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NYU - Winning the Occupation, Losing the Messaging?

After an exciting and eventful night, the NYU occupation continues into the morning. Negotiations are expected to take place all morning and likely into the afternoon.

NYU has cut off internet and power to the students. There is a call out for a massive support rally at Noon; media vans are there and we should show them what solidarity looks like!

Speaking of media, it's high time that we supporters of Take Back NYU! make our presence known - we've practically lost the messaging war when it comes to online media. While yes, it's "only" blogs, and the comment threads of newspaper articles, that's where a lot of our age group gets its information and arrives at opinions from.

The first comment on a New York Times' article on the occupation?

NYU should call in the NYPD. throw in some tear gas, clear them out, then send them to rikers for a week or two to think about it. these spoiled kids are preventing hard working people from earning a living by occupying portions of the school. it is also a fire hazard and against the law. no sympathy can be shown.

You're going to get violent, right-wing psychos nomatter what you post online, but it's a tragedy (and really fucking demoralizing) if they're the only voices we see.

NYULocal is a good example - they've got some of the most comprehensive covering of what's going on at the occupation, but the writers and their commenters are just dripping with contempt and hostility for the occupiers. Variations on "love it or leave it" and the inaccurate and hyperbolic "these are only rich kids whose parents pay their tuition" abound (as an aside, I love how it's only in these scenarios that right wingers magically obtain some kind of class analysis).

Now one of their writers is questioning whether or not a student Senator (Caitlin Boehne) should be participating in the occupation -- are they kidding?? The real outrage is that only one of them is! And of course, irony of ironies, they wrap their objection and petition for her recall in democratic language, and that she's "misrepresentative of the CAS [College of Arts and Sciences] Student Body". Elected students should first and foremost be willing to stand up for their fellow students in the face of the Administration. Caitlin’s doing exactly that.

The left has always had problems getting a fair hearing in the press - but thankfully on the internet we can help level the playing field.

People are always asking what they can do to help, even though they're hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away.

  1. Write, email and call the NYU Administration (this will help).
  2. Get online and publicly show your support for the NYU students - and correct the misinformation that's being spread about the occupation.

More Coverage of the New School Occupation

Various Marxist parties have articles and interviews up on the New School occupation. The Stalinist Freedom Road Socialist Organization has an interview with Eric Eingold, and an article up in the Workers World Party's newspaper by SDSer Tyneisha Bowens discusses the role the UniteHERE local played in supporting the occupation.

The New School Occupation: Recaps and Analysis

—The New York Times has a few decent articles on the New School Occupation and the larger context of everyone hating Bob Kerrey, but probably the most useful writing on the occupation was written by one of the occupiers.

Student Organizers: Use the Economic Crisis to Press Your Advantage

Administrators and Trustees show their true colors

In the face of record budget cuts for universities and colleges across the country -- both public and private -- now is the perfect time for students to assert their influence on important decisions coming down the pike.

Thanks to their insistence that students and faculty have no real say in the budget process, university administrators and trustees have few other places to point the finger of blame (other than to generic woes like the stock market, investor skittishness, state budget shortfalls -- but you'll note they use these excuses just as often during times of surplus too). Idiotic "investments" into massive stadiums and grandiose buildings are permanent, unrecoverable costs. The aspects of higher education that are truly meaningful and important are, unfortunately, all too recoverable: scholarships can be rolled back, professors can be fired, and department budgets can be cut.

Administrators and Trustees are eager to assert responsibility, except when something goes wrong. During times of plenty, the line is "trust us, we're the experts with money, and only we can handle the budget effectively." During times of scarcity and crisis, all of a sudden it's "Don't blame us! We're victims of circumstance and factors outside our control - blame someone else!" If they're so keen on taking responsibility when they're flush with cash, then let's hold them to it when they've mismanaged themselves into the red.

This is an opportunity for students to unite and tell those who run the university "you've had your chance -- it's time for more responsible people (that's us!) to take the reins."

Possible goals:

  • Read up on concepts like participatory budgeting, adapt them for your campus, and present them as alternatives to the current closed-door method of budget-setting.
  • A popularly-elected board of trustees and President, with a majority consisting of students, faculty, and support staff.
  • A binding say in the budgets of departments students are majors in (e.g. Biology majors should have a voice and vote in the budget plans of the Biology department).
  • A campus-wide referendum requirement when tuition hikes are proposed.
  • Open and transparent budget proceedings.

Possible talking points:

  • Emphasize the staggering numbers involved. Huge budget shortfalls, often in the millions even for small schools, are likely compelling enough to rile up the most apathetic of students.
  • Capitalize on the prevalent "throw the bums out" feeling. The trustees and administrators, like the executives on Wall Street, are the ones who got us into this mess. We shouldn't reward them by letting them continue to foul up our education.
  • And let's not forget, many of the business leaders on our Trustee boards literally have their hands in the current economic fiasco -- if there are concrete links, play them up like there's no tomorrow.
  • This is our money, and look what happens when others are put in charge of it! If the university expects us to pick up the tab, then we get to decide what's being ordered.
  • When those in charge screw up, we -- students, faculty, and staff -- are the ones who pay for it. Most students are incensed that the government bailed out these irresponsible financial giants. Remind them that when it comes to the university's finances, we the students are the "government" that administrators expect to bail them out. Are we going to be just like the government and give them our tuition dollars, no strings attached?
  • History has shown that it isn't a matter of appointing "better" Presidents and VPs - it's a matter of wielding power ourselves, collectively and democratically.

Some possible tactics:

  • Fill the op-ed (and hard news) pages of the student newspaper with outrage about the mismanagement of university resources, demands for its change, and models of alternatives.
  • Organize "No Bailout for the Board!" protests. Tell those on the Board of Trustees (who in most cases are overwhelmingly exceedingly wealthy) to make up any shortfall difference from their own pockets, as they themselves were the ones who approved the budget in the first place. We students shouldn't have to bear the burden of their sickening combination of incompetence and stinginess.
  • Hold an election on your campus for "replacement Trustees" (perhaps preceeded by a "no confidence" vote on the current ones). Get at least enough candidates to cover each of the Trustees, and once the election is held, send them to disrupt and ultimately commandeer the next Board of Trustees meeting. Invite the press.
  • Get alumni (preferably ones who have donated before) to sign onto a public letter, refusing to donate to the university until the administration and trustees reform their budget process.
  • Talk to the local and regional press, using talking points like those above, to link the financial crisis to the school's budget crisis in a more useful way.

Have your own ideas and suggestions? Personal experiences? Toss 'em in the comments!!
(cross-posted at Future Majority and YP4)

Tuition: Can't Get Much Cheaper Than Free (or Can It?)

Graduation CapThe New York Times had a pair of articles last Sunday chronicling what seems to be an emerging "race to the bottom" among universities, to see who can most cut tuition, either across the board or for families under a certain income level. They also profile several schools that effectively have zero tuition.

The New York Times - "Keeping the Lid On"

The New York Times - "The (Yes) Low Cost of Education"

I've also included the full text of these articles below the cut (in case NYT changes the link or makes your register). Both of these articles are very important for campus radicals to read and chew on; it's a fantastic glimpse into the kind of "peer pressure" that goes on among colleges and universities. Up until recently, the trend was "if you raise your tuition, I'll raise mine," with the added revenue going either to prestige-building exercises (new buildings, facilities, etc.) or financial aid. And of course, there's this:

Donald Heller, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State, offers one reason: “There’s something we refer to in college pricing as the Chivas Regal effect. If an institution drops its price, it’s seen as a decrease in quality.”

It's sad, but it's something that's true, to a certain extent. And the NYT articles certainly show that in some cases, reducing tuition can have the opposite impact, and actually attract higher-income students, showing that as we look at our own universities, it isn't just the "sticker price" we should be worried about.

Having a good grasp of what your university's peers are doing in terms of tuition can be an effective weapon when fighting for lower tuition and more financial aid, with the goal being tuition abolition. It can also be a key part of any narrative you submit to the press. "All we're demanding X University do is what Y College and Z University have done. They all have similar endowments, so why is X being so greedy?"

But the biggest problem is not that your university "just doesn't have a big enough endowment." The biggest problem is that dealing with tuition is not on the priority list for most schools, and when it is discussed, it's usually in the context of how much it will be increased, instead of whether. If tuition reduction was a priority on par with, say, new athletic facilities, or new buildings, or expanding the student population, then I think things would be much more workable, and almost all schools would easily be able to afford significant tuition decreases. But the Boards of Trustees, comprised mostly of business leaders, would think it crazy to do so.

To push tuition reduction to the fore, it will take an organized, militant student movement on each campus (probably arm in arm with counterparts among faculty and staff), fighting for a more democratic running of the university.

Now this is pure conjecture, but I think a significant side-benefit of winning a "liberated" university, one where everyone has a meaningful, democratic say in the course of their academic and institutional lives, is that alums will feel much more connected and invested in the institution, and will be much more likely to continue to give financially or volunteer there after graduation. I think a lot of students are as likely to donate to their past schools as they would be to "give back" to a prison they just got released from. And I think that analogy is apt in more than one way...

Student Power: A Brief Primer, Part 2

We covered "What is Student Power?" in Part 1.

How Do You Get Student Power?

Because there is a profound difference in the nature of what we are fighting for, structural demands must also be sought differently than policy demands are. And unfortunately, in all likelihood it's going to be a helluva lot harder. Demanding a recycling program generally won't freak administrators out. However, demanding a student majority in all student-related committees (student affairs, dining, etc.) and a significant number of democratically elected Trustees generally will freak administrators out. It's encroaching on "their" turf. Because of the nature of such a campaign, expect even the most genial of administrators to drop the facade and play hard and dirty. I liken it to when you tell your easy-going, fun, gregarious manager that you and your co-workers are forming a union. Goodbye, "Team Leader" Jekyll; hello, Slave Driver Hyde.

Organization

So what does a campaign for student power look like? Well for one it should embody the values and structures we are fighting for. Theory wonks call it “prefigurative politics.” The theory of it is that one's political actions and organizations foreshadow the future dominant actions and organizations if they are successful. So if you’re fighting for democracy, you should be sure your agitation group is democratic, even though having one absolute leader, or stifling the views of the minority in your group, might be more expedient at times. That coincidentally is the key difference between mainstream Marxists and anarchists.

The practice of prefigurative politics means that your campaign serves a twofold purpose: 1) it protests the way things are right now, and 2) in the act of doing so, it presents a model for a replacement.

Really, it's important to be flexible with exactly what form your organization takes. See what your comrades and allies think, assess the institutional political climate on campus. It could take the form of a (co-opted by you!) student government, a student union, or look like a traditional school club. What matters is what you do, how you do it, and who does it.

I think both Michael Albert and Saul Alinsky offer some impressive guides to activists fighting for any goal, but their advice is particularly relevant for those seeking student power.

Tactics: Albert

One of the most important concepts Albert has put forth is the idea of "raising the social cost." He writes:

Tactical calculation about movement tactics runs like this: If receiving lots of critical letters and email messages doesn't bother elites, and if this doesn't lead to other actions that will bother elites, then writing letters is not useful. If, on the other hand, lots of mail does bother elites by making them nervous about their base of support, or for any other reasons, or if it leads to other actions with these effects, then letter writing is one good choice for dissent. And the same holds for holding a rally, a march, a sit-in, a riot, or whatever else. If these choices either in themselves or by what they promise in the future raise lasting and escalating social costs for elites who are in position to impact policy, or if they organize and empower constituencies to do additional things that in turn will raise lasting and escalating social costs for these elites, then they are good tactics for dissidents to choose.

What really, really worries me is that student activists are too hung on the tactics and strategies of the 1960s and '70s, and don't force themselves to diversify their tactics. Sit-ins, marches, petitions, rallies: genuine concerns have to be raised about their usefulness in modern situations, especially when the administration is adamant in its position. The biggest problem is that those tactics are nothing new to your targets. I guarantee you that many higher-ups in your university's administration have taken courses and seminars on how to deal with student activists on campus, and that training shows. Stalling decisions until the end of the school year (so that momentum is lost), promising to set up advisory committees (toothless), and adding a token student to a few committees (to defuse the claim of no representation), all are very smart, very shrewd moves. There are also numerous instances of activist leaders being co-opted, be it with a generous work-study program, an official "special advisor" status, or other way of granting her or him privilege over other students. In fact, as I mentioned in Part 1, student government itself is a fantastic co-optation mechanism; it corrals those students most politically-minded and ambitious into a position and mindset very close to administrators.

So, how do we choose which tactics to use? Albert says to see which tactic raises the social cost the most for your target. Well first, what the hell is "social cost"? Essentially it says that when faced with recalcitrant decision-makers who don’t want to do something that would pain them – such as cede some sphere of authority, or change a policy – you as organizers and agitators need to make their lives so painful that it’s actually easier for them to just accept your demands than to continue on.

Then, the trick is finding out what makes their lives painful. Is it some students picketing outside the President’s office? Maybe, but likely not. It seems like every other week I see another example of an attempted “sit in” or other sort of protest in Administration buildings, and the Admins just say hello, offer them coffee, and then just wait for students to get bored and go home.

So where are Administration pressure points?

  • Prestige of the institution (U.S. News rankings, media coverage, peer college evaluations)
  • Donations (from alumni, foundations, grants from state/federal orgs.)
  • Enrollment (a good image to students, accessibility)
  • Good relations with the municipality/state

I'm sure there are others (think of any? Post more in the comments below!), but those seem to be the big ones. So now we are able to evaluate actions and tactics in terms of how it will threaten them in the above listed areas, as well as come up with new and innovative ones.

Tactics: Alinksy

Let's quick shift gears and talk about Saul Alinsky for a moment. This guy pretty much invented modern community organizing, back in the 1930s and '40s. It's imperative you go out and read Rules for Radicals and then read Reveille for Radicals (his earlier book that is more anecdote than step-by-step strategy).

Several of Alinsky's key concepts revolves around "experience." He tells us that a good strategy will stay within the experience of your comrades and allies, and outside the experience of your opponents. Put another way, do things that your fellow activists and sympathizers will be comfortable with, and do things that in the target's point of view are 1) unexpected and 2) difficult to normally respond to. Protests are expected and easy to respond to. Petitions are expected and easy to respond to (and also easy to ignore!). Experiment (more about that in a later post)!

There are times when the mere threat of an effective action will bring stubborn opponents to the bargaining table. A carefully placed and timed “leak” can do wonders for your campaign.

Sure, it’d be really fun to rent out the church across the street from the college and drape a 40 foot banner humiliating the Administration, but getting them to concede before then is even better. Never bluff about your actions though. Sometimes the Administration may be scared, but won’t bite. It only takes one called bluff to obliterate your credibility and dash any hopes holding anyone’s feet to the fire.

It is crucial to recognize the importance of ridicule when planning actions. Ridicule, done effectively, destroys your opponent’s credibility, conveys your demands, and is a hard maneuver to counter rhetorically. Either the target responds by increasing the level of ridicule, which can make them look petty and childish, or the target responds seriously, and runs the risk of looking like he/she is stuffy, out of touch, and can’t take a joke.

One possible type of action is what I call a power seizure action. These actions are helpful if you want to gain credibility through public (that is, student) support, and/or if your campaign’s major goal revolves around student power.
A good example is in an anecdote a friend shared with me:

She had been working with the campus environmental group to get real recycling throughout the campus. They had been told that the matter had been brought up in the appropriate committees, and had been rejected in past years. The group had done everything your typical student group would do: they fliered, they petitioned, they tabled, they met with administrators. They had reached an impasse. The administration simple was not willing to commit the funds. Then they got creative. They scheduled a campus-wide referendum on the matter: all employees and students could vote. They timed it two days before Earth Day, the thinking being that news organs are more receptive to “green” items that time of year. They scheduled a press conference announcing the results on Earth Day on nearby fairgrounds where an Earth Day celebration was already due to get press exposure.

Their plan was to announce the fact that they had conducted a binding referendum on the question of recycling, couched in such words as to paint the picture of a fait accomplit, the goal being to force the school to issue a statement stating that no, in fact, there is no planned recycling program. That would not only look bad to the public – and alumni! – but it also angers the people who democratically voted for the measure, people who may not have gotten angry about recycling previously. Needless to say, when word about the referendum and press conference got out, the Administration put 2 and 2 together and immediately called my friend to meet with the group.

The referendum was held as planned, with more than 70% approval. The press conference was held as well, only when the group spokesperson announced the referendum’s victory, the University President was proudly standing next to him.

This is a perfect example of creating a situation where it is easier for the administration to give in than keep the status quo.

Part 3 will deal with a few more examples (I might grab a few from Rules for Radicals), a bit more on strategy, and then suggest a few structural demands a student power group might make.

Student Power: A Brief Primer, Part 1

Resist!

What is student power?

Student power is, concretely, the extent of decision-making power and sovereignty afforded to each student, and the student body as a whole. This power may be in the greater political and economic sphere, but primarily the power is in relation to the institutions and structures of the campus in which the student resides.

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