Why Are We Destroying Public Education? University of California Students and Staff Prepare for System-Wide Strike to Protest Cuts

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The governing body of the University of California system, the Board of Regents, is preparing to vote on a major tuition hike for both undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduate tuition would rise an average 32 percent, while some graduate schools would begin charging thousands of dollars for programs that are currently tuition-free. The Regents are meeting Thursday at UCLA, where students from across the state are converging for what organizers have dubbed a "Crisis Fest," including mass protests, civil disobedience and teach-ins. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: For our first segment today, a pivotal battle over public education here in the state of California. The governing body of the UC system, the Board of Regents, is set to vote on a major tuition hike for both undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduate tuition would rise an average 32 percent, while some graduate schools would begin charging thousands of dollars for programs that are currently tuition-free. The Regents are also expected to approve a new round of layoffs, furloughs and other spending cuts.

The Regents are meeting Thursday at UCLA, where students from across the state are converging for what organizers have dubbed a “Crisis Fest,” including mass protests, civil disobedience and teach-ins. Here in the Bay Area, students and university workers at UC Berkeley have called a three-day strike that begins on Wednesday. Two unions, the University Professional and Technical Employees and Coalition of University Employees, will be walking off the job to protest what they call the UC system’s unfair labor practices. Dozens of faculty members have also signed on to support the strike.

For more, we’re joined by four guests who have been involved in the calls for affordable and accessible education at the UC, University of California, schools.

Ananya Roy is professor in the Department of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She is canceling her classes to take part in this week’s strike.

Laura Nader is a professor of social cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley, where she’s taught for nearly fifty years. Earlier this year she co-authored a measure approved by the UC Berkeley Academic Senate calling on the school’s athletics program to become self-sufficient and stop receiving subsidies from student fees.

Blanca Misse is with us, a UC Berkeley graduate student and organizer with the Student Worker Action Team.

And Michael Cohen, a lecturer in American studies at UC Berkeley and co-chair of the Solidarity Alliance, which issued the call for this week’s strike.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

This is a major situation that has developed across California, instructive for everyone. I want to begin with Ananya Roy, if you can lay out the situation.

ANANYA ROY: Well, I think there is a very real crisis in California, where continuing budget cuts have devastated the infrastructure of public education, and we have a governor who continues to call for deeper and deeper budget cuts, even though there is nothing left to cut. So we’re clearly fighting for the ideal of public education. We’re fighting for the opportunity of Californians and Americans to get a decent education. But we’re also fighting for the future of our particular university, the UC system, and we’re fighting to be represented by leaders who believe in and can defend the mission of public education.

I think what has been quite unique about the struggle is the coming together of students, faculty and workers to do so. This particular moment before us is one where students face unprecedented fee hikes, and this is very much, therefore, also a student strike, students fighting for their own future and for the future of the next generation of students.

AMY GOODMAN: Blanca Misse, can you talk about the kind of organizing that the students are doing right now?

BLANCA MISSE: Yeah. So, students began organizing in the summer with the workers against the cuts, but they started really organizing when the school started at the end of August. And the kind of organizing is very diverse, because it represents the diversity in our campus. We have — we started general assemblies, where all the students can come, discuss and vote together what they want to do in a democratic way. And this assembly has called for the 24th walkout and endorsed the call of the strike of the unions, of the grad students.

But we also are working with other groups that were organizing in the university for years, that have been dismissed by the administration of the university for years, especially the groups of students of color that have been fighting against the racist procedures of the university, where a majority of community of color is excluded from our university. We have only like one percent of Native Americans and three percent of African Americans. So all these groups are getting into this fight against the budget cuts.

And we are calling to go on strike these three days. Many things are prepared for these three days. One of the big — the most important part will be canceling the classes and having the students walking out and participating in rallies and actions, but we also are going to organize with the faculty these alternative university teach-ins, thinking what will be the university of the future, what kind of public university we want to see on our campus.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the September 24th walkout follow-up? What happened then?

BLANCA MISSE: So, after the walkout that gathered 5,000 people in Sproul, we host an assembly with all the students that want to get involved. And we’ve been meeting like every week, all the undergrads and grad students, but we also tried to contact all the other student groups and tried to organize even by buildings. For example, the buildings of social sciences and humanities have host building meetings and teach-ins, so we can build like base solidarity with lecturers and the staff that have been laid off in our departments. We can hear from the unions. We can hear from the faculty who want to talk also about how they see the university changing or what kind of university they would like to have.

And basically we’ve — and also we have been doing outreach to the rest of sectors of public education. One of the major efforts after the walkout was to organize a education conference, mobilizing conference, on October 24th, one month later, at UC Berkeley, that gathered 800 students and teachers and workers from public education, because we want to do this fight together, as Ananya said. We are also hit by this crisis of the state of California, but we’re not the only ones, and we don’t want the state to divide us again, to say “We have to take money from the community colleges to give to the UCs, or take money of the UCs to give to the Cal States.” We want to be united in this fight. So we started also the dialogue with other sectors of public education.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Cohen, what is the Solidarity Alliance?

MICHAEL COHEN: The Solidarity Alliance grew out of a, initially, faculty project of protesting the seizure of emergency powers by UC President Mark Yudof. They began to coalesce and discuss some possible responses and began an effort to reach out to other constituencies on campus. As soon as the unions on the campus learned that there were faculty interested in joining cause, the Solidarity Alliance grew rapidly and into a sizable organization that represents all the heads of the local unions on campus. Most of the student groups of one kind, including the ASUC, which is the student government bodies, but also the bridges, recruitment and retention centers, the students of color organizations, the General Assembly and SWAT are also members. And group members of — individual members of the organization SAVE, which is the faculty group, have joined us.

And we are a consortium, or we are an alliance of individual groups that have come together, because we understand that in solidarity, in joining common cause, we have strength enough to fight this, that the university’s typical procedures are to divide the faculty from the workers and divide the workers from the students and to divide the students from the faculty. And as long as the three groups remain strong and are — show their solidarity with one another, we represent a formidable force on campus. And so, we have — believe that we have the strength and the position to call for this strike.

And many have joined us, and it has spread to the entire UC system. And we believe that not only at UC Berkeley do we — are we strong, but we — as Blanca said, we need to expand beyond. I think we recognize quite clearly that much — the propensity for some folks at Berkeley is to seek a special dispensation, to seek a kind of exceptionalism, that UC Berkeley, you know, is the crown jewel of the UC system. And we recognize the special place of Berkeley, but we’re also very alive to the fact that the farther you get away from the steps on Sproul Plaza, the harder things are, and that in the community colleges and the Cal State system, things are in fact far worse, and that UC Berkeley and the entire UC system has a special responsibility to join the debate on behalf of public education statewide and, if possible, to lead, but at a certain point to start the conversation in a very aggressive way.

And if we have achieved anything in — with the walkout on the 24th and with this strike, we have certainly forged a strong alliance between workers, faculty and students, which is something that has never happened in the history of UC Berkeley — we’ve always been successfully divided — but also that we have begun a serious conversation about what the value and purpose of public higher education is, to restore this question of what role does the public play in all of this and what is it about Berkeley that marks it as — and the UC system, in general, that marks it as different, as special, something that needs to be both preserved and transformed, expanded, even in the conditions of this severe economic crisis. Public education is needed more now than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Nader, speaking about the history of public education, the cutbacks, the priorities, you’re an anthropologist, a social cultural anthropologist. Give us a little history on this struggle.


AMY GOODMAN: Go back as far as you want.

LAURA NADER: Now this debate has been with us as far as the beginning of the country, when Thomas Jefferson and some of the founders pointed out that you can’t have a democracy without public education. So some people disagree, and they say public education is too expensive. You have the profit model of education, or you have the public model of education. The public model says it’s a public good. The private model says it’s a private good. And it’s been going on.

So, 1868 our university was founded, and it was founded as a public good. Everybody over the age of fourteen of moral character could come to the University of California. It was meant to be free. They didn’t achieve that completely. But even in 1952, it was only $28 a semester. So we’ve gone a long way towards not achieving a free public education, although poorer countries than ours have free public education, both in Latin America and Europe. So that’s -— in 1908, the whole issue of whether you commodify education or not was raised to the fore by Thorstein Veblen, a well-known economist. It was picked up by Upton Sinclair, 1922, and he was devastating, in his critique, of all the things that we’re critiquing today.

AMY GOODMAN: Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle —-

LAURA NADER: Yeah, he wrote The Jungle.

AMY GOODMAN: —- exposing the meat-packing plants.

LAURA NADER: And this book on education was called The Goose-Step, interestingly enough. And he ran for governor and almost won. So there was a lot of ferment at that time. This is an old debate, back and forth, worth fighting for.

Now, when Obama went to China — he was in China yesterday talking to the students — one of the students said to him, “You have things in the United States we don’t have. You have great public universities. You have a democracy.” I mean, that’s what people see. At a time when the United States is in trouble over being an empire in Afghanistan and Iraq, here we’re destroying something that people all over the world admire. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Now what we need, I think, is transparency. Charlie Schwartz in the Physics Department has been calling for this for over a decade, trying to get the numbers that are always hidden away, etc. We need transparency about such things as intercollegiate sports, which is a problem all over the country. And Brian Barsky and Alice Agogino, these are people in computer studies and engineering, they can add the figures, and the figures don’t make sense.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

LAURA NADER: The figures, it’s supposed to be — intercollegiate is supposed to bring in money to the university.


LAURA NADER: In fact, they’re in debt, intercollegiate sports. So we’re subsidizing, the student fees are subsidizing intercollegiate sports. And we’re closing libraries. So we had — the libraries are supposed to be closed on Saturdays. There were some students that sat in, professors that spoke. And a wonderful donor, anonymous, gave money to keep the libraries open on Saturday, but the university didn’t fall into line and open the libraries on Saturday. So these are issues of transparency and accountability, fiscal accountability, that are very important today.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Roy, what is differentiated education?

ANANYA ROY: Differentiated education is one where there are differential fees imposed on students in particular disciplines and professions, and this seems to be an expanding option for our Board of Regents and for our administrators, so the imposition of fees on students in what are seen to be high-value disciplines and professions, the arguments being that those getting a professional degree from law or business, now from city planning or architecture, can somehow earn more, and therefore they should pay a higher fee. I’ve been talking about this as differentiated education, because it’s similar to the creation of toll roads, to say you have to pay a toll to enter this particular enclave.

What is quite stunning then this week is that the Board of Regents will not only vote on the undergraduate fee hike, which will have huge consequences on access to public education, but it will also most likely approve the expansion of differential fees in a host of graduate programs throughout the UC system. And in some cases, the Regents will have to violate their own policy that prevents fees in graduate programs from being higher than those in competing public universities. In other words, the trustees of university policy will declare exceptions to that policy and perhaps ultimately discard that policy in order to create this differentiated education.

Now, I have to note that about two months ago, the Regents were talking about differentiated education and differential fees at the undergraduate level in disciplines like business and engineering. And they have now seemed to have backed away from that, and perhaps one of the reasons for that has been the mobilization around these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nader, for the last five years Governor Schwarzenegger has attempted to eliminate funding for the UC, University of California, labor programs. Can you talk about this? Pressured by right-wing Republicans and other opponents of labor around the issue of the labor movement?

LAURA NADER: Well, you have to see that in perspective also. The University of California has been dubbed one of the worst employers in the state, and that’s been for a long time. So, Governor Schwarzenegger worsens that situation by his dealings with labor issues. I mean, people are working for the university because they love public university and want to do something, but they shouldn’t be taken advantage of to the degree that they are.

AMY GOODMAN: The proposal of the State Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, who has proposed an oil severance tax to benefit higher education, Professor Roy?

ANANYA ROY: Yes, we had an important event on campus on October 26, organized by faculty, students and workers. And this is an important proposal, because in fact it shows that there are ways of creating revenue streams for public higher education in California. It’s important that, in fact, these funds would be divided among the UC system, the community colleges and the California State University system. This is not perhaps the silver bullet that will solve the problem of public higher education in California, but it demonstrates that we have state politicians who are willing to step up and come forward with solutions. I think what has been perplexing for us is how and why UC administrators have not, until now, been in conversation with some of these state politicians around these proposals. In some ways, it is the movement that has done the work for UC administrators, brought the state politicians to campus, formed these alliances, and we look forward to doing a lot more of this.

LAURA NADER: But isn’t the reason that the corporatization of the university? You distance yourself —-

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by that?

LAURA NADER: That means that you give preference to companies like BP to come on the campus, Novartis before BP, and you want to get private money so that they can call the tune. I mean, the head of the Regents set up an institute, which you know, in the University to study poverty. And who decided that? He just gave them money, and he wanted to do poverty and development and so forth. So who’s calling the tune? Who’s deciding what an educational institution should be? The donors? We’re supposed to have arms linked to have a good, good university. We don’t have arms linked. If they had -— if they taxed the oil companies in California, we’d get a billion dollars a year just from that. So there’s no effort being made by — I think that’s what Ananya is saying — by the university to connect with the legislature and with the tax people to see how can we raise revenues for our purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Cohen?

MICHAEL COHEN: Well, I think that this is important. I mean, the state of California has real problems with its revenue streams, in terms of its taxation policies and the like. And we’ve seen, as your headlines indicated there, the crisis is quite real here. And this isn’t something that is exclusively about university policy. This is about students in classrooms and workers who are being laid off, their unions are being busted, so that, you know, enormous bailouts can be given to private capital firms in California and on Wall Street, and yet the public education system has to suffer. And this bill that is coming due for undergraduates and that the wages that are being suppressed for janitors and for building maintenance workers and technical and clerical staff, that burden is being passed onto us, to the most vulnerable members of the state of California and to the most vulnerable workers at the University of California.

And so, we — they are going on strike to oppose this, to resist this. The workloads that are being imposed upon those who survive are so onerous, they are desperately afraid to keep their job. And it’s a tremendous act of bravery for the unions on the campus. And I’m a member of AFT. Blanca is a member of the United Auto Workers. That the unions are very strong on campus, but they’re desperately pressed right now in a way that it behooves the rest of us to stand up to come to their common defense.

I mean, our students are, as well. They come to my classes. We ask them, “How many of you are going to be affected by a 32 percent fee increase?” And many of them — and it is overwhelming the students of color, the transfer students who come from the community colleges, the first-generation college students, the returning students, the student parents, all of them, that universally raise their hand and say, “If they raise my student fees over $10,000, I will probably not be back next year.” And we have to ask, will there be space in the CSUs? They’re cutting 40,000 people from their enrollment. Will there be space from the community colleges? They’re going to vote in January to eliminate their summer quarter, a full 25 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the CSUs.

MICHAEL COHEN: Sorry, the Cal State schools — San Francisco State, Cal State East Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: And the difference between the Cal State schools and the UC schools, the University of California?

MICHAEL COHEN: There’s a — the master plan of higher education is a three-tier system in the state of California. The community colleges are the largest, and they are required, by policy, to accept all comers. The Cal State system as the second-tier system, and it’s — they’re very — there’s a much larger number. I’m not sure. Perhaps Professor Nader knows the exact number. And then there are ten UC schools, the University of California system, that ranges from Riverside to Irvine to UCLA to Berkeley. And it’s understood as a kind of, you know, hierarchy and this tiered system.

But if you whittle away at the bottom, and the community colleges disappear or are dissolving, and the CSUs are dissolving and breaking apart, there isn’t going to be that funnel of students upward to the system to UCs, in general, and that ladder of social transformation, that great democratizing engine that is the Cal State, the University of California system, or California public higher education is dying. It’s being squeezed from within, because these cuts are being imposed on us, rather than tax yachts or oil extraction or reapportion the taxation system in the state of California. Workers, poor students —-

AMY GOODMAN: Does war fit into this?

MICHAEL COHEN: Clearly. I mean, California has always been an economy that based itself, you know, on war and the military-industrial complex. I think Professor Nader certainly can speak to the reason why protests at Berkeley are necessary. I think I -— briefly, I mean, protests at Berkeley are necessary, not because the water produces radicalism or that there’s something, you know, that we just do at Berkeley; it’s the nature of the institution. In the ’60s it was necessary to protest UC Berkeley, because they were developing atomic weapons. And now it is necessary to protest at UC Berkeley because of what is being forced on us.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nader?

LAURA NADER: I think Americans — Americans really need to wake up to the fact — Chris Newfield, a professor at Santa Barbara, has written a book about the destruction of public education in America. Forty years it’s taken to get to this point. But it isn’t something that just happened, and it isn’t something that was unplanned. People really do adhere to the model that this is not — shouldn’t be a public good. And if we continue in this direction, there’s going to be a two-class system: those who go to college are going to be those who can afford it, and those who don’t are going to be the middle class. And a few poor people will get a few scholarships, so they can justify it. But this is happening, and it’s a major deal. Everybody in California and across the country — this is something that people admire our country for. Why are we destroying it? It boggles the mind.

AMY GOODMAN: When I mentioned war, I meant the money that’s being spent by this country on war.

LAURA NADER: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: And Professor Roy, maybe you can comment on this and what is happening at the same time here at home with the state budgets, with our educational system. UC Berkeley is not the only one going through this. For example, the news from the University of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois: apparently, in this last week — let’s see if I can find the information — graduate teaching assistants at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign went on strike yesterday after the university refused to guarantee continuation of the teaching and grad assistant tuition waivers.

ANANYA ROY: Yes, I do think we have to see this issue in a national context. I teach a very large class on global poverty and inequality this semester, 700 students packed into a classroom at Berkeley, which is a class that will be on strike this week. How can we not be? But we, of course, look at issues of poverty and inequality here in this country, and one striking trend is that between 2002 and 2007, the years of this massive financial boom, recent studies show that two-thirds of the income gains during that economic expansion went to the top one percent of Americans. That’s stunning. But we also know the other side of that, that when that bubble burst, there were massive losses that were socialized, i.e. borne by the 99 percent, not by the one percent. So we are part of a historical moment where there is deepening inequality. And the issue is whether or not state policies, government policies at various levels, from the federal government to state governments, deepen those inequalities further, or whether in fact we can have instruments of opportunity and justice. And in this context of inequality, one doesn’t need radical instruments of redistribution. One only needs a few things, like decent public education or access to healthcare or some sort of reasonable approach that says enough of this massive spending on war.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to end — oh, yes, Professor Nader?

LAURA NADER: I just want to say, you’re making the point that everybody should be making every single day, which is we’re not connecting the trillions of dollars for war with the fact that we don’t have healthcare, and we’re now destroying public universities. Connecting the dots is absolutely important to do.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to end with Blanca Misse. Yesterday we were at the Free Speech Cafe at the University of California, Berkeley, which honors the free speech movement back to 1964. And for people who aren’t familiar with Mario Savio, who gave this famous speech, where he said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” What specifically are the actions that are happening here on the campus at UC Berkeley and also at UCLA?

BLANCA MISSE: So, at UC Berkeley, the actions — the main action is going to be the strike, which is, you know, maybe the most radical action we can take in our campus. That means picket lines in the mornings at 5:00 a.m. to shut down the construction sites, with workers and students picketing. And it’s not just picketing, like walking around; it’s also showing physical solidarity. And besides that, we’re going to have a rally at noon the Wednesday. We’re going to have a march. And we would like to get out of the UC, university, go to Berkeley City College, go to Berkeley High School, to see how we can build a real solidarity in this movement, how we can fight together for public education. And we’re going to come back and have a meeting, an assembly, to discuss how we want to move forward. There’s going to be a tent city in the campus.

Tuesday in the morning — Thursday in the morning, we’re going to do all these teach-ins and open university activities around the picket lines, so people don’t have to choose between education or a strike, because this is a strike for education, and we don’t want to enter the game of the University that we are against education by striking. We are striking because we care a lot about public education, and we care about another kind of public education maybe than the one they offer, a real public education out of the corporate model.

And there’s lots of actions that are going to be planned, but it’s important to remember that this is not only Berkeley. In UCLA, there’s going to be a huge mass protest Wednesday and Thursday to protest of the Regents meeting, to protest of the way this university is structured, the way this university functions. But also, at the conference of public education, we voted to have solidarity actions across public education for these three days of protest. So, for example, San Francisco State University is going to do a huge rally. And we don’t know what else it’s going to do. Maybe they’re going to just also walk out of the classes. We know that San Francisco City College is also going to hold a rally and a teach-in. We don’t know what other schools are going to stand in solidarity with us. So this is just the beginning, because we’re building for a massive action in the spring, March 4th. We voted to go on strike across public education.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. It’s been very interesting to come across the country on our Breaking the Sound Barrier Tour and begin right here, where there’s so much activism that’s happening, and we’ll certainly follow it through the week. We’ll be broadcasting actually tomorrow from Stanford, and then we’re moving on through California up to Washington state and Oregon. I want to thank you, Blanca Misse, for joining us, UC Berkeley graduate student, organizer of the Student Worker Action Team; Michael Cohen, lecturer in American studies at UC Berkeley, co-chair of the Solidarity Alliance, which issued the call for this week’s strike; Professor Ananya Roy is a professor in the Department of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, canceling her classes to take part in this week’s strike, no small event, considering the class is 700 students; and Professor Laura Nader, longtime professor here of anthropology at UC Berkeley, where you’ve taught for nearly half a century, earlier this year co-authored a measure approved by the UC Berkeley Academic Senate calling on the school’s athletics program to become self-sufficient and stop receiving subsidies from student fees.

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