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When Reactionary Talking Points are Conventional Wisdom: UC Crisis Edition

Nina Houts, writing for the Oakland Tribune, agrees with the purpose of the UC strikes and occupations but disagrees with their methods.

However, the manner in which these protests were carried out was utterly counterproductive to their cause. I'm sure it started out tame enough: crowded rallies and marchers with picket signs called attention to the issue, and students' contempt was conveyed. But then behavior escalated to more extremes, such as students cutting class, opting to lie in the streets or form human barricades outside of UC Board of Regents meetings, which was the case on Nov. 19. I think this type of "fight for education" was a complete waste of time, effort, and money.

Houts, who is a home-schooled high school senior, is learning quite quickly how to adopt the handwringing liberal style so prevalent in traditional media when people use tactics that actually have a chance of winning. The tendency which Houts is channeling prefers dissent to be polite and dignified - and it's hilariously telling that the very methods of dissent she is okay with are the ones she calls "tame." Such a preference comes from one of two possible mindsets. One is naive: the belief that public officials and other elites are doing what they think is best for all of us, and simply need to be convinced of our position in order for them to do the right thing (therefore the ideal mode of dissent for them is the strongly-worded petition). The second mindset is that of those who don't want to see the protesters win: their opposition to the demands is cloaked in concern trolling, worrying about protesters being "irresponsible," or "hurting their own cause." Their goal is to limit the spectrum of dissent to entirely harmless tactics.

From the age of this particular writer, I'm going to guess she falls into the first camp. Hopefully once she gets a taste of actual campus activism, she'll see the futility of playing by the rules of those in power. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded his white liberal colleagues who were worried about tactics that were "extreme":

"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

Houts isn't a big fan of that kind of tension. She continues,

Who actually thought it was a good idea to skip classes in protest and/or occupy buildings to prevent professors from teaching their courses? Doesn't that just further inhibit everyone's opportunities to learn? It's unbelievable to me that so many students assumed that skipping out on classes in favor of holding destructive protests in the middle of a semester would perpetuate the idea that they care very much about their education.

One could just as easily move that argument over to the workplace. "Why would employees stop working if they wanted better conditions and wages? Doesn't that inhibit everyone's opportunity to go to work? Seems silly that people keeping everyone outside their workplace actually care about what goes on inside their workplace."

Then she pulls out the "responsibility" card:

It seems that school officials would be even less inclined to give in to student protests when trash is dumped in front of a chancellor's office and lecture halls are subjected to damage after a protest lock-in — it's a huge waste of resources. The lemming effect that came out of these protests made the whole ordeal unquestionably futile. A much better message would have been sent if the student protesters actually took responsibility for their actions.

No, it's not the exorbitant salaries and perks of the ever-enlargening Administration that's a huge waste of resources, nor the large chunks of the budget tied down into siloed (no pun intended) defense industry accounts, it's the exaggerated cost estimates of student actions that should be condemned. Then she repeats the claim that administrators are just poor public servants, tasked with a difficult decision, and that the students are immature for thinking that there's any other way:

It comes across as insensible for these students to actually believe that in this time of financial crisis, they would be exempt from the repercussions of a depleted state budget. While it is unfortunate that the UC schools will have to deal with such a drastic blow to the system, the reasons for doing so are valid. Students should begin turning away from griping and "radical" movements, and begin dealing with the issue a little more proactively. The thousands of dollars worth of campus damage is going to have to be paid off somehow, and all that money is going to come straight from a share of tuition that could be better spent on other things.

If Houts dug a little deeper into the UC crisis, she'd find a very different portrait of the UC top brass and their real priorities. On a side note, I wonder why she put radical in quotes. The radical student movement in the UC system is actually radical, not pretend-radical or faux-radical. She finishes up with the classic "be happy with what you have, because it could be worse" line:

The resources that have been put into controlling these reckless student protests will have to be compensated, and the state and UC board are left with very few options. A word of advice to you radical student protesters: This is your education on the line. Go to class, embrace that you are receiving a higher education at the cost and sacrifice of your family and government, and maybe even do some extended research on solving the California budget crisis. After all, we are the educated, proactive future generation — right?

I don't mean to pick on Houts specifically, and I am very happy to see a teen getting column inches in the traditional press. But her opinion piece is a phenomenal example of all the ill-informed assumptions and elitist talking points surrounding both the UC crisis and student movements in general wrapped into one convenient article. It's also worth pointing out how easy this op-ed must have been for her to write. It relies exclusively on conceptual frames that have been hammered into our brains by reactionaries for at least a hundred years: assumptions about the nature of those in power, the nature of those seeking change, and the best ways to go about making change. She didn't need any facts or references to create this piece.

Use Houts' essay to develop effective and compelling fact-based counter-arguments, because when talking to anyone outside the student movement (say, your family over the holidays), you're bound to come up against at least one or two of the arguments she has put forth. Hopefully they'll be using these arguments out of well-intentioned naivete, which will give you the opportunity to convince one more person to stand with students who are taking action to push the university forward.

Occupy Everything Tour hits D.C. Area

Students involved with the New School and NYU occupations are on tour discussing their experiences and viewpoints regarding the trend toward student occupations in the US. From New York to California — to Vienna — students are taking control of their universities to effect social change.


"We will first attempt to orient ourselves within the University by grappling with the radical transformations in higher education over the past decade. We look at the corporatization of private universities like the New School, the privatization of public universities in Europe and the United States, and the backlash against the rising costs of tuition, the lack of employment potentials, and the ubiquitous burden of student debt.

We then describe the specific political ethos of the New School and the series of events leading up to the December and April occupations of 65 Fifth Avenue. This begins with the founding of the New School in 1919 by scholars fleeing Columbia University after refusing political loyalty oaths during WWI and then the creation of the University in Exile in 1933 as a haven for persecuted European scholars during WWII. Then, we jump to the presidency of Bob Kerrey beginning in 2001, his personal and political histories, the commercialization of the New School, and why students and faculty want him gone. Lastly, we will discuss the faculty no confidence vote that led to the December occupation, that occupation itself, the April 10 occupation, and the aftermath of these events.

Finally, we discuss occupation as a political tactic and medium of dissent, attempting to answer questions like:

Is occupation a means to an end, or is it a “pure means?”

Is it effective in the sense that it ‘gets something done,’ or is it better employed as an affective form protest?

What is affective protest? And why not lobby for reform, picket, or join the student senate?

Above all, we hope to offer what we’ve learned from our experiences at the New School to other university communities with a desire to resist and affect change."


An occupation is a break in capitalist reality that occurs when people directly take control of a space, suspending its normal functions and animating it as a site of struggle and a weapon for autonomous power.

Occupations are a common part of student struggles in France, where for example in 2006 a massive youth movement against the CPE (a new law that would allow employers to fire first-time workers who had been employed for up to 2 years without cause) occupied high schools and universities and blockaded transit routes.

In 1999, the National Autonomous University of Mexico City was occupied for close to a year to prevent tuition from being charged. Both of these struggles were successful.

In Greece and Chile, long and determined student struggles have turned campuses into cop-free zones, which has in turn led to their use as vital organizing spaces for social movement involving other groups like undocumented migrants and indigenous people.

There will be libations!

November 20th - College Park - University of Maryland Campus in the Art-Sociology building, room 1213 @ 6pm

November 21st - Washington, DC 7 p.m. at Big Bear Cafe! Hosted by the Collective to Open a Radical Space in DC
For more info: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=177275801085&ref=mf

November 22nd - Frederick, MD 1:00 PM @ the Hippo House sponsored by the Hippo House Book Collective.
For more info: http://www.facebook.com/#/event.php?eid=175687874690&ref=ts

One Year Later: Hope, Collapse, and Resistance

Barack Obama and George BushOne year ago Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama was elected as the United States' 44th President. For those of us with our ears to the ground on education issues - both primary/secondary and higher ed - we hoped for a change, especially because so much of Obama's primary and general election victory was won on the backs of countless students and youth volunteers.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate, is widely regarded as a failure, and has done much to degrade the learning environment for students everywhere. Obama said much to that effect during the campaign, and one of his chief education advisors on his transition team was Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor and an advocate for actually progressive education reform.

Arne Duncan: Business as Usual

But in the same way he appointed Wall Street suits to regulate their banking friends, Obama picked a corporate education suit to reform schools that were suffering from too much corporatization. When Arne Duncan was tapped for the post of Education Secretary, he was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools - a school district that had, under his close supervision, took the keys to the schoolyard away from teachers and parents and handed them to large corporate-funded non-profits, for-profit firms, and the U.S. military. He took his cues enthusiastically from Chicago's business elite, through their hand-crafted Renaissance 2010 project.

Arne Duncan - Renaissance 2010Duncan's rhetoric is taken wholesale from his Republican predecessors - the emphasis on "accountability", standardized tests, "raising the bar", "competing globally," and general paeans to the magic of the free market. He's even stated that schools should be run more like businesses. This point isn't lost on many - even EdWeek came right out and said that Obama's education policy is "giving George W. Bush a third term."

Since his arrival, Duncan has pushed for the very changes that hobbled education in his old job. He's argued against democracy and for all powers to be vested within a single executive (like his CEO position) in large urban school districts.

"Race to the Top" — If by "Top" You Mean "Bottom"

Obama's signature education initiative in his first year was the several billion dollar "Race to the Top" initiative. The idea is to dangle the carrot of Federal education dollars in front of schools and education officials, and have them compete with each other for them. In an economic and budgetary climate that's depriving tens of billions of dollars from states and school districts nationwide, the "Race to the Top" is essentially forcing them to adopt policies and priorities of Duncan's DoE: among them introducing and expanding charter schools (and removing any caps on charter school numbers), and establishing long-discredited "merit pay" schemes for teachers. Paul Rosenberg over at OpenLeft had a great takedown of these shenanigans, concluding that:

It's really hard to see this as anything other than a Shock Doctrine-style deal, since it's a way to force cash-starved states and schools to change education policy and practice, regardless of what they might normally and democratically choose to do.  And not only that--because the funds are limited, they could make the changes, and still not get a dime for doing so.

Progressive education reform would empower individual schools, teachers, and students to actively shape and determine their lives, and would equalize the enormous funding gap between affluent suburban school districts and working class urban school districts. This latest DoE scheme is just about as close to the opposite as one can get.

Higher Ed - two steps forward, two steps back

Slashed state budgets and withering private endowments have sent a shock through higher education, with tuition increases expected to accelerate even faster than they are now. On the plus side, Obama's stimulus bill provided roughly $30 billion in tax credits and expanded Pell grants to students.

The House of Representatives passed a bill (The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act) that would cut private lenders out of the Federal student loan program, which makes a ton of sense. It would reduce overhead (and profits), and turn those savings (estimated more than $80 billion over 10 years) into more Pell grants to go around. Obama has pledged to sign it, but it still needs to pass the Senate.

During the campaign, all three major Democratic candidates - Clinton, Edwards, and Obama - vowed to vigorously enforce the Solomon Amendment, which allows the President to cut off Federal funds to schools that bar ROTC or recruiters from campus (barred usually on the basis that they violate the school's anti-LGBT discrimination policy). We haven't seen any instance of Obama enforcing it just yet, but anecdotally I've seen the threat of it make things harder for students trying to demilitarize their campuses.

Although it didn't get a lot of play from traditional media outlets, the Pentagon is ramping up its involvement in University research. The new director for the Pentagon's research agency is putting a kinder, gentler face on the military-academic complex, while the DoD's Minerva Initiative and the National Science Foundation are setting up more than a dozen new military and "national security" contracts for social science research.


Even before Obama had been sworn in, students were already resisting the corporatization of their schools - and articulating a vision of education beyond anything Democrats or Republicans could ever offer.

New School OccupiedOn December 11, 2008, a large contingent of New School University students in New York City occupied one of their campus buildings, demanding the resignation of their university's embattled President, Executive VP, and Treasurer, along with establishing a democratic election of their replacements, a socially responsible investment committee to oversee the school's endowment, and many other demands. While not all of their demands were met, some of them were (and later in 2009 we'd hear that NSU President Bob Kerrey is indeed planning on stepping down in 2010) - and more importantly, they laid the groundwork for future occupations, including a second New School occupation months later and an occupation at New York University.

In April of this year, one hundred students occupied administration offices at the University of Vermont just days after more than a thousand teachers and students staged a walkout - both actions condemning budget cutbacks and layoffs, especially when senior administrators are paid so much that a mere 5% pay cut for them would cover the salaries of the 27 laid off lecturers. After more than ten hours occupying the building, police dispersed the crowd and arrested 33 students. Thanks to a committed student body and campus union presence, the fight is ongoing, with multiple actions and protests since then.

UC Santa Cruz occupationOf course the most epic mark of resistance this year could be found in California this past fall. The UC system had announced that tuition and fees for in-state students would increase more than 30 percent over the next year, coming on the heels of a previous 9.3 percent hike announced in May. Hundreds of university employees are being laid off with most remaining employees subject to furloughs. On September 24, thousands of faculty, students and staff joined to protest the massive budget cuts to the state's university system -- and to protest the complicity of the university's administrations and the Board of Regents. That week saw actions, protests, and teach-ins on every UC campus. Students at UC Santa Cruz even occupied a university building for the better part of a week. And the actions continue: in October over six hundred California students converged for a conference on the education budget, and left it resolved to plan for a day of action next March - and that same month students at Fresno State held a massive walk-out and sit-in to make demands on their administration.

K-12 students, teachers, and parents are also banding together to take back their schools - from Los Angeles, to New York, to Washington DC, and many smaller, usually quiet communities in between. Independent, student-led groups are often taking the lead, like the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Philedelphia Student Union. Nationally, Students for a Democratic Society, re-established in 2006, has seen more than a hundred chapters spring up in high schools and colleges across the country, all dedicated on the premise that students deserve a free, quality, and democratic education where students and teachers - not administrators and officials - call the shots. Most chapters have held actions or are organizing against tuition hikes, layoffs, and budget cuts, and many are mobilizing for a Nov. 10 national day of action for free and liberating education for all.

There are many, many other examples of ordinary people organizing to take on the foundations of a dysfunctional education system - and that's telling in and of itself. While politicians in state and national capitals continue down the bipartisan road to ruin, folks on the ground in their own communities are working outside the ballot box to rescue themselves and build better schools - and a better world. While it would be nice if they helped, we're going to get there with or without President Obama and Congress.

Hundreds of billions available for war, but not for us

Yesterday, the Senate voted 93-7 to approve a $636 billion budget for the Pentagon, including funds to continue President Obama's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Making war is a bipartisan affair, especially in the Senate (it's one of the few things that is).

To put the number in perspective, this amount would pay for all currently outstanding Federal student loans (roughly $416 billion) with plenty left over. Such debt relief would be a massive boost to the economy, by not only encouraging consumer spending, but also by helping to stem the current wave of bankruptcies and foreclosures.

But of course, one couldn't find five votes for that in the Senate, let alone 60 (or 93, for that matter). Blowing up people and things, nomatter the cost, is of paramount importance to the White House and Congress. Average Americans drowning in debt simply isn't.


One thing you can do is tell your Senators to vote for the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would actually inch the country's education priorities in the right direction.

Interview with an Occupier: A Closer Look at the UC Santa Cruz Occupation

University of California Santa Cruz Occupation

Also published at WireTap.

On the morning of September 24, students across the University of California's ten campuses awoke to their first class of the school year: an object lesson in labor and student resistance.

That day, thousands of faculty, students and staff joined to protest the massive budget cuts to the state's university system -- and to protest the complicity of the university's administrations and the Board of Regents.

California is facing a budget shortfall measuring in the tens of billions of dollars over the next several years. As a result of the unique legislative hurdles required to pass a budget (it requires two-thirds majority, which neither party has), no decisive action has been taken to close the fiscal gap. On July 24, as teachers and students were away from campus for the summer, Sacramento passed a budget that included $8.1 billion in education cuts.

Soon after, the University of California announced that tuition and fees for in-state students would increase more than 30 percent over the next year, coming on the heels of a previous 9.3 percent hike announced in May. Hundreds of university employees are being laid off with most remaining employees subject to furloughs. Faculty and staff unions, who saw the cuts looming well in advance, organized in opposition, calling for a walkout on the first day of classes.

Protesters' tactics vary by campus -- UC Berkeley saw thousands march through the streets, picketing, blocking intersections and holding teach-ins on the crisis and ways to reform the university; UC Davis saw support staff unions honoring picket lines and students briefly occupied the administration building; UCLA's protesters marched to and then occupied the chancellor's office, holding signs proclaiming "freeze our fees," "stop the privatization of our public UC" and "stop the layoffs, layoff Yudof" (referring to Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California system).

While building occupations were attempted on several campuses, only one of them -- the occupied Graduate Student Commons building at UC Santa Cruz -- is still ongoing. I had a chance to talk with one of the occupiers over the phone Friday morning (name withheld at their request).

For Student Power: How many UC system campuses have occupations right now?

UCSC Occupier: We believe we're the only one -- Berkeley attempted one and it was rapidly shut down. They were sabotaged by various liberal student government types, who let the cops in.

Over all, here, it's great! It's going amazingly smoothly, and it's in an optimal location. This building is in the only central location on campus, so we're really using it to propagandize a lot.

Actually, there was this spontaneous dance party that erupted down in the area below last night. A ton of freshmen came out of their dorms and partied with us on their first night on campus. So we think we're going to be using the space really effectively. So far the police haven't been too bothersome -- we got through the night without incident.

FSP: What's the primary function of that building?

UCSCO: It's a commons area for graduate students -- there are some offices and conferences are scheduled here, so we're interrupting those. But here we have access to the internet, computers, a printer -- even a coffee machine.

FSP: What are the students doing right now?

UCSCO: Some of us are milling around; we have a lot of literature that we drew up in the early stages, and I think we'll continue to draft some things. We're having meetings, talking about how we're going to expand this to different buildings and campuses. We're in contact with the Berkeley people and they may try something again.

FSP: What's the organizational impetus behind the whole walkout? When I see the headlines, it looks amazingly well-coordinated among students, faculty and staff.

UCSCO: For the occupations, specifically, there [were] a couple of meetings about something like this at the end of the spring quarter which fell through over the summer. The situation with the system-wide governance became a lot more pitched, and the faculty led the way and decided to schedule a walkout for the first day of school. The faculty were being forced to take furloughs, so they voted unanimously to hold those on instruction days. The Regents chose to ignore this and granted President Yudof emergency powers to get around that dissent and bypass any shared governance with faculty.

About 1,200 faculty system-wide signed up to walk out. On the same day, one of the service worker unions, UPTE, called for sympathy strikes, as did the clerical workers union. From the faculty's lead, then graduate students and undergraduates started organizing over the summer.

Some of us have been involved with the more "above ground" meetings, but the occupation was not actually planned by or with the strikers.

FSP: Tell me about the students occupying the building right now.

UCSCO: There are over 30 inside -- comprised of students, graduate students, some lecturers and a few staff and alumni.

FSP: Occupations more than anything hearken back to their predecessors in the late '60s and early '70s. Is there discussion on where this fits in historically?

UCSCO: Yes, it's been discussed, but some of us took issue with that comparison, because we're situating this specifically at what we consider to be a turning point in the history of capital. The '60s were a completely different period and they had to deal with different material conditions. We're focused on a very different horizon than those in the '60s. We are, of course, still drawing on that history; we're also drawing inspiration from the Chicago Windows and Doors occupation, and the recent occupations of the New School, NYU and University of Vermont.

FSP: Does UC Santa Cruz have a strong history of activism on campus, relative to other UC campuses? Have there been building occupations at UCSC in recent (or not-so-recent) history?

UCSCO: Santa Cruz does have a fairly strong history of activism relative to other UC campuses. David Horowitz thinks we're one of the worst in the nation, so that's something. Our anti-military recruitment campaign a few years back got us on the FBI's Terrorist Watch list; as far as occupations go, we're not really sure. There was a tree-sit two years ago where small buildings were constructed in trees, but beyond that, I think this is unprecedented.

FSP: How are decisions made among the occupiers?

UCSCO: We have really long meetings [laughs]. There isn't much of an organizational structure, honestly; we don't have a name or anything. It's just people who share concerns and share this tactic. In the run-up to this, we did have several meetings. We actually switched the location at the last minute. We decide by majority vote.

One of the things we didn't decide were demands, because this is a demandless occupation. We're pretty cognizant of the absurdity of issuing demands to people whose agency we don't believe in, as either causing this crisis, or being able to get us out.

So we're using this to make an appeal to all students and Californians to take this occupation further.

FSP: Do you think that having a demandless ocupation, one without even "transitional demands," may cost you some support from the population at-large?

UCSCO: We may lose some support, yes, but the impact on campus thus far has actually been so bemused in general that I'm not even sure they're aware that it's demandless. We'll see how it plays out from here.

FSP: You were saying how the Berkeley occupation was sabotaged by their erstwhile center-left allies. How are you arrayed ideologically inside the occupation? Are most folks self-described radicals, or is it a larger swath of the student population?

UCSCO: Actually, some people unaffiliated with us spontaneously tried to occupy another building on campus once they had heard about us; that was shut down very quickly, but some of them jumped over the railing and joined us. Some freshmen, whose very first day of college this was, who I don't think had a very strong political identity yet, jumped in and joined us. But yeah, there are some radicals here, but we're not all hard-line anarcho-primitivists or anything.

FSP: Are you seeing the protesting and occupying students shift in terms of demands and understanding of the situation? The walkouts started as a reaction to budget cuts, but do you get a sense that folks are widening the scope of their criticisms to more systemic causes?

UCSCO: The students organizing things are certainly widening their scope. Many of the people here on the inside I met last year in a relatively reactive, reformist-minded group which went nowhere; they’ve since begun, publicly at least, to issue these more systemic criticisms. The budget cuts do have terrifying, material effects for certain people, though, and therefore are obviously more interested in entering into negotiations when their livelihood is directly on the line, but its also becoming more apparent that the same pretexts for cuts are brought up again and again. We're looking at a solid decade of state fiscal emergencies, so hopefully people will begin to see what we're seeing.

FSP: I think a lot of students would love to know the play-by-play of how exactly you took the building.

UCSCO: We were a little worried about how we were going to deal with the workers who were going to be here. Thankfully, we found out the night before that the clerical workers union who would be staffing this building called a strike as well, so we expected that nobody was going to be here.

There was one woman, who I guess wasn't respecting the strike, and she was in her office. So we came in, and we were like "Uh, we have a study group meeting!" She was kind to us at first, but then she started getting suspicious.

Meanwhile, there was a rally and a general assembly being held at the base of the hill we're on, so we coordinated with people down there to try and turn it into a march to bring them up here. As we got word that there were 100 to 150 people coming up the drive, we had to put things in place, so we sent some people to talk to the secretary and she left the building. We then had blocks and tables and everything in place -- we started at 4:30 and had it locked down by 5:00.

FSP: If occupations don't spread, what's the end game?

UCSCO: If they don't spread immediately? That's a topic for discussion this morning, actually [laughs]. Worst case scenario, we walk out of here; we've demonstrated that occupation is on the table as a tactic that people can use. And we'll continue organizing, and trying actions like this in the future.

FSP: What's your best-case scenario?

UCSCO: Starting with the UC system, we get occupations going on every campus and we shut it down -- we demonstrate to them that they are running it in such a way that it cannot function, and that we will not allow it to function. Best case, of course, is occupations in every school and workplace -- students and workers stopping the theft by our own elected representatives. They're stealing from what is held in public, so the best-case end game is widespread occupation to stop this theft.

FSP: Your occupation has gotten statements of support from students and activist groups from all over. Is there anything you'd like to say to students across the country, who may be looking to the UC system walkout and this occupation as a source of inspiration?

UCSCO: Do it yourself -- occupy a building on your campus. The time for sitting at a table with negotiators, trying to figure out a more equitable way to, you know, cut off your left arm versus your right arm, has passed. We see no more point in petitioning, or requesting meetings with administrators. They can't give us anything; they've made that abundantly clear, at the very least in California. Time is past due to occupy and take your own spaces back for yourselves.

Campus Organizing 101: Policy Demands & Structural Demands

This is the first in a series of primer articles about organizing and student power.

Until we are the ones with the power, we'll be making demands of those who do. Looking at the kinds of demands student groups campaign around, it's easy to lump them into two general categories:

Policy Demand:
A demand that seeks to instruct someone with power what to do.

Structural Demand:
A demand that seeks to change who has power in the first place.

Anyone involved in campus activism will know that American universities are littered with policy demands - from recycling, to divestment, to tuition control, to dorm renovations.

It's been my experience, and that of most folks I talk to, that a common feature of activist campaigns around policy demands is that they all start from the same position (disempowerment) and, once the campaign is over - successful or not! - that's where they all return. To think of it visually:

Policy Demands

What we want are demands (and campaigns) that leave us in a better position than when we started - we want the activism and organizing we did last week/month/semester to act as another foothold to support the work we're doing right now. That's crucial nomatter where you're organizing, but especially when you're organizing in an institution that has 100% turnover every four years. That's where structural demands come in. By chipping away at concentrated power, we gain more access to the levers of power, and more avenues for strategic action open up. We want our campus campaigns to graph out more like this:

Structural Demands

When it comes to institutional influence and power, we want to always start where we last left off.

While it's easy to get broad agreement with structural demands (people are in general predisposed to agree with arguments for more democracy and less bureaucracy), it's hard to mobilize people around it. Policy demands are what get people excited and motivated.

That's why it's best when the two kinds of demands are coupled. Take, for example, divesting your university endowment's holdings in ExxonMobil. A pure policy demand would be simply telling the powers that be to divest from ExxonMobil, or perhaps more broadly telling them to invest only in socially responsible enterprises. A purely structural demand would be to democratize the investment decision process. Clearly, the global injustice of what ExxonMobil does is going to rile people's emotions much more than the comparatively tiny injustice of your fellow students not having a say in how their tuition is being invested.*

These two types of demands work best when they're advocated together. The structural demand provides the radical teeth to a campaign, while the policy demand provides the motivation and passion to mobilize large groups of people.

So adding a structural demand to an ExxonMobil divestment campaign means that if (when!) you win, it'll be that much easier to divest from Wal-Mart, or Lockheed Martin, or Israel. You'll have students and faculty on the investment committee, or you'll have divestment decisions up for a campus-wide vote. Even if you can only get a token non-voting student member on an investment advisory committee, that's still a slightly taller soapbox than what you had before, which will come in handy for the next campaign.

There's much more that can be said on the subject. Though this is way beyond the scope of this blog post (but well within the scope of the book I'm working on), it's worth pointing out in closing that 1) university elites will react much more strongly against structural demands (and consequently campaigns will be harder to win), and 2) the nature of structural demands, if you want to do it right, requires that campaigns be waged in a fundamentally different way than purely policy campaigns (think prefigurative politics).

*I should note that one of the few times that structural demands alone work great is when an abuse of power scandal rocks the campus - embezzlement by an administrator, illegal/abusive conduct by campus police, denials of tenure or firings for political reasons, etc.

Washington Monthly and Alternet Applauding the Walmart-ization of Higher Ed?

Education Sector and the Wal-mart-ization of Higher Ed

The Washington Monthly (reposted by Alternet????) has a lengthy, horrendous article about the future of higher education, alternating between being a fluff piece for a cheap online course company (StraighterLine) and being an apocalypse piece on the supposed doom of most colleges and universities. It's a long essay, but it's an important read - if only to get a sense of what the beltway non-profit establishment thinks about higher ed.

It's hilariously chock-full of baseless economistic assumptions, profound misunderstandings of universities, and attacks on professors. Let's see:

And while she had a professor, he wasn’t doing much teaching. “He just stands there,” Solvig’s daughter said, while students worked through modules on their own.

- Trashing all of introductory course teaching through use of a single anecdote? Check.

Given the choice between paying many thousands of dollars to a traditional university for the lecture and paying a few hundred to a company like StraighterLine for a service that is more convenient and responsive to their needs, a lot of students are likely to opt for the latter—and the university will have thousands of dollars less to pay for libraries, basketball teams, classical Chinese poetry experts, and everything else.

- Implying that the high cost of higher ed has more to do with "classical Chinese poetry experts" than the explosion of exorbitantly-paid administrators and consultants, or the shrinking share of state financial support? Check. (See Marc Bousquet's work for the real reason for the tuition explosion.)

One of StraighterLine’s original partner colleges was Fort Hays State University, just off I-70 in Hays, Kansas.[...] By early 2009 a Facebook group called “FHSU students against Straighter Line” had sprung up, attracting more than 150 members. [...] The English Department announced its displeasure while a well-known academics’ blog warned of the encroaching “media-software–publishing–E-learning-complex.” Gould was denounced in the Fort Hays student newspaper.
When I spoke with Smith again in June, the whole experience had left him frustrated. “A couple of posts from grad students who’ve never even seen or taken one of the courses pop up on Facebook,” he said, “and North Central [the accreditor] launches an investigation. Meanwhile, there are horror stories about bad teaching at regular universities on RateMyProfessors.com”—a popular student feedback site—“and they don’t give it a second look.”

- Casting students and professors who are concerned about their job security and academic freedom as backward-thinkers bullying a poor, unfortunate venture capitalist? Check.

Smith could offer introductory college courses à la carte, at a price that seemed to be missing a digit or two, or three: $99 per month, by subscription. Economics tells us that prices fall to marginal cost in the long run. [...] Which means the day is coming—sooner than many people think—when a great deal of money is going to abruptly melt out of the higher education system, just as it has in scores of other industries that traffic in information that is now far cheaper and more easily accessible than it has ever been before. [...] There is an unstable, treacherous future ahead for institutions that have been comfortable for a long time. Like it or not, that’s the higher education world to come.

- Using groundless economic assumptions to proclaim the inevitable triumph of for-profit edu-farms over universities? Check.

While the article ends on a wistful note about the social good of having the liberal arts university, it's by way of backhanded praise of "quirky small university presses" and "Mughal textile historians," implying that there's a division between Very Serious Studies™ (like business, economics, hard sciences, and trade school subjects) and useless-but-quaint studies (everything else).

Follow the Money

It's important to see exactly from whence the author, Kevin Carey, is coming. Carey is the policy director at Education Sector, an inside-the-beltway think tank. Check out where it gets its money: free-marketeers like The Gates Foundation, CityBridge Foundation, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, and the Rodel Foundation. Education Sector pushes hard for charter schools, rigid performance testing of teachers (with an extra middle finger to teacher unions usually tacked on), standardized testing of students, and the implementation of other market-oriented "reforms" in both K-12 and higher education.

A Better Alternative?

Education Sector isn't the only, and certainly not the first, to endorse the Walmart-ization of higher ed. Back in April we covered Brigham Young professor David Wiley, who is pushing very similar "reform" Kool-Aid.

The funny thing is that it's the introduction of corporate models and thinking into the university that's fueled both the spiraling tuition cost and the perma-temping of faculty (which can result in lackluster 101 courses). Coincidentally enough, that's the same culprit when it comes to newspapers going under, which Carey uses for comparison.

The solution offered by StraighterLine and its ilk seems to be "look at these caricatured subpar offerings of universities: we can give you the same crappy quality, but cheaper!" The actual solution isn't to package online quizzes as "curriculum," but to democratize the university - put it back in the hands of students and faculty. The few truly idiotic expenditures that Carey correctly points out ("vainglorious building projects, money-sucking sports programs") would likely never happen if those at the reins of the university were its actual constituents, instead of being run and overseen by the very class of Wall Street denizens from which Carey eagerly awaits salvation.

Update: I forgot to mention this delightful tidbit:

Ivy League and other elite institutions will be relatively unaffected, because they’re selling a product that’s always scarce and never cheap: prestige. Small liberal arts colleges will also endure, because the traditional model—teachers and students learning together in a four-year idyll—is still the best, and some people will always be willing and able to pay for it.

That's right! The rich kids will get to keep their decent educations - reallycheapdiplomas.com will more than suffice for working class kids, right?

UNC Students Rewrap Campus Newspaper to Shine a Light on Youth for Western Civilization

Daily Tar Heel Prank Rewrapped Newspaper

Last week students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill covered thousands of issues of the official student newspaper with a lookalike front and back page (check the PDF here). The Daily Tar Heel's issue that day became a "special anti-racist issue," with articles focusing on supremacist group Youth for Western Civilization. The top story? An article about YWC's co-founder Marcus Epstein pleading guilty to a hate crime (we blogged about that little escapade here). Another article details how YWC's local faculty advisor stepped down over the summer, and the back page was filled with articles critiquing white supremacy and liberals' customary milquetoast reactions.

As the activists' communiqué puts it:

Of course, being the lapdog of the administration and the bastion of liberal “tolerance” towards white supremacy, the Daily Tar Heel would never have printed such things on its own. And so, in the long tradition of expropriating the channels of media production, radicals took it upon themselves to assist the Daily Tar Heel in printing the news they refuse to print.

Much earlier in the morning, a large crew of friends and comrades had broken up into small teams and wrapped approximately 3,000 copies of the DTH with their own paper. This action was particularly designed to force YWC’s connections with white supremacist movements out into the open. It also serves as payback to a newspaper that refused to print one single supportive comment about the widely participatory direct actions that occurred against YWC earlier this year, while at the same time running friendly human interest pieces on two of the group’s officers.

The action garnered headlines off-campus, and the editor-in-chief admitted "we got pranked." I have to say, this is a fantastic example of how to do a newspaper rewrap. They have both fact and opinion pieces, resources for people to link up with other radical/anti-racist groups, and took the time and effort to rewrap newspapers on a massive scale. Folks may remember when anarchists rewrapped tens of thousands of issues of USA TODAY across most major U.S. cities the day after last November's election. The Yes Men also got into the act, with a rewrapped New York Times. In all three of these cases great care was taken to make the spoof look as much like the original as possible. Newspaper is cheap to print, and there are lots of radical graphic designers out there. Here's how the folks in Recipes for Disaster recommend doing it:

The most efficient method is three people to a car: one driver, one clean-cut person to go to each machine and exchange the pile of unwrapped papers within for a pile of wrapped ones, and one maniac in the back frantically wrapping away. At the very end of the trip, you can go back to the first box, where you got your first pile of unwrapped papers, and put in the last wrapped ones. [...] Bicyclists are best suited to going driveway to driveway, adding the wraps to individually delivered papers. Playing this role, they can round out the work of the drivers; in some areas, few people use newspaper dispensers, but if the wraps also appear in the front yards of the suburbs it will seem they are everywhere.

Jobless Grad Won't Win Her Lawsuit, But She Has A Point

Monroe College faces a $70,000 lawsuit from alumna Trina ThompsonSo, the story goes like this: woman applies to a college, gets accepted, gets a degree, can't find a job, sues the college. Sounds ridiculous, right?

Well, let's start filling in some more facts. The cost of that degree to Trina Thompson was $70,000 and several years of her life. She got a Bachelor's in IT Business Administration, not exactly on par with the classic jobless degrees like Philosophy or Comparative Literature. The college, Monroe College, is a private for-profit school whose entire raison d'être is to get their graduates jobs - check out their entirely job-oriented mission statement (and their exclusively career-related degree programs).

Monroe's website is rife with passages like "At Monroe, we offer degrees in a variety of majors leading to tomorrow's best careers."[1] and "Monroe is the choice for motivated students who wish to pursue their specific career studies in a highly professional educational environment."[2] and "The Office [of Registrar] will constantly seek to provide quality customer service to students, alumni, faculty, staff and other constituents of the College."[3]

Monroe doesn't even pretend that they produce "critical thinkers" or "well-informed citizens" or even "lifelong learners," which are conveniently vague and largely unmeasurable outcomes. Their sole focus just so happens to be very quantifiable: put $70,000 in, and a good job comes out. When colleges and universities treat education as a product, and students as customers, should we be at all surprised when someone dares to return defective "goods"? 

While I'm not a lawyer, I'm pretty certain Thompson's claim hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of winning. But this lawsuit is not just a statement on the deteriorating condition of higher ed generally: it speaks to the lies of the education commodifiers, who are all too-willing to treat their schools like supermarkets when it is convenient for them (determining workloads and salaries of faculty & administrators, expenses for students, department funding, athletics policies, etc.), but are never willing to take their ridiculous metaphors to their natural conclusions.

Getting Ayn Rand on Campus: Expensive

Today I was forwarded an article from The Times Higher Education, "Ayn Rand revival gathers pace in US universities, despite detractors." It starts off:

On a warm July evening on Boston's waterfront there are surely far more alluring distractions than a lecture on "The Lethal Destructiveness of Non-Objective Law".

Yet last week young people turned out in their droves for a summer conference of Objectivists: people who study the teachings of the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, who preached radical free-market capitalism, the purity of selfishness and the profit motive and the immorality of altruism. She also championed limited government intervention in the economy.

With stories on the financial news pages reading more and more like her seminal novel Atlas Shrugged, academic interest in Ms Rand, who died in 1982 aged 77, is booming.

"It's just so topical," said John McCaskey, who is introducing a course at Stanford University this autumn called "The Moral Foundations of Capitalism".

From the beginning of the article one would think it's these uncertain economic times that are driving students in droves to Rand's libertarianism propertarianism. But continue on, dear reader:

The surge in interest has also been propelled by the millions of dollars given to 25 universities by the charitable foundation of banking giant BB&T, run by one of her adherents. But even this funding, handed out so institutions can teach and study Ms Rand and to establish centres for the advancement of American capitalism, has been controversial.

The faculty at Meredith College in North Carolina rejected a $420,000 (£260,000) grant because it came on the condition that Ms Rand's work be taught there, and there was a similar uproar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Even many of the professors who now teach Rand, Dr McCaskey said, "will preface their presentations with, 'I don't agree with this, but you should hear it'".

Ayn Rand School for TotsOhhhh. That makes much more sense now. Does anyone see the irony of a giant bank pouring millions into pushing Ayn Rand in an economy wracked by deregulated banks? Wait, that's not ironic at all. It's actually really clever on their part. At the very point people are ready to blame the ultra-rich for the economic crisis, whip out Rand to shift the blame to the poor "leeches."

Unfortunately, we don't get much by way of hard data in this article - the alleged rise of Rand on campuses is entirely unquantified. In the larger picture, a lot of people are looking for answers these days: some are turning to Rand, but that is likely a small slice of all the books people are reading/buying (for example, last year it was reported that sales of Marx were way, way up). Ayn Rand Institute's program of giving free Rand books to high school classrooms has been going on for years now (they claim to have doled out over a million). Perhaps they'll have better luck through procreation?

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