Los Angeles

It was, as usual, a beautiful day in southern California on November 19, when beneath tall eucalyptus trees and hovering police helicopters, hundreds of students sat cross-legged on the asphalt, blocking the exits to UCLA’s Covel Commons. “We can’t afford to move!” the students chanted. Inside, protected by riot police armed with Tazers, shotguns and assault rifles, the twenty-six Regents of the University of California had just voted to raise undergraduate tuition by 32 percent. Next year’s seniors will be paying almost three times more than students paid ten years ago. Public education just got a lot less public.

If it was too late to prevent the tuition increase, the students were determined not to let the regents leave. “They’re waiting for us to clear out, but we’re not clearing out,” said Rosa Martin, a sophomore who made the trip with a friend from UC’s Riverside campus, about seventy miles to the east, in four hours on public buses. Others came from as far north as Berkeley and as far south as San Diego. Mario Zuniga, an environmental engineering major at UC San Diego, spent the night sleeping on the steps of Campbell Hall, which UCLA students occupied on Wednesday night. Three of his classmates, Zuniga said, have already had to leave school because they couldn’t keep up with last year’s more modest fee increase. “They’re taking everything from us and asking for more money,” he said.

For Zuniga and others, the fee hikes and this year’s budget cuts–the legislature slashed $2.8 billion from the state’s once-proud higher education system–mean fewer available classes, overworked instructors, fewer academic support services, a heavier loan burden, more time spent working to pay the bills and less time available for studying. It will also likely mean a far less diverse student body and the gradual abandonment of the state’s historic commitment to providing an opportunity at a college education to all its residents. “We can’t sit down and let this happen,” said UCLA sophomore Stephanie Anyanwu. “We have to shake things up.”

At UCLA, some of the regents, at least, appeared well shaken. Escorted out under heavy police guard, they were followed to their cars by angry students yelling, “Shame on you!” The takeover of UCLA’s Campbell Hall ended that evening, but by Friday afternoon, it was possible to talk of a “wave of occupations,” as UC Davis Professor Joshua Clover put it. Clover, who helped organize the first action to protest faculty and staff pay cuts, a system-wide walkout on September 24, was one of over fifty arrested Thursday night after occupying an administration building on the Davis campus. He spoke to me on the phone from Berkeley, where students took over classrooms in Wheeler Hall early Friday morning and barricaded themselves into the building’s second floor until police pushed their way in early that evening. About thirteen hours later, police led forty protesters out of the building and charged them with trespassing. In the meantime, back at Davis, undeterred by the previous day’s arrests, students had occupied another administration building. Protesters also took over two buildings at UC Santa Cruz.

UC President Mark Yudof has done his best to paint the tuition hikes as inevitable, the painful but necessary outcome of California’s ongoing budget crisis. “Our hand has been forced,” Yudof told reporters after Thursday’s vote. “When you don’t have any money, you don’t have any money.”

On the surface, Yudof’s shrug was convincing enough. Everyone knows the state is facing fiscal catastrophe. A drop in revenues due to the recession, combined with the refusal of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Republican minority in the state legislature to raise taxes of any kind, has forced $30 billion in cuts over the last two years. Among California’s constitutional eccentricities is a requirement of a two-thirds majority vote for any raise in taxes, which effectively creates a condition of minority rule and, along with Schwarzenegger’s line-item veto, gives conservatives a freedom to slash public services that exceeds Ronald Reagan’s most sweaty-palmed fantasies. Higher education was not California Republicans’ only target–state parks, mental health programs, health insurance for children, the anorexic remains of the state’s welfare system were also on the chopping block–but it was high on the list. “The state has stopped building freeways to education,” said Yudof in September, “and it has started building toll roads.”

But the abandonment of a commitment to publicly funded colleges and universities–put another way, the privatization of higher learning–is not unique to the current budget crisis, or even to California. In the late 1990s, Latin American countries, in circumstances in many ways similar to California’s, began slashing services and raising fees at state universities. In 1999, when Mexico’s National Autonomous University raised tuition from less than a nickel to about $150 per semester, a student strike shut down the university for nearly a year. That spring, student revolts flared across the hemisphere: in Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador. At the time, it seemed possible that the most painful consequences of neoliberalism–fierce cuts in public spending as a result of financial austerity programs imposed by First World creditors–could be comfortably observed from afar.

The neoliberal chickens, though, have been waddling home, and they began taking roost before the current financial crisis hit. In 2007, students hit the streets to protest educational “reforms”–cuts, fee hikes, increasing privatization–in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, South Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom. Public funding of nearly all of most prestigious US state university systems has withered, resulting in student protests in Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. “There’s a national trend to the privatization of state universities,” says the economist Nancy Folbre, author of the forthcoming Saving State U. “It’s all part of the same picture.”

Despite the loss of revenue that accompanied the housing market collapse, even California’s budget crisis was not inevitable. The state, points out George Lakoff, who teaches linguistics at UC Berkeley, “is the world’s seventh-largest economy–there’s plenty of money.” The real issue, Lakoff said, is that “conservative ideology says the only public good is a private good.” When a university education is conceived as a market commodity purchased by students purchase in expectation of a higher-paying job, “it means changing the very nature of a research university.”

That change has been in the works in California at least since 2003, when Schwarzenegger took office. In 2004, the governor signed a “Higher Education Compact” with the UC and California State University systems, which effectively made gradual privatization official policy, specifying that both systems would “seek additional private resources and maximize other fund sources…to support basic programs.” Until then, it had been the state that was committed to supporting “basic programs.”

But one year earlier, said UC Santa Cruz politics Professor Robert Meister, who was on UC’s Planning and Budget Committee at the time, Schwarzenegger gave UC administrators “a green light to raise tuition as much as they thought necessary without the threat of cuts.” Immediately, Meister said, UC “began using tuition as capital assets for projects.” In other words, UC administrators pledged the tuition they collected–and that they expected to collect in the future–as collateral for construction bonds, borrowing money on the basis of students’ ability to take out loans. Sound familiar?

The move, said Meister, was “a conceptual shift to privatization. UC’s plan was essentially to replace state financing with debt financing.” It was this gamble, Meister argued, that motivated the UC regents to drastically raise tuition rather than fighting the governor and the legislature for more support. “UC has based its financial planning on the growing confidence of bond markets that… tuition will increase,” Meister wrote. This “makes UC’s bond rating its highest budgetary priority.”

Ironically, if Meister’s analysis is correct–the UC Office of the President has taken the trouble to issue a press release calling Meister’s claims “misleading”–California students are now a situation analogous to the ones faced by citizens of developing countries subject to IMF-imposed austerity programs, sacrificing their futures for the sake of someone else’s profit. Neoliberalism comes full circle.

For now, its cost will be born by students, workers and their families. It will likely be felt disproportionately by students of color, said Dylan Rodriguez, chair of UC Riverside’s ethnic studies department. Riverside and Merced, the two most diverse and working-class campuses, receive a higher portion of their budget directly from the state, and will be hit hardest by cuts. In the long run, Rodriguez added, “Any notion of the university being a site that produces authentic, well-rounded, critically thinking, history-making individuals is being murdered. It’s the McDonalds-ization of the UC system.”

Most of the students I spoke with understood that something more than money was at stake. Many, said UC Riverside undergraduate Patrick Sweeney, had never been involved in campus politics before. Much of the cross-campus organizing was done not by the usual campus activists but through the relatively staid University of California Students Association. Student government endorsed the protests, as did faculty and staff unions, which helped arrange buses to carry protesters to UCLA. At Berkeley, students and staff staged a two-day solidarity strike. “This is something that affects all students,” Sweeney said. “People realized that they needed to step up.”

They should have plenty of opportunities. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office predicted last week that the state will be facing budget deficits of around $20 billion for years to come, and Schwarzenegger is once again talking about the necessity for “across the board” cuts. Students are already planning systemwide protests for March. By then, next year’s budget battle will have just begun.