Taking Back UMass: How it Worked and Why it Didn’t
At noon on November fifteenth, 2007, over one thousand graduate and undergraduate students stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the student union ballroom as speakers led chants and spoke about the reasons for the rally. The crowd then marched to the Whitmore Administration Building for a ninety-minute occupation. The striker’s four demands were a rollback of student fees, more accountability for funding of diversity, the removal of police presence in dormitories, and student control of student space. It was one of the largest and most successful student protests at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in years. (Representatives 2007)
The strike was not sparked by a single event but rather a culmination and overflow of several existing frustrations. On November 8th, the Student Government Association (SGA) passed a “resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of unwarranted police presence in dormitories and the creation of a system of oversight for campus police activities” (Perkins 2007). The motion was suggested due to reports from several students of increased police presence in dormitories in the previous weeks. The resolution “accused Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Gargano of being behind the increase in routine patrols of plain clothes police officers”; since his appointment to office, student relations with the Vice Chancellor had been rocky at best (Perkins 2007). Gargano had denied students the opportunity to sit on committees and boards that they had previously possessed seats on and was quoted as saying “I want to see less Old Navy on this campus and more Abercrombie and Fitch” (Walunas 2009). At the meeting, SGA President Aaron Buford encouraged senators to participate and support a strike the Graduate Student Senate was in the process of planning. In 2001, there had been serious budget cuts to the university system that trickled down to affect students through increased fees and the loss of many student support programs. The SGA of the past years had also been quite conservative and “used the organization to become buddy-buddy with the administration” (Walunas 2009). Governor Deval Patrick had recently allocated $500 million to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and many graduate students felt that funding allowed for a rollback of student fees (McGuinness 2007). The current SGA was the result of a takeover by more liberal students on campus and, as such, was a much more progressive body in 2007 than it had been in the past. In addition, senior undergraduate students organized the strike and were among the most involved members of the student body. In “Taking Back UMass,” a student speaker shouts “I’m mad because since the day I stepped on this campus we’ve been fighting these issues and I’m about to graduate in May and we’re still fighting these issues!” (Walunas 2009). There was an atmosphere among soon-to-be-graduates of frustration and urgency; the students felt that for four years they had held teach-ins and smaller rallies and had been entirely ignored by the administration (Jusino 2011). Student leaders had met with Vice Chancellor Gargano over the past four years and been pushing for more funding for registered student organizations, student success centers, better academic advising, and increasing campus diversity, but nothing had changed; “it had been several years of rejection, and several years of the administration telling us that as students we don’t have the power to determine policy on campus” (Walunas 2009). A combination of aggravation with the administration, anger over police presence in dormitories, rising student costs, and animosity between Vice Chancellor Gargano and students eventually led to the two day strike and ninety minute occupation of the Whitmore Administration building.
That same night the SGA passed a resolution to remove police from dormitories, forty graduate and undergraduate students met for three hours to determine the issues that most affected students and that students could truly support. They then created their action plan: to hold teach-ins, strike by not attending class, and occupy Whitmore in order to gain concessions from the administration. They covered dormitories and classrooms with flyers and “dorm-stormed” by knocking on doors and informing students about the strike directly. Nick Milano writes “In case you have not seen one of the million posters hanging around campus, have not been addressed by someone walking around dorm halls and in case your professors have refused to address the issue, there is a student strike today and tomorrow” (2007). The Facebook page for the strike grew from dozens attending to over one thousand in hours (Walunas 2009).
Two weeks later, on the morning of November fifteenth, students picketed across campus. Fifteen alternative education teach-ins were planned for the day, running from 9:30 a.m. to noon and resuming later that day. At 11 a.m., the organizers held a press conference stating their demands. At 11:30, less than fifty students were in the Student Union Ballroom for the rally at noon. By 11:45, there were perhaps one hundred. Suddenly, at five minutes to twelve, the crowd swelled. By the time the rally began, students were forced to stand outside to overhear the speakers. By 12:30 p.m., more than one thousand students were linings the halls of Whitmore, banging drums and chanting. Joyce Hatch, Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance, spoke with the students at 1:30 p.m., promising that Chancellor Cole would speak with elected student leaders if the crowd dispersed. Students refused to accept this and began calling for public hearings and trying to convince Vice Chancellor Hatch to call Cole and force him to commit. The Vice Chancellor refused and returned to her office. Students began to chant “They say proletize, we say publicize!” Soon after, students were read the picketing code and told to disband. The students then discussed whether to remain in the building and be arrested or leave. During deliberations, the current SGA president Aaron Buford stated that students were there on business, to get Chancellor Cole to commit to a public hearing. Vice Chancellor Hatch returned and, when asked to call Cole, stated simply that he “could not be reached” and left. At that time, students left Whitmore and returned to the Student Union to debrief. The students then marched through campus, chanting and blocking the main campus road for thirty minutes. The next day saw more marching and teach-ins, but no building occupations. (Walunas 2009)
The 2007 student protest at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was not an isolated incident. Across the country, tuition was rising “at more than double the rate of inflation.” (Glater 2007). “While the pace of increase has held steady at four-year private institutions, it has picked up at public ones,” due largely to cuts in funding provided by states (Glater 2007). Even as state funding for public universities decreased, in 2007 funding for the Pell Grant “declined for the second year in a row” (Glater 2007). Because of the large drop in Pell Grant funding, fewer low-income students were able to afford college at all. An Education Trust study “using the percentage of students qualifying for the need-based Federal Pell Grant to define low-income…found that both poor and minority students were dramatically underrepresented at flagship universities as compared with other schools” (“Poor and Minority Students” 2010). Students at Washington State University had been protesting the presence of police in dormitories for years and in 2008 the state’s court of appeals ruled “students have the same right to privacy in dormitory hallways as they do in their rooms” (Hoover 1998). In 2006, students spoke “out against the prospect of freshman-only dorms at [the University of Pennsylvania] (Acchione 2006). Each of the four demands being levied by students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was being dealt with by other universities. The most pressing issues for many students at the university however, was the lack of diversity and outreach to local minority or low-income students. A junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Rosie Walunas, created a documentary film of the two-day student strike entitled “Taking Back Campus”. In the film, an African American student said that he no longer wished to be a ‘token’ student, elaborating: ‘I am one of the only minorities here. Not of only African Americans, but of all ethnicities’” (Williams 2009). The speaker, Greg Saint-Dick, then cites his own observations that he rarely sees other black students in his classrooms (Walunas 2009).
Though officials at the University of Massachusetts Amherst blamed the lack of accessibility for low-income or minority students on the economic climate, a study by the Education Trust found that decreased funding was not the source of lacking diversity at public research universities. . The study notes that flagship and public research universities “are affected the least by changes in government aid. They’re the wealthiest public institutions, and their students receive more grant aid directly from them then government funding sources”. However, these universities “chose to reach out to students in the highest income brackets. In 2007, flagship universities spent $361 million combined on grants to students from families who earned more than $115,000 per year”. The study also found that wealthier students have over-met need according to their FAFSA Expected Family Contribution. However, “the average low-income student at these same institutions was left, after grants, with a tuition burden equivalent to 70% of family income” (“Poor and Minority Students” 2010). Clearly, money was not the whole problem.
After the two-day strike, students formed a General Assembly and elected ten representatives to meet with university administration in a series of negotiations. At the negotiations, students pushed especially hard for a fee rollback. Joyce Hatch, the vice chancellor of administration and finance, argued that the state of Massachusetts controls the university’s budget and the administration had no control over the rising fees (Walunas 2009). The state’s flagship is critically underfunded by the state itself. As of 2010, state funding made up twenty-five percent of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s revenues, compared to forty percent in 2000 (Jan 2010: 4). On December eleventh, the General Assembly held another rally to keep momentum and involvement strong. At this rally, students held a mock trial to convict members of the administration of crimes against students; all were invited to defend themselves, but none attended. While several Daily Collegian articles had indicated that rising student fees were only necessary to keep equivalent with inflation, one student spoke of how the fees rose at three hundred percent of inflation over the past twenty years; another quoted an administrator who had said that he saw diversity not as color or class but as representation from all fifty states, noting that out-of-state students pay substantially higher tuition (Walunas 2009). These speeches were meant to incite students and give the movement momentum so that negotiations would not stall or fall through. One week later, Vice Chancellor Gargano resigned. Some students attribute his resignation to the strikes, though it was likely a combination of factors.
The final day of student-administration negotiations occurred on February 29th, 2008. The officials worked with students to create a university-funded student lobby day in which the university would provide approximately $8,000 in funds to bring three hundred students to the state house once per year in order to lobby the legislature to increase state university funding. The current Chancellor also agreed to reapply for government grant programs that create intentional recruitment and support services for first-generation and low-income students. Finally, the administration promised to review support offices for minority students on-campus and to make recommendations about funding those offices. Police presence in the dormitories was removed fully except in emergency situations. The price of renting student spaces and technology for the space was cut significantly. On March fifth, the proposal was voted on and accepted by students. (Walunas 2009)
The proposal was crafted largely by students and vice chancellors. The Chancellor himself, Thomas Cole, was serving as interim Chancellor and was not very familiar with the school yet. Perhaps due partly to the strike that year, Cole was never elected as Chancellor of the University. However, his position as Interim Chancellor was not meant to become permanent. Also as a result of the strike, the Community Engagement Program came under fire. Almost all of the student leaders of the strike were previously involved in community service learning courses, specifically the Citizen Scholars Program and UACT, an alternative Spring break program. John Reiff oversaw these programs and the Community Engagement office. After the strikes, he was subjected to scrutiny and his position at the university was threatened Reiff 2011). Reiff and the program were moved to Commonwealth Honors College, where administrators believed the students would be less radical and more averse to activism. The new Community Service Learning office for non-honors students receives very little support and funding and is almost wholly unknown to students. At the time, the move was credited as being due to financial reasons, though students and staff speculate that it was a direct result of the strike.
What Would It Take to Build a More Successful Student Movement?
The 2007 student strikes were successful in inciting a reaction from the university. Many of the students’ demands were met or compromised on. However, student power on the campus was only short-lived. After a compromise was reached, student communication with administrators halted. Despite the annual student lobby day, fees increase every year and diversity has not increased significantly in the past four years. There are several ways that students could work to increase and sustain their power on campus. I will explore some of them below.
Some would argue that, because only 5% of students were involved, the administration took them less seriously. There is a stereotype of the “millennials” that says those not-quite-adults are entitled, hate politics, and lack motivation. The argument then becomes that students simply need to get more involved in protesting and striking like students did back in the “good old days” of the 1960s, with momentous force and violence when necessary. However, students have been very actively involved in protesting the past few years as opposed to student activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 2009, students at California public universities staged protests against budget cuts and fee hikes through sit-ins, occupations, and rallies (Epstein 2009). In 2010, British students organized massive protests of tuition increases and funding cuts involving 52,000 people and a clash with the police (Lewis et al 2010). In both cases, the planned financing was voted into place despite student uprisings. Both the “new era of student activism” and “ largest and most dramatic” student protests in years failed to sway legislators from passing bills that would increase tuition by at least twenty percent (Epstein 2009, Lewis et all 2010). Simply protesting, even vehemently and violently, does not seem to be enough of a force to change the minds of legislators; “Mass protest can in fact have an impact, but only as a part of the mix of influencing strategies. Protests are unlikely, on their own, to be the sole driver of change” (Smith 2010).
In Taking Back UMass, Joyce Hatch, the Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance, notes communication as the main source of conflict between the university officials and students. The students were uninformed about the policies that govern university decisions, but the administration was unaware of how their decisions played out in campus life. Lisha Storey, a graduate student who was involved in negotiations, also credits much of the disappointment in the final proposal to communication problems. Lisha believes that the administrators “out-bureaucratized” the student negotiators; “we would go in there and say, we want more funding for diversity and they would say ‘okay, what program do you want to cut to pay for it?’ They just had so much more knowledge of the budget than us. These were people who knew the budget and finances and implementation in and out, and we couldn’t compare with that” (Storey, 2011).
Many others argue that instead of picketing and refusing to negotiate, students and administrations might be well served by fostering communication. Students and administration before the student strikes had rather poor communication. The current SGA was all but divorced from the campus higher-ups and students were no longer allowed to serve on the administrative boards they had previously held seats on. This has been changing on other campuses across the country. At the University of California, “the Executive Vice President’s office is expanding a project that seeks to foster greater channels of communication between campus administrators and students by creating an informal setting for dialogue …allowing students to meet with members of the administration during allotted time slots each week around campus” (Alhlou 2010). University of Connecticut officials began attending Undergraduate Student Government meetings in order to improve communication and listen to student’s concerns (Morales 2006). These sorts of actions allow for more transparency between students and officials. Instead of holding strikes, students have a place to air grievances and get answers. Working with the administration can only get students so far, as administrators do not dictate the budget, they “get handed a budget, and it’s a crappy one” (Walunas 2009). While administrators do dictate allocation of the budget, and that is certainly something worth working with them on, protesting students often focus their anger on high-level administrators when their elected officials, their senators and governors, are the ones who truly control the issue. Much as the Tea Party’s focus on minorities instead of corporations, students who focus on administrators are only met with frustration when their target cannot actually solve their problems. Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center argues
“I share your pain. Believe me – I don’t think it’s fair that you guys have to pay more. I worry about how that distorts the careers that you guys are going to pursue…. I think all that has to be changed. But you’re not helping us if you’re only going to complain about [the chancellor] and not look at the broader picture. You guys have to be part of the broader political context. You can’t simply be focused on the administrators, some of whom, I admit, haven’t made a strong enough case for public education, haven’t been out there. But you guys have to take the larger political context seriously because that’s what’s killing us in the long run” (Epstein, 2009).
On many campuses, there is a belief among students that the administration will only listen if students are yelling. However, students can often yell themselves hoarse without seeing much change. If students want to see change, they need to be able to disrupt. Even simply communicating with administration is not enough to bring about significant change on campus
Though students would benefit from closer relationships and more frequent exchanges of ideas with administrators, as well as lobbying their state houses, their success lies in their ability to keep mobilizing.
Student protests sorely lack organizational structure. They are often organized by a small group of students who manage to attract many students who get involved for a day or two then return to business as usual. On many public university campuses, this pattern repeats itself every year. In “Future Workers of America Unite!,” Mishy Leiblum, one of the organizers of the University of Massachusetts Amherst strike, suggests that students should form a union in order to keep pressure on university administration and legislators. During the strike, she argues, the ten students who negotiated with administrators acted as union organizers and representation for the thousands of other involved students. Because of this, their demands were met and compromised on; their voices were heard. However, “this student strike, along with recent student actions across the University of California system, are “successful failures”–building student participation and militancy but without (to-date) an organizational structure, level of national coordination, or strategy that meet the challenges of the current crisis” (Leiblum 2011). If students could find a way to create a union then they could build a base of involved, mobilized students and create a powerful organization to work with administrators and legislators to secure more funding and other resources for their universities. These unions could coordinate on a national level through organizations such as the United States Students Association (USSA).
The University of Massachusetts Amherst already has three similar structures. The Graduate Student Union acts as a student/workers union for graduate teaching assistants and had had marginal success. For undergraduates, the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) is an organization populated by a small number of undergraduate and graduate workers and volunteers who are instrumental is organizing teach-ins, lobby days, and other events on campus and communicate with other similar bodies across the country through the USSA. However, CEPA relies on its funding through the SGA and is a tiny, little known organization. Since the SGA at the university has recently been populated by more liberal students (and even a few radical ones), divorcing itself from the administration and acting as an undergraduate student union is an even more viable option.
The SGA already has a direct budget built into student fees, its own process for passing referendums and by-laws, and a standard for electing leadership. They also tend to have legitimacy in the eyes of students and administrators. However, the SGA is often too distracted with allocating student budgets and editing bylaws to fulfill the role of student union. It could also face threats of defunding by the university if its unionizing activities became a threat to its daily functioning. This could be remedied by instead following the model MassPIRG uses on the UMass campus, wherein students decide whether or not to pay the dues necessary to support it as an independent organization through their student fees. (Leiblum 2011)
While the SGA is a more viable option as a starting point for student unionizing, the quick turnover of its leadership, its ties to the administration, and the possibility of bureaucracy within the organization are significant roadblocks. Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, in their book Poor People’s Movements, argue that organizations are in fact not the best strategy for successful movements. They write that, in poor people’s movements, “activists have usually concentrated their efforts on developing formally structured organizations with a mass membership drawn from the lower classes” and that “when the tumult is over, these organizations usually fade, no longer useful to those who provided the resources necessary to their survival…or the organization persists by becoming increasingly subservient to those on whom it depends” (Piven 1979: xx, xxii). Either the organization falls apart or it “abandons [its] oppositional politics” and works with the elites (Piven 1979: xxi). Some believe that this theory may apply to students’ movements. However, I would argue that students are fundamentally different from poor people in that their organizations have more access to funding and a steadier membership pool. While the organizations Piven and Cloward analyze are those of unemployed persons, what I propose is more of a union for students. Unions have functioned successfully in the past for employed lower class people, just as unions can function successfully for students now. Organizations offer leadership and unity as long as a movement lasts; unions offer these things as long as there are things students must bargain for. While the SGA may not be a perfect organization for beginning a union, it has several crucial mechanisms – a standard for electing leadership, a source of funding, and student body membership – already built in that make it a strong option.
The striking students in 2007 were quite successful in the short term, having many of their demands met. However, in order to be more successful in the future, students must have organizational support and the ability to lobby their legislatures. Simply rallying is not enough anymore. To truly take back UMass, students will have to organize through a student union, as well as continuing to protest and finding paths of communication with administrators.
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