At the end of NovemÂber, memÂbers of the ColumÂbia UniÂverÂsiÂty-Barnard ColÂlege chapÂter of Young DemoÂcÂraÂtÂic SocialÂists of AmerÂiÂca (YDSA) launched a tuition strike camÂpaign against ?â€śexorÂbiÂtant tuition ratesâ€ť which, they say, ?â€śconÂstiÂtute a sigÂnifÂiÂcant source of finanÂcial hardÂshipâ€ť durÂing the panÂdemÂic. StuÂdent demands are wide-rangÂing and include a 10% reducÂtion in the cost of attenÂdance, 10% increase in finanÂcial aid, and an amalÂgaÂmaÂtion of demands from disÂparate stuÂdent camÂpaigns, many of which were set in motion long before the panÂdemÂic began. So far over 1,700 stuÂdents have signed a petiÂtionto withÂhold tuition for the Spring 2021 semesÂter and any future donaÂtions to the uniÂverÂsiÂty after graduating.
ColumÂbia has conÂsisÂtentÂly topped charts as the most expenÂsive priÂvate uniÂverÂsiÂty in the counÂtry, chargÂing over $61,000 a year in tuition and fees, which accounts for nearÂly a quarÂter of the schoolâ€™s revÂenue. ?â€ťWe just felt like the only way to presÂsure a uniÂverÂsiÂty that is strucÂtured around the profÂit motive would be to directÂly impact their botÂtom line,â€ť says EmmaÂline BenÂnett, a stuÂdent at Columbiaâ€™s TeachÂers ColÂlege and one of the foundÂing memÂbers of ColumÂbia-Barnard YDSA, which she co-chairs.
Since the panÂdemÂic began, the universityâ€™s $11 bilÂlion endowÂment has seen a $310 milÂlion increase while the response from adminÂisÂtraÂtion, BenÂnett says, ?â€śhas been mostÂly empÂty rhetoric around shared sacrifice.â€ť
In These Times reached out to the uniÂverÂsiÂty adminÂisÂtraÂtion and did not hear back by the time of pubÂliÂcaÂtion. In a DecemÂber 1 artiÂcle in Patch, a uniÂverÂsiÂty spokesperÂson said, ?â€śThroughÂout this difÂfiÂcult year, ColumÂbia has remained focused on preÂservÂing the health and safeÂty of our comÂmuÂniÂty, fulÂfillÂing our comÂmitÂment to anti-racism, proÂvidÂing the eduÂcaÂtion sought by our stuÂdents, and conÂtinÂuÂing the sciÂenÂtifÂic and othÂer research needÂed to overÂcome sociÂetyâ€™s seriÂous challenges.â€ť
BecÂca Roskill, a junior in Columbiaâ€™s school of engiÂneerÂing and secÂreÂtary of ColumÂbia-Barnard YDSA, says that the camÂpaign has been careÂful to frame the tuition strike as a means of addressÂing the ongoÂing stuÂdent debt criÂsis and not just worsÂenÂing conÂdiÂtions under Covid-19. ?â€śWe wantÂed to shift the conÂverÂsaÂtion away from payÂing less because of online classÂes and shift the conÂverÂsaÂtion toward a criÂsis thatâ€™s emerged from the fact that weâ€™re treatÂing eduÂcaÂtion as a comÂmodÂiÂty in the first place.â€ť
LeadÂing up to the strikeâ€™s announceÂment, stuÂdents orgaÂnized a petiÂtion for parÂtial tuition reimÂburseÂment (difÂferÂent from the one listÂed above), an email camÂpaign and phone zaps, a presÂsure tacÂtic used to flood office lines, to impress upon adminÂisÂtraÂtors the burÂdens of the universityâ€™s excesÂsive costs. Before the start of the Fall semesÂter, a tuition freeze was issued for the universityâ€™s two main underÂgradÂuÂate schools, ColumÂbia ColÂlege and the Fu FounÂdaÂtion School of EngiÂneerÂing and Applied SciÂence?â€”?conÂcesÂsions that BenÂnett believes were a direct response to stuÂdent orgaÂnizÂing over the sumÂmer. But supÂport for stuÂdents and workÂers across camÂpus, BenÂnett says, has been uneven, and the tuition strike is aimed at much more than just high tuition.
In addiÂtion to lowÂerÂing the cost of attenÂdance and increasÂing finanÂcial aid, the tuition strike has includÂed demands to put an end to camÂpus expanÂsion, invest in the surÂroundÂing West Harlem comÂmuÂniÂty, defund the universityâ€™s DepartÂment of PubÂlic SafeÂty (the camÂpus law enforceÂment body), comÂmit to transÂparenÂcy around the universityâ€™s finanÂcial investÂments, and barÂgain in good faith with unions onÂ 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,â€ť â€”Emmaline Bennett, student at Columbiaâ€™s Teachers College.
â€śThe stuÂdents orgaÂnizÂing the tuition strike view it as aÂ last-resort tacÂtic to comÂpel the uniÂverÂsiÂty to lisÂten to demands that stuÂdents have been orgaÂnizÂing around for the past few years,â€ť readsÂ aÂ stateÂmentÂ released MonÂday. The tuition strike has received wide supÂport in part by buildÂing coaliÂtions with othÂer groups on camÂpus that have put forÂward their own demands in the past. This includes refÂerÂenÂdums votÂed on by the stuÂdent body, which theÂ demands letÂterÂ says should be respectÂed andÂ enforced.
A refÂerÂenÂdum that was passed in SepÂtemÂber demandÂing the uniÂverÂsiÂty divest from comÂpaÂnies that profÂit from or supÂport Israelâ€™s human rights abusÂes against PalesÂtiniÂans was the culÂmiÂnaÂtion of years of orgaÂnizÂing from memÂbers of StuÂdents for JusÂtice in PalesÂtine and JewÂish Voice for Peace. The refÂerÂenÂdum has been all but disÂmissed by the adminÂisÂtraÂtion despite being passed by the stuÂdent body. SimÂiÂlarÂly, adminÂisÂtraÂtors have been slow to respond to stuÂdent demands to divest the schoolâ€™s endowÂment from fosÂsil fuels, a camÂpaign that has been waged on camÂpus since 2015. YDSA has been busy buildÂing ties with the camÂpus chapÂters of ExtincÂtion RebelÂlion and the SunÂrise Movement.
The tuition strike has also includÂed demands from MobiÂlized African DiasÂpoÂra (MAD), a coaliÂtion of Black stuÂdent activists on camÂpus that sent its own detailed list of demands to ColumÂbia PresÂiÂdent Lee Bollinger. After spendÂing the sumÂmer mobiÂlizÂing against police vioÂlence, MAD called for the uniÂverÂsiÂty to comÂmit to anti-racism and proÂvide employÂment and affordÂable housÂing to the surÂroundÂing Harlem comÂmuÂniÂty, end the universityâ€™s relaÂtionÂship with the New York Police DepartÂment, cut fundÂing from the universityâ€™s DepartÂment of PubÂlic SafeÂty and increase supÂport for Black students.
On DecemÂber 3, mere days after the strikeâ€™s announceÂment, Barnard ColÂlege canÂceled its search for a new execÂuÂtive direcÂtor of PubÂlic SafeÂty and announced it would restrucÂture the office to focus on comÂmuÂniÂty safeÂty under the new ComÂmuÂniÂty AccountÂabilÂiÂty, Response, and EmerÂgency SerÂvices office. BenÂnett says MAD has been a major coaliÂtion partÂner, and the groupâ€™s demands to repair harm to the surÂroundÂing comÂmuÂniÂty and invest in comÂmuÂniÂty safeÂty soluÂtions are reflectÂed in the tuition strike.
YDSAâ€™s letÂter to the adminÂisÂtraÂtion also includes a demand to barÂgain in good faith with unions on camÂpus for increased benÂeÂfits and comÂpenÂsaÂtion in addiÂtion to proÂtecÂtions for interÂnaÂtionÂal stuÂdents. StateÂments from the tuition strike camÂpaign have emphaÂsized that cuts to cost of attenÂdance ?â€śshould not come at the expense of instrucÂtor or workÂer pay, but rather at the expense of bloatÂed adminÂisÂtraÂtive salaries, expanÂsion projects, and othÂer expensÂes that donâ€™t benÂeÂfit stuÂdents and workers.â€ť
The GradÂuÂate WorkÂers of ColumÂbia-UnitÂed Auto WorkÂers Local 2110(GWC-UAW), which has been the recipÂiÂent of strike supÂport and solÂiÂdarÂiÂty from YDSA, will be askÂing its memÂberÂship to pledge their supÂport for the strike. This would include disÂtribÂutÂing tuition strike mateÂriÂals to stuÂdents and conÂtinÂuÂing to teach stuÂdents who plan on withÂholdÂing tuition even if told not to by uniÂverÂsiÂty officials.
SusanÂnah GlickÂman, a fifth year PhD stuÂdent in hisÂtoÂry at Columbiaâ€™s GradÂuÂate School of Arts and SciÂences and a memÂber of GWCâ€™s barÂgainÂing comÂmitÂtee, says YDSA and the union have been workÂing closeÂly to supÂport each othÂer. ?â€śItâ€™s good that stuÂdents recÂogÂnize that they have some powÂer to influÂence the conÂverÂsaÂtion [around corÂpoÂrate govÂerÂnance], even if theyâ€™re not employÂees,â€ť GlickÂman said. ?â€śThey probÂaÂbly have more [powÂer] because theyâ€™re the finanÂcial base of the university.â€ť
Tuition strike orgaÂnizÂers say the idea for a tuition strike preÂcedÂed the panÂdemÂic, but was in part inspired by the UniÂverÂsiÂty of ChicaÂgo where 200stuÂdents withÂheld payÂments in late April with a numÂber of demands, includÂing a 50% reducÂtion in tuition. By the end of their tuition strike in mid-May, UniÂverÂsiÂty of ChicaÂgo stuÂdents had won a freeze on tuition, which is now over $57,000 a year?â€“??â€“?secÂond only to ColumÂbia. Today, the total cost of attenÂdance at the UniÂverÂsiÂty of ChicaÂgo is estiÂmatÂed to be upwards of $80,000 a year when includÂing fees, room and board, perÂsonÂal expensÂes and books.
With over 1,700 stuÂdents signed on, Columbiaâ€™s tuition strike next spring could repÂreÂsent the largest tuition strike since 1973, when stuÂdents at the UniÂverÂsiÂty of MichiÂgan withÂheld payÂments in oppoÂsiÂtion to a 24% increase in tuition from the year before. About 2,500 signed up for a tuition strike which coinÂcidÂed with a wave of labor orgaÂnizÂing on the part of teachÂing felÂlows and othÂer gradÂuÂate employÂees. While the stuÂdent tuition strike alone was not enough to win conÂcesÂsions from the UniÂverÂsiÂty of Michiganâ€™s adminÂisÂtraÂtion, the GradÂuÂate EmployÂeesâ€™ OrgaÂniÂzaÂtion (GEO), which repÂreÂsents gradÂuÂate workÂers on camÂpus, was ultiÂmateÂly able to win a tuition reducÂtion and increased pay and benÂeÂfits through conÂtract negoÂtiÂaÂtions after more than half of underÂgradÂuÂate stuÂdents joined GEO memÂbers in a pickÂet line in FebÂruÂary 1975.
As stuÂdents conÂtinÂue to mobiÂlize toward next semesterâ€™s tuition strike, YDSA orgaÂnizÂers report an increase in memÂberÂship and parÂticÂiÂpaÂtion withÂin their chapÂter, which some believe has been strengthÂened by their abilÂiÂty to orgaÂnize digitally.
â€śI think weâ€™ve seen aÂ strengthÂenÂing in our comÂmuÂniÂty that we didÂnâ€™t expect to be able to cater to over Zoom,â€ť says Roskill.Â ?â€ťAnd weâ€™re realÂly hopeÂful that socialÂist polÂiÂtics will proÂvide an answer to the politÂiÂcal quesÂtions that werenâ€™t being answered by Biden or Trump, parÂticÂuÂlarÂly on stuÂdent debtÂ advocacy.â€ť
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Indigo Olivier is anÂ In These TimesÂ GoodÂman InvesÂtigaÂtiveÂ Fellow.