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From Student Debt to Student Power

I recently sat down with The Daily Agenda to chat about student loan debt and how it relates to larger activist movements on- and off-campus.


Patrick St. John is a graphic designer by trade and student organizer by love. Patrick has been organizing and agitating since high school; as an undergraduate at Moravian College, he continued to agitate for student rights and power as both Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper and later as student government president (where he advocated abolishing the position).

Like so many other young Americans, he left school thousands of dollars in debt. During his off hours Patrick is still organizing and writing a book on student power. He blogs at forstudentpower.org.

We interview Patrick about the state of student debt and the prospects of breathing new life into the student movement.

DA: As student debt has now climbed to over a trillion dollars, who exactly benefits from having so many students owing so much money?

Patrick St. John: It’s always important to ask that question, because it’s certainly not the students and it’s clearly not the faculty. However one winner is the administration, including the Board of Trustees. The size of university administrations have soared over the past 40 years, far outpacing the regular growth of faculty and support staff.

There has been an increasing emphasis on running the university like a business. As a result you get a ton of administrative overhead and you get administrators who are more interested in growing the bottom line than in education. Right now a lot of campuses, especially the higher profile universities, hire President’s that have no experience in the classroom. They come from business backgrounds, or sometimes from the military or politics.

Often times funding decisions are not based on the consideration of the students or even the professors, but either the university in its quest for prestige or the vanity of big donors. You see this dynamic where trustees and other wealthy donors make donations that go into physical projects like new buildings, new facilities, or new sports stadiums. You can’t bolt a plaque onto a scholarship; but you can bolt a plaque onto a building. In the University of California system, the Regents have made it quite clear that they prefer tuition dollars over state-issued dollars, because they have much freer range in their use — so we see on campuses across the state massive physical projects, either completed and unused, or frozen in mid-construction. It’s yet another predictable result of the people most affected by university decisions having the least amount of say in making those decisions.

You also predictably see an increase in official corruption, with Trustee boards often including the heads of the very businesses the college contracts with (usually banks and construction firms).

DA: Do you detect any sort of change in what is being taught in our universities because of the increased role of private corporations in higher education?

PSJ: It’s a funny kind of feedback loop. On one end, as parents and students see rising increasing tuition combined with a sluggish economy, you see an emphasis on the “career ready majors”: the majors that are guaranteed to get a good-paying job above all else. Students begin asking themselves, “why am I taking this literature class when I could be taking another economics class?” It has that sort of effect.

On the other end of the feedback loop, universities are trying to attract more — and wealthier — students by touting the fact that “if you go here, we’re sure that you will get a job after you graduate.” There is actually an interesting case where a woman who attended a for-profit school went through school and of course racked up a ton of debt. When she graduated she sued the school because the school had essentially promised, through their advertising materials, that she would get a job. Her lawsuit failed, but the point she made is here to stay.

DA: Student loan debt rates are set to double in 8 days if Congress (at the time of this interview. It now appears that Congress will freeze student loan rates for one year). How meaningful are the Democrats’ proposals to stop this from happening?

PSJ: It’s a smart political move for Obama because he might be able to re-energize many of his supporters on his left flank. But we all need to be clear: this is not a fight between progressive and conservative policy positions. This is a fight between conservative and very conservative policy positions.

The interest rate on student loans is already too high, even at the current rate. For comparison, it’s roughly 450% more than the rate the Fed loans money to banks. The President is trying to spin this so that he can attach it to his “usual hope and change” mantra, when in reality it’s just a holding position. It’s keeping the conservative status quo intact in the face of something even more conservative and more corporate.

But there is a lot that he could do. He could lobby and push to allow student loan debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy court. This could actually energize lots of students and alumni, those who are most pro-Obama but least likely to vote. There are many Democratic Senators and Congresspeople who are more progressive than Obama on this. So it’s not like this is something out of nowhere. It doesn’t tackle the systemic problem of why higher education is so unaffordable, but consumer-side student debt reform would be a step in the right direction.

DA: Among the four demands put out by the Occupy Student Debt movement was “a one-time debt forgiveness, or “jubilee.” What would this entail?

PSJ: Wiping away all current student debt would be wonderful, and not just because I’m saddled with it myself. It’d be a huge boon for the economy, and it’s a much more helpful use of government funds than throwing trillions at banks. While it has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening, it’s still a useful demand to organize around, for two reasons. First, it engages students in a concrete way and encourages them to start thinking outside the box in terms of what is possible. Second, the act of pushing and agitating for a debt jubilee allows you to change the tone of the conversation. And it’s always a plus when you can tell conservatives that the thing you’re agitating for is right there in the Bible!

In America’s fragmented and decentralized system of higher ed, students may actually find more success tackling this issue at private colleges and state university networks. If you can establish, one way or another, a certain slice of the student population who can have their debt eliminated by the university, such as those with low-incomes, who do public service, and so on, that’s a foothold, or fulcrum, that can potentially be used to widen that slice until it encompasses all students.

But in terms of the big picture, if the person on the street or your local representative rejects the idea, you already have them talking about student debt. You can change the conversation, which is I think one of the lasting legacies of the Occupy movement: changing the political narrative not necessarily to get some 12-point plan through, but to create openings for individuals and groups to push for actual change.

DA: In an article that you wrote for ForStudentPower.org, you say that:“when electoral democracy is this broken, it's never that straightforward, and we are demobilized by thinking it is. We need to throw out the old playbook and pick up a new one (or two).”
What is the new playbook and what does it have to say about building a more vibrant democracy?

PSJ: Right. So if the framing of the problem is that the laws on the books are simply incorrect, by either mistake or malice, and that the solution is simply to correct the laws, then our paths of organizing are pretty limited. We have a sort of knee-jerk deference to people in power that often comes along with a very warped idea of how change comes about. Hopefully the protests in Québec right now will disabuse students of that deference. Québec tuition has been consistently among the lowest in the Western world for decades now, the only reason being that students and allies took to the streets in mass numbers and prevented every attempted increase, even minimal ones.

It’s also about changing the facts on the ground until elites catch up. If you look at the labor movement, workers didn’t wait until the Wagner Act in 1935 to actually start organizing unions. Everything from basic union recognition to the 8 hour work day, those were examples of Congress catching up with the facts on the ground. Huge swaths of the American workforce had fought for and won an 8 hour work day by the time Congress made it law. Many African-Americans didn’t wait until the Civil Rights Acts to eat at whichever lunch counter they wanted, or sit wherever they wanted on the bus. Through radical, direct action to change the facts on the ground, everyday people were able to spur sweeping historical changes.

All the wonderful things liberals like about the New Deal and Great Society got done by a Democratic President because he had immense pressure from his left flank in the form of more progressive Democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists — with youth in the mix in all these groups.

Unfortunately, through the fog of history, a lot of liberals think that you do not need a far left to get liberal reform done. You absolutely do. Change doesn’t come about by voting for a specific person, change comes about when whoever happens to be in office is pressured by the people to do what’s right. Obama famously told bankers in a private meeting in 2009 that he was the only one standing between them and the pitchforks. Given the state of things, and the track record of both the banks and Obama in the years since, it seems clear to me that we need a hell of a lot more people with pitchforks.

For people wanting to get involved in this fight, one of the most exciting developments is the upcoming National Student Power Convergence this August in Ohio. Students and youth from across the country will be there, and it’s where we may get a glimpse of the future of student organizing.


Read the rest of the interview at The Daily Agenda! >

Québec's Student Strike: La Lutte Continue, but What Lessons Can We Learn?

Hundreds of thousands of students march in Montréal on May 22. Photo courtesy fatseth via Flickr.

Striking university students in Québec are well into their 15th week of continuous protests. Their strike, which began primarily in opposition to student debt and the proposed 75% tuition hike, has since expanded to encompass wider critiques of both the university system itself and larger issues of austerity and neoliberal economic reform.

Québec’s hardline conservative premier, Jean Charest, several days ago pushed through a series of draconian anti-free-speech laws aimed at breaking the strike. Penalties run in the tens of thousands of dollars and up to 10 years in jail for those participating in or even promoting unpermitted protest actions; and even for protest marches that have been approved by the police, the sponsoring organization will be held liable for any and all illegal actions taken at or near the march.

In a surprise to absolutely no one but Charest, these laws have not only rekindled student participation in the strike, but sparked an even greater outrage among the general population. This past Tuesday -- the hundredth day of the strike -- an astounding number of students and allies marched in Montreal. Estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000 participants, a historic number even for Québec’s activist past. Opinion polls similarly showed a huge 18 point increase in support for students and opposition to the government.

Coop média de Montréal has an excellent run-down of Ten Points Everyone Should Know About the Quebec Student Movement, which gives the best primer I’ve yet seen on what exactly is happening -- and why. You really need to go read that now. I’ll wait.

...Done? Great! Point #3, “The student strike was organized through democratic means and with democratic aims,” is something I’d like to develop a bit further here because it’s a crucial lesson our neighbors to the north have to teach us.

Student unions exist in almost every industrialized nation in the world (except for the United States, whose students are stuck with poor imitations usually called “student governments”), and they are charged with defending and advancing student interests, both on- and off-campus. Most of Québec’s student unions are very different from student unions in the rest of Anglophone Canada: they’re directly democratic, in a way anyone familiar with Occupy Wall Street will immediately recognize:

Among the Francophone schools in Quebec, the leaders are not only elected by the students, but decisions are made through general assemblies, debate and discussion, and through the votes of the actual constituents, the members of the student associations, not just the leaders.

This use of direct, deliberative democracy is a key reason why Québécois student strikes are without exception larger, last longer, and are more successful than those elsewhere in Canada. Because strike resolutions (which happen on every university campus, and in individual academic departments as well for larger schools) can only be passed when a majority of students approve:

  • Strikes rarely happen without considerable student support;
  • Students feel more personally invested in the success of the strike; and
  • Strikes hold more legitimacy in the eyes of the officials and the greater public than protests organized by a small group.

But separate from that, and possibly more important, is the transformative and prefigurativenature of the democratic process. Genuine, grassroots, participatory democracy is uniquely potent in wiping away the patina of legitimacy that coats elected politicians and the injunctions they decree. Student assemblies are held every week, and on some campuses every night, to determine local activities and often to decide whether to continue the strike. Many have moved even further than the official demands of the strike and are calling for a more democratically-run university (a truly dangerous demand for those in power).

There are relatively few Anglophone universities in Québec, and for the most part students have more culturally and socially in common with their counterparts in other provinces than the schools down the street from them. However, for the first time in history, the Anglophone student associations at Concordia and McGill have joined the strike, an act arriving on the heels of their recent adoption of democratic decision-making structures (instead of solely elected representatives).

The strike has also spread past what we in the U.S. would think of as the university. Québec’s education system has a third institution between high school and university -- the CEGEP, which is a two-year school combining our senior year of high school and our college freshman year. Most CEGEPs and high schools also have student unions, and many of the strike’s most dedicated and energetic organizers come from their ranks. Student organizing in Québec offers lessons for American students in every grade.

In the face of increasingly brutal and authoritarian suppression on the part of the government -- to the point of one leading official explicitly endorsing fascist tactics from the 1920s and ‘30s to harm his fellow citizens -- this Québécois model of student unionism is more important than ever. These hundreds of tiny bastions of direct democracy, like so many seeds strewn on a field, may just yet blossom into a freer, more just, and more democratic Canada. And no matter the outcome of this particular strike, I hope this example inspires us to pick up our own watering cans and start growing democracy here in the United States -- a land not unfamiliar with that particular crop.

(Cross-posted in EdWeek)

Québec Education Minister Resigns, Says Not Because of Strike, Everyone Laughs

Québécois student strikers roll deep. The months-long strike is down to around one third of all students (still numbering more than 150,000), but it hasn't lost its potency.

Students at dozens of universities continue to picket campus buildings to prevent classes from being held — standing firm often in the face of police intimidation and violence. For example, strikers are out right now at College Lionel Groulx, arms linked and symbolic red fabric squares flapping on their clothes, preparing for a police assault against their blockade of the main entrance to their CEGEP.

During last month's ultimately fruitless negotiations between the major student union federations and the provincial government, the most radical group, CLASSE, was kicked out due to their inability to magically stop any strike action or vandalism on the part of their member students for a 48-hour period. This after they already required CLASSE to issue a statement repudiating acts of violence (which they ultimately issued, noting quite correctly that property damage is not violence). When the government used this flimsy excuse to boot CLASSE during the previous strike campaign several years ago, the two smaller reformist student unions, FECQ and FEUQ, were more than happy to sell out their erstwhile "comrades" and stay at the negotiating table. This transparent opportunism and sycophancy decimated their ranks as students flocked to CLASSE. Come 2012, the reformists knew better, and quit the negotiating table in protest of and in solidarity with CLASSE's ejection.

Québec Premier Jean Charest's "six-point plan," which negotiators originally tried to strongarm student union leaders to accept behind closed doors, has been almost unanimously rejected by students in their local assemblies. The message to Charest is clear: low-interest loans won't cut it. Tuition hikes spread out over a few years won't cut it. 

Despite mass media's dogged attempts to pigeonhole the strike movement to be simply kneejerk anti-tuition hikes (granted, one of my favorite kinds of kneejerk protests), CLASSE-affiliated unions have some pretty solid suggestions for how to rearrange university finances:

  • Cut the percentage of university funding directed toward private for-profit research
  • Cut the practice of universities advertising to attract students, saving $18 million a year
  • Freeze the salaries and hiring of university administrators, which they have exploded over the past several years
  • Halt the construction of satellite campuses far from university main campuses
  • Add a 0.7% tax on banks and financial institutions to ensure tuition-free education

And now we have the resignation of Québec's Minister of Education, Line Beauchamp. Beauchamp, in her desperation to avoid it being framed as the huge student victory it is, said she was not resigning because of the student strike. Right. Let's get real here:

“I am resigning because I no longer believe I’m part of the solution.”

She said she had spoken to student groups about letting a parliamentary committee study the issue of university funding.

Beauchamp, who was also the deputy premier, said she asked the students whether they trusted the people’s elected representatives to study the question — and that on Monday they had refused.

This leaves the ruling Liberal party with an even more tenuous hold on a majority in the provincial Parliament, holding 63 out of 125 seats with the balance of power potentially decided by 3 current vacancies. Beauchamp will be replaced by her predecessor Michelle Courchesne — the very person who spearheaded the push for the current proposed tuition hike in the first place.

Protests continue every single evening, often drawing thousands of students and other Québecers in solidarity, leading up to the next massive demonstration on May 26th. Beauchamp's telling farewell confession, “I am resigning because I no longer believe I’m part of the solution,” is something we can't wait for the rest of the politicians to realize. We've got to show them, and that's exactly what Québec's student strikers are doing.

This printemps québécois is teaching activists and organizers across the continent how important it is to avoid falling in line behind milquetoast compromise — especially when the wind is at your back — and the combined voices of 150,000 students mean that such a lesson won't soon be forgotten.

 

BREAKING: American University's adjunct faculty vote to unionize!

I just received an email that was sent from American University's Provost Scott A. Bass to the AU community. This is amazing news -- not only because of the vote itself, but the fact that it was successful, and most amazingly is not being challenged by AU's Administration. I'll post more as it arrives, but here's the contents of the memo: 


American University

MEMORANDUM

February 16, 2012

TO: American University Community
FROM: Scott A. Bass, Provost

RE: Results of the Union Election

Today, the ballots were counted to determine whether adjunct faculty will be represented by the Service Employees International Union, Local 500. I would like to thank the adjunct faculty who voted in the election for expressing their choice in this important matter.

Of the 1,672 eligible votes, 379 were cast in favor of union representation and 284 were cast in opposition. The university respects the choice of its adjunct faculty to have union representation and, therefore, will not file any legal challenges to the election’s results. Instead, we look forward to beginning the collective bargaining process and engaging in a constructive dialogue with the union regarding issues related to adjunct faculty employment.


The Washington Post blog offers a bit more context:

Adjunct faculty at American University voted to unionize Thursday, following the lead of their peers at George Washington University and Montgomery College.

Adjuncts are the temps of higher education. They make up more than half of all college faculty nationwide, but most work part-time “for very low wages with no benefits, job security, administrative support or academic rights,” the labor union SEIU said in a release. (I should note that those characterizations are for adjuncts everywhere, not just at AU.)

Adjuncts are typically paid by the class and are considered relatively cheap labor. At AU, according to the union, an adjunct with a doctorate teaching three classes a semester could make as little as $18,000 in a year.

More from Washington City Paper:

At AU and elsewhere, many adjuncts complain about inadequate wages, poor job security, and a lack of respect on campus; some see unionization as a way to address their grievances.

“Universities recruit adjuncts to cut costs, even as admissions are up, tuition is up, administrative overhead is way up, building construction is up, everything is up except pay for instructors,” says Mark Plane, a part-time anthropology professor at AU and a supporter of SEIU. “This is a moment in which people are saying ‘enough is enough.’”

Also worth checking out is SEIU 500's release, in which it mentions having 10,000 adjunct faculty members in its union. Impressive.

But let's be clear: as anyone at all interested in workplace democracy will tell you, SEIU is not a good union. It's incredibly top-heavy and autocratic, undemocratic, and is willing to spend tens of millions of their members' dollars to squash internal dissent, like they did with California nurses a few years ago.

I'm glad that more adjunct professors are unionizing, and hopefully this trend will continue. But more than that, I hope once professors get their first contract, they'll vote to affiliate with a better union.

Obama's "Fighting for Scraps: Higher Ed Edition!" (Updated)

Obama and Arne DuncanAs anyone with an eye on the world of electoral politics has seen, because this is an election year we've been seeing "Candidate Obama" much more often. The Candidate Obama stage is about the only time the Democrats' liberal base gets a few bones thrown to it (it's a shame he wasn't up for re-election in 2010 - we might have gotten a halfway decent healthcare bill). 

In a bid to re-energize the university student vote, President Obama made quite a few pledges and proposals around higher ed in his State of the Union Address. The crux

Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My Administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers – places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing. [...]

When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid. We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who've done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it's possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury – it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

A few thoughts.

Review of DEFAULT: The Student Loan Documentary

I left higher ed with roughly $50,000 in student loans. That debt, by way of the sometimes staggering monthly payments, has restricted where I can live, what I can do as a career (and specifically what kind of jobs I can afford to take), and what I can do with my free time.

That particular $50k was thanks to one single year of law school. One.

I was one of the lucky few as I left college -- I had zero student loan debt, a combination of commuting from home and tuition remission thanks to my father's faculty position. I had grand visions of walking in the footsteps of other radical lawyers, who eschewed the limousines and corner offices (and 100-hour work weeks) and instead used the law to at best help (at worst, mitigate the harm to) those most beaten down by the powers-that-be.

July 5: an Important Anniversary for Youth and Student Organizing

Today, July 5, contains two auspicious anniversaries that speak to the power of people, especially youth, to effect change.

Voting in the Ballot Box - 40 Years Ago Today

18-year-old voting rightsThe second key anniversary today is President Nixon's 1971 signing of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees voting rights to all citizens over the age of 18. Previously, for federal elections the age had been set at 21, with several states setting 18 as the cut-off age for state and local elections.

The ugly hypocrisy of sending 18-year-olds off to die in foreign lands but not allowing them to vote at home -- and the effective organizing and campaigning around it -- was a key factor in getting the Constitutional amendment passed. Electoral rights are not the pinnacle of political power for individuals and groups, but only the baseline. And today, even this bare minimum is under attackCampus Progress reminds us:

Rutgers Student Occupation Day 2

For background information about the occupation, and a summary of its first day, check out my previous blogpost here.

UPDATE: 9:00PM: The student occupiers have left the building without arrest or (as of yet) any university disciplinary action.

The students made it through the night in the President's office in Old Queens, an administration building.

Eleven stayed the night, locked in by the police, and under constant threat of arrest and removal. Students were unable to get food, water, of medicine from the outside. Thankfully late at night via a makeshift pulley using an extension cord, students were able to get provisions (possibly including a pizza that UW students phoned in in solidarity!). 

This morning the sit-in students were officially allowed food by the administration, after many chants by protesters of "let them eat!"

At noon today the students held a press conference. Check out newly-released video from the first day of the occupation:

Rutgers Students Occupying President's Office!

For even newer info, check out the blog post for Day 2 of the occupation.

UPDATE: 4:44pm: I just talked to a student in the office - she said it looks like they're about to be arrested. Anyone near New Brunswick should get their ass to campus, to stand up against this!

UPDATE: 5:06PM: The Rutgers VP of Student Affairs told students that after the building closes at 5:00, the students will be "trespassing". It's six minutes past 5:00 now. RU's General Counsel was just seen walking in the building. Word is that some students will be leaving voluntarily, and others will refuse. Media is present: NBC4 has a camera on scene, and the AP has done at least one interview.

UPDATE: 5:13PM: This is actually one of several sit-ins over the past week, including at William & Mary, Emory, Tulane, and of course, the University of Wisconsin.

UPDATE: 5:58PM: No arrests yet. However, USAS has a page where you can email or call Rutgers Prez McCormick to give him a piece of your mind.

BIG UPDATE: 6:40PM: Rutgers students will NOT be arrested tonight! They'll be staying overnight, apparently with 2 cops present in the building. EPIC WIN.

UPDATE: 8:20PM: Students are now getting mixed signals about whether they can stay in overnight or not. Only time - and the size of crowds outside - will tell.

UPDATE: 8:30PM: Scroll down to the bottom for video of the sit-in!

UPDATE: 10:12PM: Via twitter, 11 students are inside, still no food or toiletries allowed in.

Administration Strategies Against Student Activism and Organizing

Student organizers have a wealth of strategic analysis and history to pull from when we start any campaign. Everything from power mapping to the classic Tactic Star, I'm sure we've all been to our share of workshops to hone our activism. However, the point I want to make today is that college and university administrations across the country do the same thing. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic.

Since the explosion of innovative (and successful) student organizing and protest in the 1960s, administrators have sought to understand our tactics and strategy so as to work out the most effective ways to defuse our campaigns and actions.

Just as we have trainings and conferences, so do administrators: conferences with exciting names like the "Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education", and "International Conference on Learning and Administration in Higher Education". There are also journals, magazines, and conference calls all devoted to the job of subjugating administering your campus.

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