Reflections from UMASS-Amherst: The Occupy Campus Movement

Guest blogger Deborah Keisch Polin is a parent, graduate student and education activist in Western Massachusetts. She is a member of the Education Radio Collective, a radio program that features interviews, testimony and analysis on issues facing public education in the U.S. through voices of teachers, parents, students, community members, education activists and education scholars, found at: Education-radio.blogspot.com. Please check out Ed Radio’s show on education and the 99% movement – We Are the 99%, Fighting for the “Public” in Education – at: http://education-radio.blogspot.com/2011/10/we-are-99-fighting-for-public-in.html

Reflections from UMASS-Amherst: The Occupy Campus Movement

As I sit down to write this post, I have several different tabs open on my browser that I keep compulsively checking – each keeping track of the happenings at various Occupy Movement/99% locations around the country on this International Day of Action. Just a few days after Zucotti Park was aggressively cleared, and thousands of dollars of supplies and personal possessions were destroyed, those who have been residents there for the past two months are undeterred by these intimidation tactics and are back at it, with overwhelming support from across the country as Occupy camps and actions emerge in more spaces daily.

I am particularly inspired by how this movement— in the streets, parks and on university grounds— is increasingly making the connection between the issues of the 99% and the fight for equity in public k-12 and higher education, and how it exposes the efforts to transform education – at all levels – into a profit-making enterprise. Teach-ins —by students, by faculty, and by community members -—are becoming just as commonplace and expected in these spaces as the use of the human microphone and the people’s libraries. Higher education students, staff, instructors and faculty are fighting back—demonstrating that we are fed up with increasing tuition and fees, overwhelming debt (student debt in this country now exceeds total credit card debt), unaffordable health care costs, curriculum driven by private research interests and classrooms that are increasingly surveilled. The connections between these and the Occupy Movement are obvious, and the opportunity to point that out  is one we cannot afford to pass up.

There is no tolerance for dissent in the current climate of privatized attitudes shaping public education. Berkeley professor Celeste Langon, aggressively arrested during a recent Occupy Cal event at Berkeley, notes this in a post she wrote upon her release for the blog Remaking the University. In the following excerpt from that post, she writes about the university justification for breaking up the Berkeley encampment containing a language of corporate efficiency. She begins with a quote from Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgeneau: (Read the whole post here: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-i-got-arrested-with-occupy-cal-and.html)

We simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition, on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism. No one wishes to “waste” resources in this climate. Yet if one follows this logic one can see the looming threat: lawful assembly, peaceful dissent, and free inquiry—even so-called “breadth requirements”—can all entail some cost. They interfere with “getting and spending.” Dissent, like free inquiry, is sometimes inefficient. Dissent doesn’t always have a “deliverable.” But it takes time to determine a just answer to “What is to be done?”.

This attitude is contrary to the core of what higher education should ideally represent— an environment of critical inquiry, which includes an examination of the conditions of working and learning at a public university.  Celeste Langon serves as a model for academics to resist this co-opting of their profession by corporate and elite interests. But she can’t stand alone. Not everyone is in a position to get arrested, but we each must ask ourselves what can I do – what does my dissent look like? Because inaction equals complicity in the destruction of academic freedom and of schooling as we know it.

My own state of Massachusetts ranks 46 out of the 50 states in per capita appropriations for higher education (See the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts for more data: http://phenomonline.org/). This is not a time for compromise with the university. At UMass-Amherst we have tried that, and conditions have not changed. Our graduate student union has successfully negotiated raises for graduate employees, only to have the university counter these raises with increased fees (by 7.5% this year alone). The health care benefits that the union has fought for have just been cut with a 17% increase in premiums and a 15% co-insurance requirement for any off-campus care, which includes Ob/Gyn services. This prompted panic among pregnant graduate students who suddenly have to come up with thousands of dollars in labor and delivery costs that they hadn’t budgeted for. These are just a few of the examples that push access to a public university education further out of reach for many students.

The encampment and rallies at Occupy Cal are an inspiration. On my own campus, Occupy UMass is off to a slow but steady start, with more of a presence each day. And I am struck by the flicker of hope and excitement I feel at the immense possibility this moment has opened. Access to quality education for all people must be at the center of this fight – and that fight must be now – there is no time left for negotiation.

Comments from the Editor:

Several excellent essays, written over the past few weeks, reflect Polin’s concern about protecting the intellectual space of the  pubic university or college campus from corporatized violence and repression.  See Henry Giroux’s Occupy Colleges Now: Students as the New Public Intellectualand Juan Cole’s How Students Landed on the Front Lines of Class Wars.



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