Last Thursday forever changed the University of California as its governing council, the UC Regents, almost unanimously voted to raise undergraduate student fees by 32 percent by summer 2010 in efforts to assist in closing a $900 million gap in funding this year from the state.
This increase, the largest increase of student fees in 18 years, closely followed last May’s undergraduate student fee increase of 9.3 percent.
Both votes on undergraduate and graduate fee increases passed with only Student Regent Jesse Bernal voting against, but Bernal was not alone in representing students. On Wednesday, Nov. 18, approximately 500 students surrounded the Regents’ meeting in Covel Commons; on Thursday, between 1000 and 2000 students from across the UCs descended on the meeting room.
Officers from the UCLA Police Department comprised the majority of police circulating around Covel Commons who were charged with keeping the peace of the meeting and protest surrounding Covel Commons, of which union leaders had given UCLAPD ample warning. But UCLA was not alone; officers from other UC police departments were summoned to bolster the peacekeeping force, including officers from UC San Francisco, UC Santa Barbara and 10 officers from UCI, which is approximately one-third of UCIPD’s police force.
Although the Regents’ agenda began on Tuesday, students made a much greater showing on Wednesday for the first vote on the proposed 32 percent increase in student fees, with a select group of students, service workers and members of the UC community allowed inside Covel Commons to sit in on the meeting and make comments during the allotted public comment duration at 8:30 a.m. Despite the Regents doubling the prearranged public comment time up to 40 minutes, people in the public gallery repeatedly interrupted Chairman Russell Gould, who attempted to continue with the Regents meeting agenda while members of the public gallery cried for more members of the UC community to share their stories.
ASUCI Executive Vice President Sarah Bana was the first to speak, bringing with her 150 signed letters from UCI students protesting the fee increases.
“It is really important for you [Regents] to realize that you are jeopardizing California’s future,” Bana said. “Please don’t make the students bailout the UC!”
The stories were varied and came from students, service workers, teaching assistants and professors.
“I am here representing the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year. I’m here representing all the students who already have to work two jobs to pay tuition, and we cannot add to that,” said a third year political science and global studies major at UCLA who introduced herself as Sophia.
“I am pleading with you and challenging you – please keep this education affordable and accessible for all of us. I want to be a part of UC and I want to represent blue and gold for the rest of my life. Please allow me to do that,” Sophia said.
Members of the public gallery sporadically interjected comments during Regent business, until Chairman Gould gave them a final warning. Shortly thereafter, chants of “Whose University? Our University!” and “Chop From The Top!” from many in the public gallery led Gould to call for the removal of the offending members.
At approximately 10 a.m., the public comment area was declared an unlawful assembly and under Penal Code 409 any person not exiting would be subject to arrest. Six students and two other members of the UC community stayed behind and chanted, “We Shall Overcome” until officers lead them into the hall and handcuffed them.
Meanwhile, the students outside had begun to chant and yell, surrounding Covel Commons and requiring the police officers in front of the building to deploy metal barriers. Some students began pelting the officers with signs, water bottles and food. Officers proceeded to don riot gear, including helmets and batons, and held back a charge of students that rallied together to enter the building by force. Afterward, the officers forced back the chanting crowd and established a six-foot gap between students and police, which some student leaders attempted to uphold.
Due to the disturbances, which included another pause to declare the public gallery an unlawful assembly as well as the arrest of six more students, the vote on the Finance Committee’s proposal for a 32 percent increase in student fees was delayed until approximately 12:30 p.m. Chair of UC Council for Student Fees Calvin Sung and UC Student Association President Victor Sanchez were given time to plea on behalf of students for the Regents to vote “no.”
“What needs to be addressed are the full consequences of the action you are going to take,” Sung said. “You are basically imposing a tax on the future of California – a tax that will stick in their minds and remember that they received no benefit out of this additional tax to their education.”
“How can we ask these students to come back and donate … if they feel they already paid their dues to this campus when the state didn’t?” Sung said.
Wednesday’s vote was for the approval of a 15 percent or $585 mid-year increase to undergraduate fees and a $111 or 2.6 percent increase for graduate academic degree students, followed by another rise of 15 percent or $1334 for both resident undergraduates and graduate students starting in summer 2010. The vote was not for the entire board of Regents, only the Committee on Finance, which consists of nine UC Regents including Bernal. Bernal was the only dissenting vote in an otherwise unanimous approval of the measure.
Wednesday night featured Crisis Fest at 5 p.m., an educational and entertainment venue for students who wished to spend the night for the next morning’s protest. UCSA and other student organizations erected a tent city in Pauley Pavilion to house the event.
Thursday brought even more students to UCLA, including around 100 UCI students, which was double Wednesday’s figure. ASUCI arranged rides before Wednesday and Thursday’s meeting, bussing in those who did not have a ride.
UC Regents learned from the disturbances the day before and held a limited public comment after the morning’s passed vote to create a private nonprofit corporation to reopen and run Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital. Five students were selected to go, including second-year biological sciences major and UCI student Branden Hawara.
“Instead of saving the UC system they’re essentially killing thousands of students’ dreams. They need to stop financially harassing us because it’s getting to a point where it’s uncontrollable and we’re not going to be able to turn back,” Hawara said. “Everything the UC system stands for now will be lost.”
The Regents stopped public comments shortly after Hawara finished, and the public comment gallery again erupted in chants, yelling “Let them speak!” Hawara and the remaining students exited the building before police removed them and joined the protest outside.
At 12:45 p.m., the Regents voted to approve the plan supported by the Committee on Finance the day before to raise student fees. Once again, Bernal was the only opposing vote, with a separate vote for raising graduate professional fees opposed only by Bernal and Regent George Marcus. Jesse Cheng, as student regent-designate, attends UC Regent meetings but does not have the power to vote like the current student regent.
“I’m really upset about the vote. It’s devastating,” Cheng said. “Whether [the fee increase] was necessary or not, it was a step away from the core values of the University.”
By texting friends still inside of the Regents meeting as well as checking the Twitter and blog updates of Regent activity by Bernal, Cheng and the media inside, students were alerted to the end of the Regents meeting and made a human chain around Covel Commons, giving way only when forced apart by police to clear a path for the Regents. Some students broke off and followed the Regents. Hawara was part of one such group that followed Regents, chanting and asking them why the fee increase was necessary. When his group saw another group of Regents, Hawara ran after him.
“As soon as we got near them, they pepper bombed and teargassed us, so we backed away from that,” Hawara said. Hawara described the effects as stinging and blurred vision, and had trouble breathing until a fellow protestor lent him her vinegar-soaked handkerchief, which were brought in anticipation of the teargas.
Reports of injury are varied, although at least two people sustained minor injuries on Wednesday. Students described police brandishing batons and occasionally tasers. Some students were tasered, though none yet reported were from UCI.
“The UCPD’s responsibility is to protect the Regents and students, but that becomes difficult with so many people,” UCLAPD spokesmen Nancy Greenstein said.
Greenstein confirmed some use of tasers and pepper spray on Wednesday and Thursday, but insisted that there was minimal use of both, if any.
The silver lining for the bleak passage of the fee increases resides in the increased maximum limit of Yudof’s Blue and Gold program, which intends to have all system-wide fees covered for qualifying California undergraduates with financial need and family income under $70,000 (previously $60,000).
According to a UC news press release, UC’s budget plan for 2010-11 seeks an increase of $913 million in state general funds, of which $332 million would be used to restore programs to previous levels and hire more faculty, as well as allocate $155.8 million to account for 14,000 students that UC does not receive funding for.
“I know this is a painful day for University students and families, but as I stand here today I can assure you this is our one best shot at preventing this recession from pulling down a great system toward mediocrity,” Yudof is quoted as saying in the aforementioned press release, handed out to the media minutes after the passage of Wednesday’s vote on the student fee increase.
Now that the vote is over, the Regents are encouraging students to join them in petitioning Sacramento to renew its investment in the UC system.
“We showed that we were there and we really care about the issues and that we’re interested in working with the state to change the future of UC,” Bana said.
Hawara pledged to join the struggle in Sacramento and is planning marches at UCI to during Martin Luther King, Jr. week with the Cross Cultural Center to synch the student movement with Dr. King’s efforts and message of peaceful protest.
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