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2011-11-29

Occupy Student Debt: Students Urged to Refuse to Pay Off Loans as Schools Hike Tuition

Guests

Pamela Brown, Ph.D. student in sociology at The New School who’s helped launch the Occupy Student Debt Campaign "Pledge of Refusal."

Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. His books include Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times.

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Monday was a day of action for university students on both coasts angered by the rising cost of tuition and the crackdowns on their recent protests. In California, students temporarily shut down a meeting of the University of California Board of Regents to protest a series of tuition hikes and the violent response to protests at UC Berkeley and UC Davis. Wary of a massive demonstration, the regents met by conference call from four different campuses but were still forced to switch venues after being confronted by chanting students at three of the four sites. In New York City, about a thousand students marched outside a meeting where City University of New York trustees voted to authorize annual tuition increases through 2015. The protests were the latest in a long-running battle against tuition hikes and education cuts that originated on UC campuses two years ago and quickly spread across the country. We speak with two guests who helped launch the Occupy Student Debt Campaign "Pledge of Refusal," which asks student signatories to refuse their student loan debt until a number of education reforms are implemented, including free public education. Pamela Brown is a Ph.D. student in sociology at The New School, and Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue to talk about protests in another way. Well, Monday was a day of action for university students on both coasts of the United States angered by the rising cost of tuition and the crackdowns on their recent protests. In California, students temporarily shut down a meeting of the UC Board of Regents to protest a series of tuition hikes and the violent response to protests at UC Berkeley and UC Davis. Wary of a massive demonstration, the regents met by conference call from four different campuses but were still forced to switch venues after being confronted by chanting students at three of the four sites.

Meanwhile, here in New York, about a thousand students marched outside a meeting where City University of New York trustees voted to authorize annual tuition increases through 2015. This is Julian Guerrero of Students United for a Free CUNY.

JULIAN GUERRERO: [echoed by the People’s Mic] Me, myself, I’m in debt $70,000. I actually got a letter from Sallie Mae saying that if I don’t start paying today $900 a month, they’re going to have more aggressive attempts at collecting my debt. And so, I’m going to burn this right here and now.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Julian Guerrero, among four people arrested at last night’s protest, burning a letter from Fannie Mae about student debt. Thanks to Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor for that footage.

Well, Monday’s actions were the latest in a long-running battle against tuition hikes and education cuts that originated on UC campuses two years ago and quickly spread across the country.

I’m joined now by two guests. Pamela Brown is a Ph.D. student in sociology at The New School who has helped launch the Occupy Student Debt Campaign "Pledge of Refusal," which asks student signatories to refuse their student loan debt until a number of education reforms are implemented, including free public education. And I’m joined by Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University working with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign.

Welcome both to Democracy Now! Pam, explain the campaign, what you’re trying to do.

PAMELA BROWN: Well, the campaign involves taking a Pledge of Refusal. And at the time that we would gather one million pledgers, then we would, in essence, have a debt strike.

AMY GOODMAN: How many pledges do you have so far? How many signatures?

PAMELA BROWN: Well, in less than a week, we’ve already amassed almost 1,200 signatures, last I checked, and it’s constantly growing, and we’ve barely rolled out this campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are people committing to when they sign?

PAMELA BROWN: People are committing to, once we reach one million signatures, that they would refuse to continue paying, refuse to continue to be complicit, in the devastating student loan system that we have today.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Ross, talk about the student loan system.

ANDREW ROSS: Well, our universities are increasingly dependent on what is essentially the debt bondage of the very people that they’re supposed to serve. This is the case nationwide, and it’s an intolerable and unsustainable system. I think there’s a great degree of public recognition about the soaring costs of higher education, but there isn’t a lot of awareness about the debt bondage upon which it is actually based. And I think that extends into the ranks of university teachers themselves, who are loath to dwell on this aspect of their employment.

AMY GOODMAN: Because?

ANDREW ROSS: Because it affects the way they think about their salaries. I mean, our salaries are, to some degree, dependent on our students going into debt that is essentially unpayable at this point. Now, I’m not suggesting that faculty salaries are the reason for the surging costs in higher education. That’s another issue. But I think it’s the question of awareness here that we’re trying to raise with the campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Pam Brown, talk about how the student debt issue relates to Occupy Wall Street, the whole movement.

PAMELA BROWN: Right. Well, I think the student issue is actually incredibly critical to the underlying ideas behind Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street has attacked the inequality in our social system, widely, and student loans are a critical juncture where that inequality is developed. If you take a look, you can see that students go into this debt generally before they’re even of legal drinking age. So, students are incurring huge amounts of debt before they’re even allowed to drink. So, when you think about it, it’s really crazy. And this debt carries with them an entire lifetime. Over the course of the ’90s, all consumer protections were stripped away. You cannot go bankrupt. You cannot go bankrupt from private or public loans. And our government has actually enabled that system to occur.

AMY GOODMAN: The racial dimensions of this?

PAMELA BROWN: Well, if you see, CUNY students are protesting right now. CUNY is really an interesting—

AMY GOODMAN: City University of New York.

PAMELA BROWN: City University of New York is a really interesting place, because it actually graduates more African-American students than all of the historically black colleges combined. So, when you increase tuition at a location liked CUNY, what actually occurs, long term, is increased inequality. This is part and parcel with the shifting burden that we’ve seen over the last 30 years, where the costs of education are now beared by students, are now beared by individuals, rather than the public, which is how that system used to be. In fact, CUNY was actually a free school up until, I believe it was 1976.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you both for being with us. The website that you’ve developed?

PAMELA BROWN: It’s occupystudentdebtcampaign.org

AMY GOODMAN: Pam Brown and Andrew Ross of New York University and The New School, thanks for being with us.

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