By Bill Guy
Photo © Ken Steinhardt/Orange County Register/ZUMAStudents settle in for the first night of a sit-in at the CSU Fullerton administration building to protest cuts to the university system's budget.
Students organized a three-and-a-half-day sit-in April 18-21 at CSU Fullerton that succeeded in persuading CSUF President Milton Gordon to sign their “Declaration to Defend Public Education.” This action promises to be the first salvo in an ongoing effort by California higher education students and faculty statewide to carry out activities emphasizing social justice and the defense of public education.
Impetus for the sit-in began about a year and a half ago, when a loosely knit group of CSUF students, faculty and campus organizations involved in social justice issues coalesced into a group named “We! Alternative Voices for an Alternative Future” or “We!” for short. John Belleci, a CSUF undergraduate student in history who was recently elected Student CTA state executive secretary-treasurer, is a member of the CSUF We! organization, along with fellow SCTA members Gabriella Longbotham and Kristina Hohmann. Hohmann was recently elected SCTA state executive vice president.
“We have been increasingly frustrated and anxious about having to pay more and more for tuition, while losing class time due to furlough days — paying more and getting less,” says Belleci. “And we’re not just concerned about current students. What’s going to happen to future generations of California college students?”
CSUF We! member concern was heightened last spring when university officials proposed cuts to modern language and humanities classes.
“If classes in the social sciences were going to be cut, we felt that they were devaluing our degrees, so we realized that it was time to fight,” says Belleci.
After We! members tried unsuccessfully to meet with President Gordon on several occasions in spring 2010, they were able to meet directly with senior administrators, and held two open-mike forums on the meaning and value of public education. On March 2 of this year, We! planned a day of action in collaboration with Students for Quality Education, distributing fliers that invited students and faculty to participate in a rally and open-mike opportunity to express their feelings about education at CSU Fullerton.
Then, at one of the We! organization’s regular Wednesday night workshop sessions on social justice and current issues, the group’s organizing committee in conjunction with representatives from CSU Long Beach, CSU Los Angeles, Compton College, Fullerton College and Mt. San Antonio College hammered out the “Declaration to Defend Public Education,” a statement affirming the right of all Californians to a quality public education, preschool through graduate school.
At the April 13 CSUF “Take Class Action” rally, part of a day of action coordinated by the California Faculty Association and held on California’s college and university campuses statewide, We! members circulated their declaration. By the end of the day, with over 1,200 signatures of endorsement, the students and faculty marched as a group to the office of CSUF President Gordon, asking him to sign the document in solidarity. Gordon initially refused to sign the document, saying he needed more time to read it. He agreed to meet with a delegation of students and faculty on Monday, April 18.
At the meeting, Gordon said that he could not endorse the document because of “problematic language” related to faculty contracts and negotiations. According to We! representatives, when they said that they would be willing to delete the problematic clauses and work with Gordon to come up with a mutually agreeable document, his response was, “I don’t have the time.” The students said that they did have the time, and would wait until he could meet with them. They also began mobilizing to organize students who would be able to participate in a sit-in at the administration, through the night if necessary.
At that point, in an effort to prevent the sit-in, university officials presented We! with a compromise statement that did not address the core issues on the declaration. So the sit-in was on, with about 40 students and a few faculty participating. “We made a deal with the campus police that we would not occupy the eighth floor of the administration building — the area including President Gordon’s office and requiring a secure elevator key for access — but would be willing to conduct our sit-in on the second floor,” says Belleci. “They told us that if we were peaceful and did not destroy any university property, there would be no disciplinary action because we would be acting in a peaceful demonstration of our civil rights. Our response was that this is our university. We’re not going to destroy anything. That’s not what we’re about.”
At about 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the first reporters and media photographers arrived, and the sit-in hit the newspaper, television, radio and online media markets in short order. When university officials met with the students that day, they said that President Gordon still could not sign the declaration because of his concern about the contract language. Again, the students reiterated their willingness to sit with Gordon to craft a document that would be mutually acceptable. The response was negative, so the sit-in continued into its second night, with students coming from more than a dozen area colleges and universities in San Marcos, San Bernardino, Northridge, Long Beach, Irvine, Los Angeles and Sacramento — more than 110 participating in solidarity with CSUF students.
During the day on Wednesday, attorneys for the university examined the students’ declaration, with administration officials finally agreeing to meet with the students at 4 p.m. After intense negotiations, administration officials came back with their own “Statement of Public Education,” but the students could not agree to the document without bringing it to their entire organizing committee — some of whom were still in class at the time. “They really pressured us to sign,” says Belleci. “But we told them that we would not give up our principles.”
On Thursday, Pasadena Assembly Member Anthony Portentino spoke with the students, promising to urge Gordon to support their concerns. At noon that day, the CSUF Academic Senate voted unanimously to endorse the students’ cause. With pressure mounting, the university’s administration finally agreed to work with the students on a compromise document, which President Gordon ultimately signed.
“We’re pleased that we were able to achieve our goal,” says Belleci. “But it’s a shame that our university’s administration and President Gordon were so reluctant to sign a document that contained nothing that is not already in the CSU charter and the California higher education system’s stated purposes. Other California college and university student and faculty activist groups are reaching out to We! for information and support to coordinate lobbying efforts for both higher and K-12 public education in California, and we’re all gearing up for a statewide simultaneous action next fall. I also believe that we’re going to see a greater advocacy emphasis by members of SCTA statewide.”
Declaration to Defend Public Education
- We, the students, staff, and educators of California's public schools, colleges, and universities, call upon the people of the state to recommit to and reinvest in public education as the principal foundation of a democratic society.
- Public education is a sacred trust and needs to be protected from those who would see the state divest even further from its constitutional obligations.
- Public education is a public good and needs to be protected from the for-profit interests of the private sector.
- We call upon the people of California to recognize that, though an educated workforce is essential to our prosperity, education itself has a social value that cannot be reduced to monetary considerations alone.
- Public education brings together diverse communities of educators, staff and students in ways that prepare learners for a productive yet socially responsible life.
- Public education creates spaces that promote the intellectual and emotional development of tolerant, critically-engaged citizens.
- Public education is by definition open to all Californians, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status, and is thus the very cornerstone of a vibrant, principled, and fundamentally compassionate democracy.
- Everyone has the right to a quality public education.
As Californians we expect:
- Increased funding for public education.
- Fair and equitable access for all students to a full range of educational programs, resources, experiences, and opportunities. The failure to support an accessible, fully-funded public education system will condemn many Californians to perpetual poverty and second-class status.
- Fair and equitable contracts that respect and value the work done by teachers, lecturers, professors, academic professionals and staff on all levels from pre-school through university.
- A commitment from administrators, school boards, teachers unions, staff unions, student organizations, parent groups, professional associations, community-based organizations, and postsecondary institutions to work together with the state to provide quality education for all people regardless of gender and economic, social, ethnic, or racial status.
For the full text of the declaration go to www.werisetogether.org.
Related Tags: Volume 15 Issue 8, Inside Educator, Take A Stand, Educator, Activism, Cuts, Higher Education, Protest, SCTA, Student,