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.” 

The UC system’s last wave of anti-privatization activism was two years ago, when regents announced a round of tuition hikes. Though unsuccessful in the short term, those efforts built the groundwork for a reform slate to oust the leadership of UAW Local 2865, the graduate student employees union. The transformed Local 2865 has been at the forefront of the new occupation movement.

General assemblies began at Berkeley in October, and the un-walled classrooms (the “open university”) soon followed. Berkeley administrators responded with a November 9 police crackdown, and a prohibition against camping, sleeping, or over two hours a day of amplified noise. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau further inflamed students with his declaration that linking arms “is not non-violent.” Faculty condemned the administration’s actions in a near-unanimous vote November 28th. Opposition to police violence at Berkeley helped galvanize UC Davis students for what would become the most famous confrontation of the student movement to date.

Sophomore Shannon Giamichele checked out Occupy UC Davis for the first time out of concern over planned tuition hikes. She took part in a November 20 general assembly, after which students complied with a university order to remove their tents. After seeing some friends arrested for refusing to clear their bodies from the quad as well, Giamichele joined a seated human chain occupying the space. “At some point we just heard people in the crowd saying, ‘Cover, cover, cover! They’re gonna shoot!’” Police in riot gear sprayed Giamichele and others with pepper spray. “It felt like a lot of fires burning.” Because of her asthma, Giamichele’s doctor has told her she can’t go back to the quad until her lungs have healed.

That night, hundreds of students waited hours for their chancellor to emerge from a building, and then stared in silent judgment as she walked to her car. The next day they held an unprecedented rally. Two weeks later was a statewide Regents meeting. Students say such meetings are often held at Davis because it’s been a relatively placid campus. This time the regents met by teleconference, as students rallied throughout the UC system and Davis held a student strike. Saturday night, activists from Berkeley, Davis, and other campuses met and formed a proposal to occupy the California state capital in March.

Facing police violence has been a transformative experience for students. “They didn’t make us feel safe at all,” says Giamichele, “they hurt us.” But it hasn’t made them give up on government. Asked whether being pepper-sprayed by UC Davis police changed her view of the state, Giamichele responds, “It affected my view of the police officers who did it…It honestly really made me feel that we don’t have a need for police on our campus.” Reflecting on the Berkeley beatings, Ty says there were “just so many absurdities…we knew we would be beaten if we were to try to give expression to the idea that it is not OK to privatize the university.” Perrone sees police violence less as an indictment of government than as a sign of the private sector’s encroachment. “For administrators who are intent [on] privatization, they want to create safe spaces for corporate investment.”

Among the country’s occupations, Berkeley’s has produced perhaps the most comprehensive set of demands, local (replacement of administrators through campus-wide election), statewide (affirmative action), and national (bailout public services and schools). Those demands passed Occupy Cal’s General Assembly by an 83 percent vote, though there were vocal dissenters. Wachpress says the lineage of university-focused fights helps explain Occupy Cal’s comfort with directing demands at the government, though she credits anarchism with inspiring some of Occupy Cal’s signature tactics, like the open university.  At a public university, says Perrone, “there’s a level of accountability that’s not there with privatizing everything. There’s also a sense of ownership.”

Ty sees engaging the state as more of a pragmatic necessity. But she adds that authorities’ responses—insisting to speak to spokespeople, barring tents, unleashing violence—have shown the limits of representative democracy alone.


For CUNY Baruch junior Denise Romero, Occupy CUNY is the newest front in a history of activism in defense of public services. Like many Occupy Wall Street organizers, she had helped organize Bloombergville, a pre-OWS summer encampment meant to dramatize the impact of the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. Citing her public transportation, public libraries, and public health insurance as well as public education, Romero says “those services have been how I have lived my entire life.” Now she sees them under attack – CUNY included.

Last year, CUNY touted the creation of a waiting list for applicants as a way not only to “manage the surge of students,” but also to “make CUNY more selective in the process.” After last year’s defeat of a “Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act” that would have allowed trustees to raise tuition without legislative approval and to institute differential pricing by type of degree, newly-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo shepherded and signed legislation freeing the trustees to raise tuition by $300 for each of the next five years.

Like UC Davis, CUNY Baruch has traditionally been a less political campus than its peers. Baruch activists–many of them from Students for a Free CUNY–held their first general assembly in a lobby there in November, with twenty people and a goal of raising awareness about the proposed tuition hikes. By that point, CUNY students had become a frequent presence at Occupy Wall Street actions, and there were regular CUNY-wide general assemblies underway. Like Davis, Baruch was thrust into the spotlight by police violence.

Students showed up November 21 to what was advertised as a public hearing with administrators, only to be turned away by police claiming–despite video evidence–that the meeting was full. Some students sat down with the intention of holding their own public meeting in the lobby. “That’s when the NYPD just kind of formed a wall of batons and started pushing students out,” says Romero. She watched a friend who had recently had throat surgery hit with a baton in the throat. Students above started throwing books and newspapers down at the police.

“I was completely surprised when they would rush the students like that,” says Baruch junior Mona Khalil. Before she got involved with OWS and Students for a Free CUNY, Khalil’s main project was a Baruch organization aiming to “find anyone who is remotely politically interested” and get them active–about anything.

A week after the lobby showdown, as UC students were demonstrating on their campuses during their regents’ teleconference, their CUNY counterparts were marching through downtown Manhattan to the Baruch campus, where CUNY’s Board of Trustees was voting to approve the five-year schedule of tuition hikes authorized by Cuomo. To Romero, the trustees’ vote was confirmation that the public institution’s stewards aren’t acting in the public interest. “They come from the private sector. They believe that’s the way that public administration should be run.”

Romero’s observation is damning. But it also speaks to the depth of the challenge facing the public university occupations: saving the public—public space, public interest, public institutions—from publicly-appointed privatizers. The conversation may be simpler in some ways at private universities like New York University, where graduate student Dacia Mitchell hopes Occupy Wall Street will help expose the university as a greedy corporation busting her union rather than a public citizen.

It’s easy to debunk the idea that a governor’s election itself justifies whatever his appointees want to do. But it’s harder to build a governance system that will protect public resources from being sold off to the private sector or marshaled against the public in defense of the 1 percent. Some classmates would charge that fighting the privatization of public goods misses the point – that capture of government by private interests is inevitable, and whatever you entrust to a bureaucrat will show up in the hands of a businessman. And yet true anarchists set on abolishing the state seem an even smaller minority among public university occupiers than among their Occupy Wall Street counterparts. Why?

Part of the answer lies in students’ relationship to the university. Even as they break down the ways in which its public nature has eroded, they don’t speak as though it’s something alien. “For a lot of us,” says Romero, “CUNY is kind of our home.” They talk less like they’re outsiders than like their administrators are. Asked whether CUNY could serve the role of a public university without government, Khalil says it couldn’t.

The ease with which public appointees let the public be brutalized or bought hasn’t led many students to give up on government. But it is spurring a sense that representative democracy is insufficient. “While we’re pushing for the preservation of public services and public goods,” says Romero, “we want it to be controlled by the public and not necessarily governments and cities.” That doesn’t mean abolishing government, but it means more “grassroots direct democracy…that balances out the government role.”

As shared, flawed, local institutions that pride themselves on free exchange of ideas, universities may be particularly fertile ground for the fusion of large and small goals: giving students a vote on who governs them; running public services through participatory economics. Many of the students involved see fixing the governance problem at the federal level as a thornier challenge than tackling it locally and within the university, where a General Assembly or an Open University offers a hopeful model. “There need to be more [public] spaces created,” says Romero, “but we do have them. We need to protect them.”