An American student’s bright college years are now typically bookended by two grim milestones: taking out your first student loan on an eye-popping tuition bill, and graduating into a labor market that tracks many young workers into a lifetime of economic insecurity. In between, students face massive budget cuts that further undermine their academic prospects. For a group of University of Chicago seniors, pre-graduation jitters turned into righteous indignation last week with a sit-in protest showing that their generation is sick of seeing their higher education devalued by broken promises.
Dressed in symbolic graduation gowns, the #NoCutsUChi activists occupied the admissions office to protest not only budget cuts but also the university’s entire development agenda. Their statement demanded a budget that comprehensively meets students’ social needs and academic aspirations, while addressing racial and economic inequity in local communities: “These cuts…demonstrate that the university prioritizes improving its image over the quality of life of the people who work and study here—the faculty, students, and workers, who make this university what it is.”
The anti-austerity protests came alongside another direct action by students: occupying a campus building to demand that the University establish a Level 1 trauma care center—responding to a desperate medical need in local communities devastated by poverty and violence.
Both these protests came in the lead-up to Alumni Weekend, which includes celebrations of the legacy of students who came of age during a time when the campus was alight with protesting youth.
Today, a new generation is rising up against an increasingly commercialized education system. Maybe the student insurrectionists of the class of 1970 will be proud.
Altogether, the planned cuts, reported in Crains Chicago Business, will result in 5-6 percent cuts to non-academic programs and a 2 percent cut across academic departments. Announced on the heels of a downgraded rating on the university’s swelling debt by Moody’s, the administration’s “cost containment measures” are coupled with plans to add fancy new features to the University’s academic and lifestyle offerings, including the construction of a new residence hall and engineering institute—aimed at making the university more “competitive.” Over the next few years, the university is planning a $1.5 billion remodeling, financed largely through institutional debt, real estate sales and budget cuts. The plans reflect a nationwide pattern of the financialization of higher education: administrations compete for prestige and invest in lavish high-rises while cash-strapped students sink into debt and eat out of food pantries.