UMass 1989 Student Strike

The UMass Strike of 1989: Higher Education Under Attack

Robert Brown

Public education is a large element of the institutionalized American way of life. Public access to education is a right and usually state requirement that is granted through twelfth grade .Education has become a more frequently needed commodity in the American, and global work force.  What had happened in 1989 was an increase in fees, tuition, and a decrease in funding like Umass had never before witnessed. This meant for the first time a student could not pay his or her way through college with a minimum wage job, and would need loans, government assistance, and a major shift to parents paying tuitions in full. These were the things that students felt in their pockets and saw affecting the future of the university. So they boycotted classes and organized a fight against legislation that was not in the interest of the people. During this week “2/3 of students went on strike, or 12,000 out of 18,000 (Livingstone, 1989)” and rallies for a week and a half straight with no less than 1,000 in attendance at any of the rallies. This week of defiance and protest was a wakeup call to all Umass students, faculty and legislators that students would not take these price increases and privatization of our public school system lying down. This was a real turning point first because it was the first time this large of a scale of privatization had occurred to Umass, but also it was the first time this large scale of a protest was successful at getting the message across.

The funding for higher education and mechanics through which students, their parents, and the state pays for education is a large concern first and foremost a large concern for those kids going to college because their future rests on their education. Second, it is a concern for the parents who are majority payers when it comes to kids going to school in America. The price to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst continues to rise every year. Thirdly who must be concerned about the situation are the teachers whose livelihood, passion and careers are being threatened by this free market system that prizes profit over societal betterment. Teachers are under attack for a situation they did not create. Lastly, who should be concerned the most about this is society as a whole. There must be an awakening towards education as a necessity like health care, freedom of speech and religion, and the right to quality of life… I believe Society as a whole should have great concern over the issue of public education because as we all know education is somewhat a universal equalizer for opportunity in society. An educated population makes informed decisions on keeping society balanced economically and within the realm of opportunity for graduates at this university.

In the fall of 1989, informed populations of students at Umass were concerned about their future and the future of society as a whole and therefore boycotted Umass Amherst as a display of defiance to legislators who were slashing funding for higher education in order to cut the state budget. There was a mass organization of students and teachers against how the state was appropriating its budget. Calling attention to a cause through action allows you to a way to portray your message.  A boycott of classes and rallies enabled participants and organizers to push for three things: First, to spread the knowledge of what was occurring with the budget and the future of higher education; second was to display to politicians and people in decision making realms that there was mass concern about supporting higher education and keeping it public; and lastly – a point which arose during the course of the strike – to register young voters and demonstrate that the population has power through democracy, but voting is key. These things were all displays of defiance in 1989 because Massachusetts through many complicated workings was attempting to privatize and create a for-profit model of higher education. With this they will privatize opportunity.

The 1989 strike was a turning point, a consolidated effort to defend low cost quality education by students, and prevent the powers that be from moving toward a privatized high cost system of higher education. When you are a college student it may be hard to see the future, but students understood that a college education gives you the opportunity at a skilled career in a profession of interest and provides strength to the Massachusetts work force.  Because the 1989 student strike was not able to stop the tide of privatization, with the cost of college sky rocketing today, it is worth considering what could have happened if the 1989 strike was successful and had been able to defend a system of free or at least cheap college education would provide. First, there is the opportunity to start debt free in a career instead of start behind. A speaker at the April 2011 teach in stated that in the United States today there is more debt from college loans than from credit cards owed in this country. Second there is the opportunity of keeping the burden off of parents paying for their children’s education, and lastly educated people have the opportunity to shift American economy and politics from a system for profit to a system for opportunity and social betterment. I will focus on the happenings in 1989 with the week of strike to boycott cuts in educational funding and a march that was carried out on the state house that same year. These main events show the up rise of students and teachers against a system that was, and is attempting to undermine quality of education for capital gain and a contradictory privatized free market system.

Lisa Nelson was an organizer of the student strike. The strike banded together the university population to show the positive effort of students towards combating fee increases they feel should be covered by the Massachusetts budget, and has been in the past. Organization of students was to increase legislators knowledge of the cuts and sacrifices forced on students. These students are the future of Massachusetts and are letting it be known they are informed and will not take privatization lightly nor lying down. Lisa Nelson felt “the student movement at the university has generated higher public awareness about the plight of the students and faculty fighting for higher public education (Herlihy, 1989).”

Between the fiscal years of 1988-1990 the state appropriation for Umass decreased by 8% while the difference of tuition and fees increased in amount paid by students by 45%. This was a system where students pay more and receive less because the university is created into a factory for business to take place. Take for example the total amount of grants and contracts from federal government for Umass. In 1981 the amount of defense department research funded at Umass was 3% and in 1989 the defense department made up 21% of research and programs awarded grants and contracts by federal funding (Kenen, 1990). If you look at these numbers you could argue like Reagan did that the cold war with Russia made defense research deserved. But in fact I believe this reflects the fact that the government wishes to use the University for Private Use and will only fund research if there is a profitable return for government budgets or private corporations. This shift from an overall social dynamic that praises higher education as needed to a dynamic that viewed higher education as a business model for capital return will be the downfall of the American educational system. Funding only comes with attached interests because that is capitalism and the first rule is money must make money. What we need to look at is how the funding for social programs, military, and money generated from taxes is spent in a way that benefits the masses and not the top 1% of the income distribution. By becoming so depending on outside funding, the university now must cater to the needs too these outside sources that are now the majority, not the minority in funding.

The boycott of the University of Amherst and protests on Amherst town commons (of 4,000 plus attending) had come directly from social reluctance of the budget cuts and what they felt was wrongful spending by the government. Students had gotten involved largely through the student union handing out fliers with facts about the budget cuts proposed on the vote for yearly spending in the state house. So, November 11 came and the strike began. It was students saying no to a system that was working against them financially. This was the first time students had felt that the increase in amount paid by them was wrongful because of shifts in budget. Prior to 1989, the 80’s had been a period of steady growth of state appropriations for Umass. In 1989 that amount dropped by 10 million to the 1985 levels. Students felt this was wrongful and were going to have their voice be heard. The faculty was torn on the strike and there were opposing arguments and viewpoints on the strike from students and teachers. It was stated that the strike is not benefitting students and not showing legislators meaning by missing class. “Administrators will not endorse a strike- James Duffey Chancellor (Campus Chronicle 1989).” There was suggestion a boycott would not work without 100% staff support.  The staff’s hands were tied, however, because they are instructed and under contract to teach and not show support for student strike. Even if teachers believed the strike was a needed and positive political act, they could not legally call off classes. This bind that kept teachers in their place, instead of on the side of activism was one of many things that was angering students. The reinforcement to accept this system of privatization shows the movement away from a public university where the students and teachers have a say in the future of the institution. This was a first decisive shift towards a privatized supposedly high-fee high-aid system where the aid is getting cut and the fees are going up. Fall of 1989 was when students woke up to what was happening and showed opposition. “If I weren’t in Boston I’d be picketing right there with the students in Amherst” was a quote from democratic representative from Woburn named Nick Paleologos (Collegiate 1989).

This feedback in media and local newspapers showed feelings of the strike having an effect on legislators. It showed student organization and a combined effort to emphasize to law makers and politicians that budget cuts hurt the working class and students would not just lay down and accept fee increases. The strike in Amherst raised awareness for the fight to keep public education available for Massachusetts residents. It brought the plight of students to a public forum. A social movement of this kind also brings into question how the system under which our funding for public and private action really works. There was a true unification of students and faculty to fight these budget cuts. Umass staff associate Ed Patterson said “We can make a lot of noise here but what counts is if they hear us in the legislature (Collegian 1989).” The boycott and protest against government spending had successfully mobilized people and used them as the resource for protest to be seen. On November 16th 1989 there were 4,000 students who marched single file from the Umass Amherst campus to the Amherst town commons to rally against cuts in state education budget. “By the end of the day over 1,500 people had been registered to vote (Hampshire Union News 1989)” and had been informed about budget cuts and listen to talks about the importance of voting and being well informed on political issues with social effects.

These feelings and actions did not just come from thin air. The student union did a lot of organizing. They went door to door in dorms informing about the strike, they put up, and handed out flyers that were informational and essential to the movement having legitimacy, and they organized teach in’s and alternative methods of education while students protested and went on strike, and teachers were legally bound in their own ways. There were many stating people for education should not boycott class and Umass is a bargain compared to other state’s public universities. But those people didn’t see that’s what Umass was fighting for as a campus. The students cause is they don’t want Umass to fall into the “business model” that are the schools Umass is compared too. Umass should be the example and the standard set for public higher education. So students stood up for their rights to public education through the student union, people for a socially responsible university, and many other organizations that were in place, and some that were formed during the strike. Rachel Maiore was a strike organizer and spoke before the strike started. She stated that we cannot be sheep marching to the slaughter. There will be 5,000 (plus) students saying no to budget cuts and yes to strike. This message echoed by organizers was one that we must become informed, organized, and learn tactics that are effective if we want to combat the monster that is legislation and privatization.

What must be understood and what enraged the Umass student body in the fall of 89′ was the fact that social science, teachers, and various programs campus wide were being cut and room was being made for profitable research and other various forms of for-profit fields at the university. “Only programs where ample employment opportunity exists (Special Report: Crisis 1990)” are available for multiple types of funding and grants. This statement of where lawmakers thought funding was “appropriate” angered students in November of the previous year because it shows the funneling of students to professions that are acceptable, and more importantly profitable. Instead students had a feeling they attended a public university where education came first. This was the platform for the strike that occurred and this feeling of being sold out by your university resonated with the students. The (Radical) student union enforced the spreading feeling around campus that the wrongful cutting of state funding for education had to stop or it would exponentially grow, as Reagan wanted, until nothing was public and all was private.

In 1989 50% of federal taxes went to military spending (Special Report: Crisis 1990). There is a long list of complicated areas and projects that Umass receives funding for. A large one of them at the end of the 1980’s was research for the DoD, or Department of Defense. This research also received protests because of feeling of wrongful use of college research for defense techniques and weapons which were then profitable to private corporations. These complications are not the matter of students who attend and protested. Students from in state and out of state had been receiving less and less funding, and available aid was being replaced with available loans and un-fixed interest rates on them. Pell grants have been in decline and students realized that in a rich country, the students, teachers, union workers, and working class families should not have to hold up the burden of a deficit because that was the easy way out for legislators to keep the rich happy. You could see these were the issues under scrutiny by reading signs within the mobs of student strikers that read “ CUT THE B.S. NOT THE BUDGET”  and “don’t let our future get the ax” which were direct attacks towards legislators attempts to privatize the university.

Now we all know, most people don’t want to see the restructuring of capitalism overall, but students in November of 89′ did want a change in the system that systematically increased student fees while reducing the number of tenure-system teachers and reversing advances made in educational fields prior to its takeover by neo-liberalism. In higher education the number of degrees conferred also has stagnated: Having increased by 249% in the 15 years prior to neo-liberalism, in the 15 years from 1975-1990, the number of degrees conferred increased by only 16%, and the proportion of state budgets devoted to public higher education decreased (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002)”.

This opposition to the system showed the power in numbers when two thirds of the students boycotted classes, tests, and were taught by teach ins hosted by their professors outside of the classroom. Organization around the cause allowed students to unify and have a clear message that was effective because of legitimacy. There were skeptics towards this boycott stating that not attending class shows lack of discipline and the semester was already paid for so but they failed to realize that this type of organization is the start of fighting a system that will tell you what to do unless you demand what you want. The resistance was against the rich holding decision making power over the masses in Massachusetts which is the opposite of democratic power.

The strike occurred regardless of the split in teacher support. Teacher support is something that strengthened this movement because of obvious reasons of legitimizing the cause, but also it made it easier on students to strike when a teacher would accept absence in class or missing a test. This whole process became a cycle for students that allowed a majority of them to get involved and show physical support in numbers. The 4,000 people that occupied the entire Amherst commons, the thousands of letters to state officials, and the fact people showed up to protest and register to vote were the key events in raising awareness and were the catalyst for effective organization. When teachers realize they are the target of privatization just as students, they became heavily involved. This was evident with events invoked by Michael Currie, a strike organizer that urged professors towards “non-stop teach ins” so students could still learn from outside of their boycotted classes, and continue to portray their message of defiance towards budget cuts. Also, having teacher support was something hard fought by student organizers because having teacher support was essential to dispelling the myth that student efforts were off base and dis-organized.

Representatives and officials in the state house reacted by stating protest and threats are not the way to get what you want. “Don’t demand of us. You can’t threaten us. Threats don’t work. The student strike is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing – Representative Chester Suhoski (Herlihy, 1989).” He also went on to state he is supportive of strike but students need more innovative ways to get message across because it is hard to prioritize higher education to 200 legislators. What this statement means is basically the strike is off-base in the eyes of legislators because it is not on the steps of beacon hill in Boston.  These politicians were stating threats were not the way to achieve your goals without realizing they had been threatening teachers’ careers, students and parents’ pockets, and educations for years to get what they wanted. Students woke up and demanded that changes be made to stop the erosion of public higher education. They realized that voicing opinion and showing physical demonstration were the only way to attain what you want. And if those didn’t occur, then the free market would enclose private walls around universities nationwide.

In 1989, Umass used more money from non-state sources (fees, tuition increase and retention, grants, donations, and federal financial aid) than from state appropriated money for higher education for the first time ever (Special Report: CrisisKenen, 1990). Students realized this and a feeling of unity took over in the form of a boycott. Organizers from teachers unions, student unions, and political representatives all bonded together to inform the public of what was happening with the budget in Massachusetts. This student teacher bond was strengthened by both coming out and protesting the system that has moved towards privatizing a university that was once very close to free. Even if teachers were not in full support of strike, they felt it was movement of solidarity and showed power in numbers. Also it was a positive step for a better Umass in the future with a more public setting for students, and a freer, Education based environment for teachers. “The students have taken the lead and need to be supported (Morris, 1989).”

It was a Monday in November of 1989 when the strike started and 2,000 students rallied on the steps of the student union. What made this protest and boycott of the campus successful was the effort of student organizers to let people have access to knowledge needed to protest what was going on. It was said that in the beginning of the strike at demonstrations that anyone could grab the microphone, but they knew a consolidated effort towards an agenda for speakers and the demonstrations were two weeks of consistent student rallied support for the strike. The ten days following the 11th of November, the strike had begun to dwindle but the effects were felt at the statehouse. A demonstration of this magnitude that put two thirds of the student body, and therefore the rest of the faculty on hold proved “We have the power to back up our demands (Swanson Daily Hampshire Gazette, 1989).”

Jeremy Levenson was a student during the time of the strike. He was a student senator and organizer for the boycott who spent hours printing fliers and organizing petitions for signing. But he described an important part of the movement as “people who were ordinary non-political people were doing a lot of leg work (Hampshire Gazette, 1989).” These normal people who turn to action are the key to successful resistance because power is in numbers. The rallying cry was strike because you want to, not because your friends are. This meant realize how this affects you and strike because it is right. Showing the average people could fight millions of dollars in fiscal budgets displays democracy can work and people do have a say in some things larger than them. This empowers a movement.

In all the strike raised awareness of what taxes should be funding in Massachusetts and showed people that they were political actors in their districts by registering thousands of people to vote during the week of strike. The spirit of the strike still carried weight even after it had come to a halt. People gaining understanding that they can write letters to their representatives and there is power in numbers is far more important than everyone understanding the tax make up of Massachusetts funding systems. It is our duty as students with interests and futures to take a stand and do what you can to not change everything, but at least change something. Students while protesting realized the importance of their education and most importantly students and teachers realized “you are not studying history. You are making it (Shapiro, Collegian 1989).” This empowerment was the main goal of the strike and to allow people to demand rights that they should be granted. It expressed to people that corporations and free markets shouldn’t cut good teachers, raise prices for education, and the whole time be the beneficiaries of profits from this system. Instead we must restructure this system to allow preventative taxing and safeguarding accumulation of wealth. We must not allow privatization to swallow public goods and we as youth are beneficiaries of these goods, therefore we must harness all of our power to fight squeezes in budget at the people’s expense.


Work Cited

Campus Chronicle [Amherst] Nov. 1989: 2. Print.

Collegian [Amherst] 11-21 Nov. 1989: 1-10. Print

Kenen, Marc. “A Special Report: Graduate Student Senate.” Editorial. Umass In Crisis [Amherst] Apr. 1990: 1-11. Print

“Umass on Strike.” The Daily Hampshire Gazette [Amherst] 21 Nov. 1989: 11-12. Print

Herlilty, Kerry`. “Are They Listening at the State House?” The Collegian [Amherst] 15 Nov. 1989: 5-6. Print.

Livingstone, Julie. “Students Strike for Education.” The Collegian [Amherst] 14 Nov. 1989, 1st ed.: 1-2. Print.

Shapiro, Lisa. “Student Strike to Begin Monday.” The Collegian [Amherst] 10 Nov. 1989: 1-2. Print.

Swanson, John. “Special to the Gazette.” The Gazette [Amherst] 21 Nov. 1989, 1st ed.: 10-11. Print.


72 thoughts on “UMass 1989 Student Strike

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