Tomorrow at least six of the twelve adults who will gather around our Thanksgiving table are products of the University of California system. My parents both hold degrees from UC Berkeley, my sister and her husband from UC Santa Cruz, my husband and I from UC Davis.
My campus is in the news this week. While I was in Texas, continuing my education, my academic birthplace dominated headlines and social media feeds. UC Davis isn’t a headline kind of place. It’s not the school you seek if you’re hoping to rabble-rouse, party hard, or set the world afire. Pastoral, self-effacing, hard-working – those descriptors generally fit the campus, its students, faculty, and culture. Seeing that campus in the news, the quad packed with thousands of protestors, is like opening the morning paper to find that the quiet kid in the back of math class is the celebrity of the month.
The Occupy protests and their associated ramifications and consequences trouble me, even as they inspire. Since Occupy Wall Street began, I’ve been curious to see how the movement would play out, and I’ve been unsettled. I don’t think I’m alone. To say that our society is not at a tipping point is naïve. We’ve been hurtling toward the precipice for a good decade or more. Like people, all societies have a finite lifespan. We’re all dying, but some are doing it faster than others. In the past couple of decades, American society has been chain-smoking, binge-eating, and drunk driving its way toward economic and cultural terminal illness.
Group-think scares the hell out of me. Most bad ideas manifest as a group saying, “Hey, look. Here’s a really good idea.” So, while I believe firmly in advocacy, action, and speaking out, mass demonstrations make me squirm. As much as my personal economic theories range toward the socialist end of the spectrum – I’m sorry, but I’ve just never understood why the concept of shared wealth and support became a bad word – I’ve also resisted the notion of corporate-political conspiracy.
I was born just a few days before the Kent State Massacre. My parents graduated from UC Berkley in 1967. I’m not a child of the Free Speech Movement by any means, but I’m old enough that the lessons (good and bad) of the 60’s are a part of my consciousness. Among the basic principles of my childhood were:
1) Think for yourself.
2) Stand up for your beliefs.
3) Defend those who need you.
4) Never. Ever. Judge another person until you have ‘walked a mile in their shoes.’
That last principle confounds things more than you could possibly imagine. In an increasingly black-and-white world, it’s tricky to maintain objectivity and even trickier to feel justified in my own opinions while trying to see through someone else’s eyes. And that’s a good thing. Despite what pundits, protests, and politicians tell us, thought and belief shouldn’t be easy. This is hard work, folks. We should scrutinize protests, even those with goals that generally match ours, and see beyond the placards and chants. We should look at everything – from the trash on the ground to the behavior of authority – and we should question.
This is one of the things that has always made me a bit queasy about large-scale protest. It’s like advertising – protest deliberately puts out only one side of the story. But stories are like onions (and ogres), they have layers.
So, this fall, aware of the layers, I’ve watched the Occupy protests from the distance of a computer screen, ignoring the e-mails from community organizing groups to join the movement. And there’s the lesson. Ignoring issues doesn’t drive them away. No matter how far into that sand we bury our heads, sooner or later the predator finds us and bites us on the ass.
It took the courage of students who were born sometime during my undergraduate years to show me that sometimes the other side doesn’t have much of a point. These students, raised into a world of $5 coffees and disposable electronics, face a world for which nothing had prepared them. They lived their childhoods in an America of ridiculous affluence and excess. They face adulthood in an American that has crumbled under that excess. They’re mortgaging their futures in the pursuit of education in a system that has failed to deliver its side of the contract. I’m worried for them.
And, I’m worried about members of my family who will be dissecting their stuffing to pick out offending mushrooms and sticking olives on their fingertips. I wonder if my children and their cousins will have any hope of obtaining the affordable, amazing education that was taken for granted by previous generations of Californians. Is education a right or a privilege? Many who already have or who never wanted higher education seem to now take the view that the experience is a privilege.
They are wrong. The point of the state university system was to eliminate the concept of a privileged, educated elite. The driving force behind the public universities of California was the notion that if you were smart enough and willing to work hard enough, you should be entitled to the same caliber of education as that obtainable by the scions of wealth. Education, in short, was a right.
When I entered UC Davis in the fall of 1988, tuition fees were around $450 per quarter. My understanding is that UC tuition is now ten times that amount and increasing. I’ve seen projections of annual tuition of over $20,000 within just a few years. Add in books, housing, and food (ramen at best), and a Bachelors degree will soon cost roughly the same amount as the house of my childhood.
What are these students getting for what amounts to a mortgage on their lives? A deal that would cause any businessman worth his salt to break the contract immediately. In what other business transaction does the seller get to increase the price by an indeterminate amount during the period of the contract while simultaneously lessening the services provided?
If cutting classes and raising registration fees weren’t insulting enough, the UC system has, for several decades now, decided that the best method of handling client complaints is through condescension, broken promises, and now force. The tone of Regents and campus Chancellors alike toward students over several years has been one of exasperated adults toward fractious children. This attitude prevails on most college campuses, I suspect, and it may be inevitable where you have a population comprised of “experts” in their fields placed in positions of teaching and administrating a demographic whose days of Saturday morning cartoons aren’t far in the past. However, this must cease. University students are not children. They are adults by the dictates of law, society, and physiology.
And, on Friday and through the weekend, on the UC Davis campus, the students were indeed the adults. They occupied a campus, not as trespassers, but as shareholders and stakeholders. They occupied a campus that is theirs by right as citizens of the state of California and as paying registrants of the UC system. They held their ground peacefully in the traditions of non-violent protest that have deep roots in academia. And they were met by violence of the worst kind. The campus police were not pushed to the brink or threatened by an unruly mob. They pepper-sprayed a group of seated students with the contempt of pest-control technicians.
It speaks volumes that the faculty have chosen to stand with the students who swarm their office hours begging for a better curve on the midterm or an extension on a paper. The faculty of the departments of English and Physics have called for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi.
Chancellor Katehi and UC President Yudof have given lip-service to their “horror” at the actions of the UC police on the Davis and Berkeley campuses. Yet, more telling than all of the pretty, rote, and empty words, was the expression in Chancellor Katehi’s eyes at the protest on the UC Davis Quad this weekend. In video shot before her ‘apology’, you can see the Chancellor roll her eyes as a student speaks. Words mean nothing, Chancellor. Courage means everything. And you have none. You, and any of your like-minded colleagues, must go. Californians want our universities back. Our children deserve better.
The video below was posted on YouTube by Capital Public Radio: