UC Students Faculty, Staff Protest Board of Regents

by Jonathan Nathan on November 29, 2011

As thousands of students, faculty members, and activists gathered at the campuses of the University of California at Davis, Merced, and Los Angeles, about 50 concerned demonstrators squeezed into the main venue of a four-way teleconferenced Board of Regents meeting at the UCSF-Mission Bay campus on Monday morning to make their voices heard. The meeting had initially been slated to take place in the middle of the month, but the Board was concerned about protesters angered by tuition-hike proposals, and rescheduled for just after the Thanksgiving weekend, a time when many students are out of state for the holiday.

The move did little to quell the gathering dissident movement among UC students, thousands of whom gathered for a general strike at the Davis campus, and hundreds more of whom demonstrated at Merced and Los Angeles. After opening remarks from a beleaguered Board of Regents, obviously intended to align the executives with the protesters by calling for better education funding at the state level, students and teachers engaged in public comment for several hours. The format was extremely limited, with most speakers getting a minute or less to delineate their grievances, but condemnation of the Board was all but universal.

Among the more notable entries in the morning’s discussion came from Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, who spoke just before public comment began. Perez condemned police violence at UC Davis last week, saying that if the officers had not acted in accordance with UC policy then they needed to be disciplined severely, and that if they had acted in accordance with UC policy then UC policy must be reconsidered. The Speaker also decried recent “collective decisions” that, he says, have been made as a state that have led California “away from its core values.” He insisted that he is firmly committed to a free public education for all Californians, and urged voters to put pressure on Republican legislators who have systematically blocked efforts to fully fund higher education.

Then came public comment, with speakers teleconferencing in from meeting locations at all four participating campuses. The first commenter, one of the students who had been pepper-sprayed by police during the demonstrations at UC Davis, pointed out that the University has been shifting funds, for years, from education-related expenses to capital and private investments, one of many recurring themes of the morning. Another speaker from Davis demanded a democratized decision-making process. One speaker decried as broken a system in which, “chancellors make $400,000 but teachers have to buy paper [and] students are considering dropping out because they can’t afford to go to an in-state public university.”

Jordan Carroll, another student, introduced a pledge to re-fund California’s higher education system and called upon all the Regents and assembled policymakers to sign the document. None did, although Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom said he was in complete support of everything the protesters were calling for and would fight for the measures. When the meeting was shut down and moved behind closed doors late in the morning in an effort to silence demonstrators, Newsom chose to stay behind with “the people’s Regents meeting” in the original conference room rather than join his colleagues.

Meanwhile, dissension among UC staff and faculty ran rampant. Stories and anecdotes rippled through the assembled crowd. One med school employee told of the current med school president leveraging a phone call from an unnamed Ivy League institution, inquiring into his availability to join their faculty, into a $200,000 annual raise. This, while tuitions are hiked on students who supposedly are entitled to a tuition-free education. An emeritus professor addressed the public comment teleconference by asking, rhetorically, “Is there a logical, moral, political maximum” proportion of a student’s education that the student can be allowed to pay He answered the question himself: “Yes! 100%!” before going on to explain that students now pay significantly more than 100% of the costs of their education.

Charlie Eaton, a key organizer of the day’s demonstrations, called on Regents to not only sign the Re-Fund California Education pledge, but also to go back to their acquaintances, friends, and networks in the corporate and banking world and urge widespread support for higher taxes on the top 1% of earners and on corporations, on both income and real property value. Later, Eaton said that the Regents “showed where they stand today” by retreating behind closed doors in the face of public protest and comment.

The prevalent theme was one of shameful dereliction of duty. The Regents were routinely accused of being corporate banking cronies, of not caring about California education, of having misplaced fiscal priorities. Clearly feeling the heat, many of the executives attempted, after public comment had ended, to align themselves with the protesters, some even going so far as to call for protests of their own in Sacramento. But the Regents continued to deflect all blame onto Sacramento politicians, accepting no responsibility for their own choices. Eventually, the meeting was shut down at all four locations, and those executives present at UCSF-Mission Bay, just barely enough to keep quorum intact, relocated to a new conference room behind closed doors and did not allow the public inside. At this time, police refused entry into the building to anyone and everyone.

Daniel Buch, a professor at UC Berkeley, explained, “The Regents meeting showed that the UC community is unequivocal in expressing outrage and disgust. People are terribly upset with police actions, with police violence, and with the university’s fiscal trajectory.” Buch also noted that “The only Regent who didn’t flee [to the closed-doors meeting] was the only Regent who was elected to his position,” referring to Newsom.

Newsom himself eventually came outside to speak with several demonstrators personally. He pointed out that even under Governor Schwarzenegger, with the state facing a $19 million shortfall, sufficient funds had been found for schools. “It can be done,” he insisted. He added, “As concerned as I am about what’s going on here, I’m much more worried about he CSU. It’s rudderless right now.” Newsom agreed with demonstrators that the Regents meetings should be made more accessible and democratized, and openly criticized the way that meetings at both UC and CSU had been handled.

“We’ve changed the debate from ‘What do you cut?’ to ‘Who pays for education?’” said Eaton as the events at UCSF wound down. Eaton himself was on his way over to UC Berkeley, where students and faculty were preparing to debate resolutions to express a lack of confidence in UC leadership on police brutality and fiscal issues. “This movement has only grown, and will only continue to grow. It’s an international movement now.”

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