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Students at the Most Expensive University in America Are Going on Tuition Strike

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At the end of Novem­ber, mem­bers of the Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty-Barnard Col­lege chap­ter of Young Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (YDSA) launched a tuition strike cam­paign against ?“exor­bi­tant tuition rates” which, they say, ?“con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant source of finan­cial hard­ship” dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Stu­dent demands are wide-rang­ing and include a 10% reduc­tion in the cost of atten­dance, 10% increase in finan­cial aid, and an amal­ga­ma­tion of demands from dis­parate stu­dent cam­paigns, many of which were set in motion long before the pan­dem­ic began. So far over 1,700 stu­dents have signed a peti­tionto with­hold tuition for the Spring 2021 semes­ter and any future dona­tions to the uni­ver­si­ty after graduating. 

Colum­bia has con­sis­tent­ly topped charts as the most expen­sive pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty in the coun­try, charg­ing over $61,000 a year in tuition and fees, which accounts for near­ly a quar­ter of the school’s rev­enue. ?”We just felt like the only way to pres­sure a uni­ver­si­ty that is struc­tured around the prof­it motive would be to direct­ly impact their bot­tom line,” says Emma­line Ben­nett, a stu­dent at Columbia’s Teach­ers Col­lege and one of the found­ing mem­bers of Colum­bia-Barnard YDSA, which she co-chairs.

Since the pan­dem­ic began, the university’s $11 bil­lion endow­ment has seen a $310 mil­lion increase while the response from admin­is­tra­tion, Ben­nett says, ?“has been most­ly emp­ty rhetoric around shared sacrifice.”

In These Times reached out to the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion and did not hear back by the time of pub­li­ca­tion. In a Decem­ber 1 arti­cle in Patch, a uni­ver­si­ty spokesper­son said, ?“Through­out this dif­fi­cult year, Colum­bia has remained focused on pre­serv­ing the health and safe­ty of our com­mu­ni­ty, ful­fill­ing our com­mit­ment to anti-racism, pro­vid­ing the edu­ca­tion sought by our stu­dents, and con­tin­u­ing the sci­en­tif­ic and oth­er research need­ed to over­come soci­ety’s seri­ous challenges.” 

Bec­ca Roskill, a junior in Columbia’s school of engi­neer­ing and sec­re­tary of Colum­bia-Barnard YDSA, says that the cam­paign has been care­ful to frame the tuition strike as a means of address­ing the ongo­ing stu­dent debt cri­sis and not just wors­en­ing con­di­tions under Covid-19. ?“We want­ed to shift the con­ver­sa­tion away from pay­ing less because of online class­es and shift the con­ver­sa­tion toward a cri­sis that’s emerged from the fact that we’re treat­ing edu­ca­tion as a com­mod­i­ty in the first place.”

Lead­ing up to the strike’s announce­ment, stu­dents orga­nized a peti­tion for par­tial tuition reim­burse­ment (dif­fer­ent from the one list­ed above), an email cam­paign and phone zaps, a pres­sure tac­tic used to flood office lines, to impress upon admin­is­tra­tors the bur­dens of the university’s exces­sive costs. Before the start of the Fall semes­ter, a tuition freeze was issued for the university’s two main under­grad­u­ate schools, Colum­bia Col­lege and the Fu Foun­da­tion School of Engi­neer­ing and Applied Sci­ence?—?con­ces­sions that Ben­nett believes were a direct response to stu­dent orga­niz­ing over the sum­mer. But sup­port for stu­dents and work­ers across cam­pus, Ben­nett says, has been uneven, and the tuition strike is aimed at much more than just high tuition. 

In addi­tion to low­er­ing the cost of atten­dance and increas­ing finan­cial aid, the tuition strike has includ­ed demands to put an end to cam­pus expan­sion, invest in the sur­round­ing West Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, defund the university’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty (the cam­pus law enforce­ment body), com­mit to trans­paren­cy around the university’s finan­cial invest­ments, and bar­gain in good faith with unions on campus.

“We just felt like the only way to pressure a university that is structured around the profit motive would be to directly impact their bottom line,” —Emmaline Bennett, student at Columbia’s Teachers College.

“The stu­dents orga­niz­ing the tuition strike view it as a last-resort tac­tic to com­pel the uni­ver­si­ty to lis­ten to demands that stu­dents have been orga­niz­ing around for the past few years,” reads a state­ment released Mon­day. The tuition strike has received wide sup­port in part by build­ing coali­tions with oth­er groups on cam­pus that have put for­ward their own demands in the past. This includes ref­er­en­dums vot­ed on by the stu­dent body, which the demands let­ter says should be respect­ed and enforced.

A ref­er­en­dum that was passed in Sep­tem­ber demand­ing the uni­ver­si­ty divest from com­pa­nies that prof­it from or sup­port Israel’s human rights abus­es against Pales­tini­ans was the cul­mi­na­tion of years of orga­niz­ing from mem­bers of Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine and Jew­ish Voice for Peace. The ref­er­en­dum has been all but dis­missed by the admin­is­tra­tion despite being passed by the stu­dent body. Sim­i­lar­ly, admin­is­tra­tors have been slow to respond to stu­dent demands to divest the school’s endow­ment from fos­sil fuels, a cam­paign that has been waged on cam­pus since 2015. YDSA has been busy build­ing ties with the cam­pus chap­ters of Extinc­tion Rebel­lion and the Sun­rise Movement.

The tuition strike has also includ­ed demands from Mobi­lized African Dias­po­ra (MAD), a coali­tion of Black stu­dent activists on cam­pus that sent its own detailed list of demands to Colum­bia Pres­i­dent Lee Bollinger. After spend­ing the sum­mer mobi­liz­ing against police vio­lence, MAD called for the uni­ver­si­ty to com­mit to anti-racism and pro­vide employ­ment and afford­able hous­ing to the sur­round­ing Harlem com­mu­ni­ty, end the university’s rela­tion­ship with the New York Police Depart­ment, cut fund­ing from the university’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safe­ty and increase sup­port for Black students.

On Decem­ber 3, mere days after the strike’s announce­ment, Barnard Col­lege can­celed its search for a new exec­u­tive direc­tor of Pub­lic Safe­ty and announced it would restruc­ture the office to focus on com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty under the new Com­mu­ni­ty Account­abil­i­ty, Response, and Emer­gency Ser­vices office. Ben­nett says MAD has been a major coali­tion part­ner, and the group’s demands to repair harm to the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty and invest in com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty solu­tions are reflect­ed in the tuition strike.

YDSA’s let­ter to the admin­is­tra­tion also includes a demand to bar­gain in good faith with unions on cam­pus for increased ben­e­fits and com­pen­sa­tion in addi­tion to pro­tec­tions for inter­na­tion­al stu­dents. State­ments from the tuition strike cam­paign have empha­sized that cuts to cost of atten­dance ?“should not come at the expense of instruc­tor or work­er pay, but rather at the expense of bloat­ed admin­is­tra­tive salaries, expan­sion projects, and oth­er expens­es that don’t ben­e­fit stu­dents and workers.”

The Grad­u­ate Work­ers of Colum­bia-Unit­ed Auto Work­ers Local 2110(GWC-UAW), which has been the recip­i­ent of strike sup­port and sol­i­dar­i­ty from YDSA, will be ask­ing its mem­ber­ship to pledge their sup­port for the strike. This would include dis­trib­ut­ing tuition strike mate­ri­als to stu­dents and con­tin­u­ing to teach stu­dents who plan on with­hold­ing tuition even if told not to by uni­ver­si­ty officials.

Susan­nah Glick­man, a fifth year PhD stu­dent in his­to­ry at Columbia’s Grad­u­ate School of Arts and Sci­ences and a mem­ber of GWC’s bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee, says YDSA and the union have been work­ing close­ly to sup­port each oth­er. ?“It’s good that stu­dents rec­og­nize that they have some pow­er to influ­ence the con­ver­sa­tion [around cor­po­rate gov­er­nance], even if they’re not employ­ees,” Glick­man said. ?“They prob­a­bly have more [pow­er] because they’re the finan­cial base of the university.”

Tuition strike orga­niz­ers say the idea for a tuition strike pre­ced­ed the pan­dem­ic, but was in part inspired by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go where 200stu­dents with­held pay­ments in late April with a num­ber of demands, includ­ing a 50% reduc­tion in tuition. By the end of their tuition strike in mid-May, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go stu­dents had won a freeze on tuition, which is now over $57,000 a year?–??–?sec­ond only to Colum­bia. Today, the total cost of atten­dance at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go is esti­mat­ed to be upwards of $80,000 a year when includ­ing fees, room and board, per­son­al expens­es and books.

With over 1,700 stu­dents signed on, Columbia’s tuition strike next spring could rep­re­sent the largest tuition strike since 1973, when stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan with­held pay­ments in oppo­si­tion to a 24% increase in tuition from the year before. About 2,500 signed up for a tuition strike which coin­cid­ed with a wave of labor orga­niz­ing on the part of teach­ing fel­lows and oth­er grad­u­ate employ­ees. While the stu­dent tuition strike alone was not enough to win con­ces­sions from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s admin­is­tra­tion, the Grad­u­ate Employ­ees’ Orga­ni­za­tion (GEO), which rep­re­sents grad­u­ate work­ers on cam­pus, was ulti­mate­ly able to win a tuition reduc­tion and increased pay and ben­e­fits through con­tract nego­ti­a­tions after more than half of under­grad­u­ate stu­dents joined GEO mem­bers in a pick­et line in Feb­ru­ary 1975.

As stu­dents con­tin­ue to mobi­lize toward next semester’s tuition strike, YDSA orga­niz­ers report an increase in mem­ber­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion with­in their chap­ter, which some believe has been strength­ened by their abil­i­ty to orga­nize digitally.

“I think we’ve seen a strength­en­ing in our com­mu­ni­ty that we did­n’t expect to be able to cater to over Zoom,” says Roskill. ?”And we’re real­ly hope­ful that social­ist pol­i­tics will pro­vide an answer to the polit­i­cal ques­tions that weren’t being answered by Biden or Trump, par­tic­u­lar­ly on stu­dent debt advocacy.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.


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