USA!" gatherings, which according to organizers took place on more than 220 campuses, invoked the public rallies held in the past few months in Wisconsin and other Midwest states to protest efforts by Republican governors and legislators to strip public employee unions of their bargaining rights.
Tuesday's rallies attracted a fair amount of media attention, including from political opponents like Fox News host Glenn Beck, who denounced the movement. He charged that what it was seeking "is an America that looks nothing like the one founded on traditional values and principles that you and I know and love and are trying desperately to hold onto."
But a string of speakers in the UMass Student Union Ballroom said the same energy and popular awakening witnessed in the Midwest rallies is needed to fight what they described as a conservative, corporate-driven agenda bankrupting ordinary Americans while enriching a handful of people in the top income bracket.
"It was so inspiring to see people standing up to this attack against basic fairness," said Madeline Burrows, a Hampshire College student who took part in some of the pro-union rallies in the state capitol building in Madison, Wis. "I had only read about this kind of protest from the left in history books ... now we have to be like Madison."
Tuesday's session at UMass, sponsored by numerous academic departments and faculty groups, student organizations, and area groups such as the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council, represented an effort to link several seemingly disparate issues - declining public funds for higher education, unemployment, anti-union activities, corporate bailouts and military spending.
One big problem, said Jo Comerford, director of the Northampton-based National Priorities Project, is a federal budget that allocates 57 percent of all discretionary spending - which itself represents 34 percent of the entire budget - to the military, while providing much smaller amounts to education, housing and other social services.
With Republicans in Congress demanding dramatic cuts in government spending on social programs - Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, has released a plan calling for cutting federal outlays by $5 trillion in the next decade, particularly by revamping Medicare/Medicaid - Comerford said higher education and many other basic programs are at stake.
"This is a fight about the role of government in providing for the common good," said Comerford, whose group analyzes how federal budget decisions impact communities. She said that neither Republicans nor Democrats are making efforts to rein in military spending.
Sociology professor Dan Clawson noted that state funding for higher education in 2001, on a per-student basis, was about $8,700, while today it's $6,500, even as the cost of attending UMass and other state schools has continued to climb. Though public officials at all levels, from governors to senators to the president, make pronouncements about how important higher education is, none of them seem to be doing anything to rein in the cost, he said.
"Public education is free in ninth grade, in 10th grade, and in 11th and 12th - so why the hell do you have to pay for it in college?" Clawson said to applause. He has recently co-written a book, with architecture professor Max Page, in which the two argue for making higher education free.
Clawson said Tuesday that restoring the tax rate on the richest 1 percent of Americans to what it was in 1960 would generate $382 billion annually - enough to pay for the education of every current American college student.
On Tuesday, people at the UMass event also watched a live webcast from New York led by the principal organizers of "Fight Back!" including Francis Fox Piven and Cornel West, noted liberal scholars at City University of New York and Princeton University, respectively.
Beck, the television show host, has been attacking Piven on his show for weeks, calling her an "enemy of the Constitution."
Part of Tuesday's meeting was also devoted to discussing political initiatives - such as a single-payer health care system and a progressive tax system for Massachusetts - that could counter what one speaker called "the vast right-wing agenda." To push those issues further, participants were urged to go to the Cape Cod Lounge in the Student Union Wednesday to make phone calls to state legislators urging them to support more funding for higher education and financial aid.
"We all need to make our voices heard," said UMass senior Melissa Urban, who works with the university's Center for Education Policy and Advocacy, an advocacy group for undergraduates and education issues. Too many UMass students, she said, "are leaving school with mortgage-sized student loans but no hope of finding a job."