In response to the UC Regents voting to raise tuition for the first time since 2009 students at UC Davis attended a rally organized jointly by the ASUCD Office of Advocacy Student Retention and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I was asked to speak. Here are the remarks that I prepared.
My name is Duane Wright. I am a PhD candidate in the sociology department and a member of the TA union UAW 2865, and this is my 6th year at UCD. As both an activist involved in the student movement since my first quarter here in Fall 2011, when I watched UCPD pepper spray my friends right over there for daring to challenge the administration, and as a scholar of educational change and social movements I want to give you some of the historical context for today’s event.
So we are all here because the UC Regents decided to raise undergrad in-state tuition for the first time since 2009. Well who are the UC Regents? They are a group of corporate executives, and other millionaires with absolutely no background in education whatsoever who are charged with running our university.
Back in Fall of 2009 the Regents raised tuition 32%, and students responded by Occupying Mrak Hall. UCPD came in and arrested 51 students and 1 professor. Mrak was later reoccupied and people demanded that the charges be dropped. Later that academic year on March 4 students tried to march to the 80, to shut that freeway down - much like how we’ve seen Black Lives Matter activists do in recent years. UCPD and cops from various other precincts all tried to violently stop the march, but after students pushed past their first line UCPD decided to grab the young woman leading the march and hold her hostage - threatening to press charges and expel her from school unless everyone turned around.
In 2011 shortly after the Occupy movement sprang up across the country the UC Regents were considering raising tuition over 80% over 4 years, and so an occupy encampment sprung up at Berkeley - and UCPD threatened to take the tents down and end the protest. Students encircled the tents and linked arms, and UCPD can be seen in a viral video responding by slamming their batons into the rib cages of these students. Later UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau said that standing and linking arms was quote “not non-violent” justifying the brutality of UCPD. In response Occupy UC Davis was born 9 days later - putting the issues of economic inequality and tuition hikes front and center next to the issues of police brutality at Cal. Hopefully you’ve all seen the now infamous video of two UCPD officers casually using military grade chemical weapons that according to two subsequent independent investigations they 1. Had no authority to use, 2. They had no justification to use, and 3. They had no training to use and used it too close a distance. News of the pepper spraying and its condemnations were international. Chancellor Katehi was in the spotlight and the whole world was watching, so the tents came back and over 5,000 people from all around the region came to a rally to show their support. The UC Regents felt the heat of the bad press and knew they’d only make things worse if they raised tuition so they backed down. It was a victory for students struggling to pay tuition and or rent, or students taking out loans to get by. It was a victory for the vision and the promise made by the California Master Plan of free public higher education.
But like all victories it was temporary. They tried again in 2014 for a 5%/year for 5 years tuition hike. As always, students across the UC protested, occupied buildings and more. Here at UCD we occupied Olson Hall for weeks. The Regents withdrew the proposed hike after the state promised to give the administration more money to do with as they please.
And so they are testing the waters again. They quickly and quietly passed this tuition hike, and they made it small so as to make it easier to swallow. But don’t be fooled. More will come once they see that they can get away with it.
And the same can be said about the use of force. After the bad press from the numerous instances of police brutality in 2011 UC admin didn’t just give up on cracking down on student protests - they just had to be savvier and less conspicuous. In 2012 dozens of students sat down blocking the entrance to a branch of US Bank that was inside the MU, trying to highlight the cozy nature of financial capitalism and corporate higher education- pointing out how instead of free education as a right we have normalized debt and education as a private good. So instead of sending in the riot cops to pepper spray the bank protesters they instead changed the students with trumped up charges of conspiracy and they were facing 10 years in prison and $1 in “damages” from the bank having to shut down. The Banker’s Dozen or the Davis Dozen as they were called, had to endure a year or more of trial, and the threat they faced was far greater than being pepper sprayed.
So have no illusions, this moment is a trial. How much can they get away with. Can they sell out our future for their luxurious executive compensation? Can they send it storm troopers to beat us into submission?
We will let them get away with this? Or do we have the resolve and the organizing skills to challenge those that sit on top of a multi-billion dollar institution? Will we fight for our future? For the future of our little siblings? Of our children or future children? Will we accept this corporate university that has invested its money in private prisons, fossil fuel companies destroying the planet, war profiteering companies, companies that profit off of the occupation of Palestine and the human rights abuses going on there, the banks that are funding the Dakota Access Pipeline? Will we accept that so called public education is inaccessible for most of California’s youth - both in cost and in the way in which some groups are severely underrepresented? Are we ok with the people running our university being the kind of people who unilaterally cut the pay of the lowest paid workers in the system - the food service workers, the custodial staff, and the patient care workers, most of whom qualify for public assistance but when giving 3 UC chancellors a 20% raise - all of whom already earned over $300,000/year said that it was quote “an injustice” that they didn’t make more? Are we ok with growing class sizes and increased workload for our TAs?
Are we ok with all of this? Or can we imagine a different kind of university? One that prioritizes education and research over executive compensation, one that maybe isn’t even run by executives but rather democratically by the students and workers themselves? One that doesn’t invest in destroying Black and Brown communities and lives, or the planet, but rather fights for a just and equal society? We are told college is where you ask questions. But it seems the most dangerous question, the one they don’t want you to ask, is what kind of university do you want?