This is how a great university dies

It sounded promising, the loud drum rhythm outside my office window. The first day of class and already the protests against tuition hikes were beginning! At least that’s what I fantasized.

Of course, the drums did not represent an opening salvo of a full-blown protest movement against the huge raise in tuition once again imposed on UC students as they begin a new year. It was just a student organization looking to attract passers-by to its table along Ring Road.

But surely, someone must be protesting? I thought. There must be at least three dozen booths on Ring Road. With tuition rising over 17 percent in the last year, courses and TAships cut, sections more crowded, less staff to handle increased demand — except at the senior administration level, which somehow keeps growing without rhyme or reason — surely students were no longer going to take the situation laying down.

The students obviously care enough about something to take time out of their schedules to sit there for hours and talk to strangers; otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.

And sure enough, it turned out that a few hundred students were protesting at that very moment. But up at Berkeley. At Irvine, and the other campuses, nothing. Not a single booth in my tour of Ring Road or a single protester addressing the slow destruction of the world’s greatest public university.

How can that be?

I decided to ask students at various booths what their organizations, who were so enthusiastically focused on recruiting new fraternity members, evangelizing to fellow students, or raising money, what they were doing about the tuition hikes. The answers I received were as telling as they were depressing.

Not a single student out of almost two dozen booths I visited even answered my question with an immediate recognition of the question of the tuition hikes. The idea seems was so far from their mind that every person needed prodding before they could attempt to answer the question. And when they did, not a single student believed there was anything they could, and even should, do about it even though no one was happy about the situation.

A Bit of History

In 1989, when I was a student at Hunter College in New York City, then Governor Mario Cuomo proposed budget cuts along with a relatively small tuition increase of our tuition to handle an $18 million dollar deficit. The response of students? To take over an administration building, boycott classes and demonstrate outside the governor’s office at the World Trade Center. We even blocked traffic outside the Lexington Avenue, Manhattan campus during rush hour, and at least 100 students locked and occupied a huge swath of one of the main buildings.

Within a week or so, the majority of the campuses of the City University of New York and the  State University of New York system were occupied; at Hunter, I remember we took over the admin building and the library (but still let students in and out, if memory serves me right).

Soon after that we marched downtown, almost 10,000 strong, and generally made such a mess of things that Governor Cuomo vetoed his own proposal for tuition increases, at least for that year. When the state tried to raise tuition and cut the budget again the next year, the whole process started over and didn’t give up until they had won a stronger voice in various school issue. Of course, over time tuition continued to rise at Hunter and other CUNY schools, but the rise occurred in direct proportion to the lowering of student activism.

Hunter College was in many ways a lot like UC Irvine. It was a top public institution, with a very diverse, majority first-generation immigrant population, and a distinguished faculty. I couldn’t imagine having studied anywhere else. When the state threatened to make the first-rate education that Hunter College and our sister CUNY and SUNY schools received out of reach of so many of us, we fought back, no holds barred, and forced the government to slow down and take our needs into consideration.

Why is this generation of students so compliant? So willing to pay more for less and unwilling to stand up for the right to an affordable education and a great university?

A Lot of Reasons, But Are They Valid?

In my no doubt unscientific poll of students — maybe some grad students in political science or sociology could do a more formal poll — I began with the fraternities lined up in front of the administration building. No one was planning to do anything at all. “What can we do?” one asked. I told them the story about how Hunter students responded back in the day and motioned to the admin building behind them. “You can start there,” I said. They looked at me like I was from the moon.

I went across the lane to another organization, they also felt similarly uninformed and un-empowered, although they politely thanked me for bringing it to their attention. “Don’t you realize you’re going to leave here with upwards of $100,000 in debt and no good job prospects?” I asked. They didn’t have an answer, although one student admitted, “It doesn’t matter, the government is paying for it anyway.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, so he added, “financial aid” — the best proof yet that the Regent’s plan to take care of the lower-income students at the expense of the middle class is working well, it seems.

I stopped by a mock trial group and asked them what they were planning to do. After all, as future lawyers, it would seem a bit of activism would serve them well. “Good idea,” one said, half-heartedly, before going back to speaking with friends. I went to some ethnic organizations selling various foods from their cultures: nothing, nada, niente.

I asked a few of the ubiquitous Christian groups what they were going to do, reminding them that Jesus was something of an activist rabble-rouser himself, toppling over the money-changers tables in front the Temple. “He was an activist for His Father’s house,” one student replied.

I should have asked him what he was doing handing out flyers here if UCI isn’t also in some sense part of God’s domain, but another student joined the conversation and declared, “We’d get arrested. Protesting is illegal!” I couldn’t believe he thought that, but when I pushed him he explained, “they … the janitors … take down signs all the time if anyone puts them up against tuition hikes. They even took down balloons last year.”

I didn’t know what was sadder, the fact that this might be true, or the fact that the mere act of removing signs against the tuition hikes was enough to stop people from protesting, when it should have driven them to protest even harder. “But we’d get arrested. And then it wouldn’t make it much harder to get a job. All one cop would have to do is be in a bad mood and say we assaulted him and we’d have a felony on our record.”

Again, which is sadder, thinking our UCI police officers would do that, or the fact that in fact campuses across UC and the country have so successfully criminalized dissent and civil disobedience that kids won’t even consider doing it for fear of destroying their future (look at what happened to the Irvine 11, for doing something that wouldn’t have even gotten them ejected back at Hunter College)?

“It’s a good system,” I said, and before I could finish, the student added, “yeah, for them.”

Faculty AWOL

Of course, faculty are doing little more than students, and it’s really shameful that we, who have the most invested in this institution, are for the most part sitting by while it withers. Who among us is willing to risk anything to help students and staff protect their rights, their education and their jobs? And what are we doing to preserve our departments and programs? How many of us have traveled to Sacramento? Tried to unionize or at least join the Irvine Faculty Association? Encouraged or joined a walk-out or strike on behalf of lowering tuition, raising taxes or other measures necessary to return the University to full funding?

Are we really that powerless? Have we really given up on the idea of shared governance when it matters most? Or are we all sitting in the privacy of our offices scanning the “Chronicle of Higher Ed” and hoping a job opens up somewhere else with decent weather and a better endowment? Or do we just not really care?

It is clear that the UCOP and Regents are prepared to let the UC as a public institution die in all but name. The privatization of the country’s, and perhaps, the world’s, greatest public university is happening before our collective eyes and neither the students nor the faculty are doing much to stop it. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the students too much, being that they are ultimately only here for a few years, before moving on to full adulthood. But faculty are older, wiser and for the most part have security of employment. Shouldn’t we both know better and be willing to do something to save an institution that has given us such a privileged life?

What message are we sending to the top of Aldrich Hall when on the first day of school not one placard is raised against yet another round of tuition hikes and cuts, by students or faculty? What message are we sending to Sacramento other than go ahead and keep raising tuition, cutting services and bleeding the University. No one down here is going to put up much of a fight.

This is how a great university dies. And we will all share the blame if we don’t stand up and stop this madness before it’s too late.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UCI and Chair of the Irvine Faculty Association. He can be reached at mlevine@uci.edu.