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Students demand cuts be taken off the table

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JAISAL NOOR, JOURNALIST: Across the country, tuition hikes at public universities are proposed or going into effect and, critics say, threatening the foundation of public education. In California, students went on strike Monday as the board of regents met to consider tuition raises throughout the university system. In Tampa, students gathered at the University of South Florida to protest a 15 percent annual rise in tuition. And in New York, despite months of protests, CUNY’s board of trustees voted 15 to 1 to approve a 30 percent tuition hike. Students will now pay $300 more each year through 2016, when the cost will be nearly $6,400 per year for four years of undergraduate studies. About 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Baruch University campus building. Students and some faculty demanded that university trustees, who were meeting inside, take the tuition hikes off the table. Classes were cancelled after 3 p.m. and police used barricades to keep protestors at a distance. Eighteen-year-old Hunter College student and Occupy organizer Alexi Shalom said the tuition increases will disproportionately affect low-income students. Shalom says the budget shortfalls could be averted if the rich paid a bigger share of tax revenue and tax loopholes were closed.

ALEXI SHALOM, STUDENTS UNITED FOR A FREE CUNY: There are obviously budget shortfalls, but those shortfalls do not need to be picked up by working-class students. Those are the last people who can afford to pick them up. I would rather suggest that we reimpose the millionaires tax, reimpose the stock transfer tax, and while we’re at it, if we’re really going to talk about cutting CUNY, how about cutting the administrator’s salaries? You know, the chancellor of the board of trustees Matthew Goldstein makes $500,000 a year plus benefits. He’s one of the highest-paid public employees in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED: Basically, we’re here to fight back against a board of trustees who is gentrifying a lot of community schools. We’re trying to fight also the privatization of colleges. Our main goal right now is to have the chancellor of all community colleges step down, and after that the total abolishment of the board of trustees.

UNIDENTIFIED: The tuition increases are ridiculous, man. They keep making all these cuts to programs that the people need. Meanwhile, they’re cutting taxes for the rich. Like, and that’s the policies that are potentially destructive for this country, because there’s only so much that people can take, there’s only so much that students can take before they start to fight back.

JULIAN GUERRERO, STUDENTS UNITED FOR A FREE CUNY: So half the reason why we’re here fighting for our public institution that belongs to us is because the other option is debt. Me myself, I’m in debt $70,000 dollars. I actually got a letter from Sallie Mae saying that if I don’t start paying today $900 a month, [I’m] going to have more aggressive attempts at collecting my debt. And so I’m going to burn this right here, now.

NOOR: The CUNY faculty union also opposes the tuition hike. Anthony Alessandrini, associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, said keeping tuition affordable is part of a bigger fight for a democratic public education system.

ANTHONY ALESSANDRINI, KINGSBOROUGH COMMUNITY COLLEGE: It is also a struggle against a top-down university administration–specifically, the board of trustees and the chancellor’s office–that is not democratic. It’s essentially politically appointed. Students being pushed out of their own building. And today, as you may have seen if you’ve been at Baruch, students being told essentially that they are locked out of the building on their campus is, I think, just the latest example of an administrative policy that’s about pushing students out of having any control of their own education and an administration that really is not interested in input from students or teachers or people who work at the university. It’s an unaccountable system. So I think in–yes, it’s about tuition increases. And then in a larger sense it’s about a decision-making chain which is not really interested in getting input. And, you know, having a supposed public meeting at a school that serves several hundred thousand students in a room that holds 300 people is not a democratic process.

DAVID HARVEY, CUNY GRADUATE CENTER: Right now what’s happening is you’re actually taking state debt and you’re retiring state debt by raising CUNY tuitions, which means you’re putting the state debt on the backs of students, you’re turning them into sort of–it’s debt peonage for them for the rest of their lives, ’cause they have to go into debt more and more to complete the CUNY education. You know, this comes at a moment when social inequality has suddenly been put on the map by the Wall Street occupation movement. And one of the main means by which social inequality is perpetuated is, of course, through differential access to education. And here now, what are you doing? You’re creating even more differential access by raising tuition by a very, very large amount relative to what the tuition was before.

NOOR: New York City Councilmember Charles Barron of East New York was among several local politicians who has voiced his support for the protesters. He confronted police as they used motorcycles to aggressively pursue students as they marched through the streets.

CHARLES BARRON, NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL: I don’t want them to run the scooters into the students. So get them little scooters off the streets, take down the barricades [incompr.]

NOOR: Barron, also a CUNY alum, argues that an economic downturn should bring increased funding to public education rather than cutbacks.

BARRON: With all of this unemployment [incompr.] now, this is the time for working-class people to get degrees, skills. And that’s why CUNY is essential. It was free when I went. It should be free now, and they shouldn’t be hiking no tuition.

NOOR: City and state officials say the tuition increase is needed to close a multimillion dollar budget shortfall. In a statement, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said the tuition increases have, quote, cleared the pathway for present and future generations to benefit from access to a quality higher education. But Sarah Pomar, an organizer with the group Students United for a Free CUNY, says the fight will continue for a more equitable higher education system.

SARAH POMAR, STUDENTS UNITED FOR A FREE CUNY: It’s a defeat in the sense of legislation and the sense that we have to pay more tuition. But I think we need to be very optimistic of the organizing and the level of radicalization that we’ve experienced through Occupy Wall Street. I think what we need to do now is just regroup, speak about, really, what the role of campus security, police, the board of trustees are within our institutions and in society as a whole, and we need to just build bases, try to kind of remind people that, you know, the fight is still ongoing. The vote always happens, but the struggle always needs to continue.

NOOR: Outside a public hearing last week, police used batons to beat students and faculty as they attempted to enter a public hearing. More than a dozen students and faculty were arrested. During Monday’s demonstrations, police arrested four students. Reporting for FSRN and The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor in New York.

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