Protest smarter, not harder

So, the University of California campuses have been “on strike” for the latter half of the week, with students walking out to protest the giant fee increases that are coming next year, on top of the pretty big payment hikes that have already gone through for this year.  Some students will be paying close to double what they expected when they started their degree programs.  That’s… just ridiculous, really.

It’s interesting that the UC system was intended to provide tuition-free post-secondary education for California residents.  It’s actually built into the university’s charter that the stated goal of the university is to cost nothing:

Sec. 14. For the time being, an admission fee and rates of tuition, such as the Board of Regents shall deem expedient, may be required of each pupil, except as herein otherwise provided; and as soon as the income of the University shall permit, admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the State.

Admission fees and rates of tuition were a temporary measure, until the university got up on its feet and could start providing a free education to the residents of California.  That was almost 150 years ago.  It’s worth noting that the university did technically meet this standard by removing all tuition costs from students, instead charging them a steadily increasing additional fee that has long since become a de facto tuition payment for attending the university.  A side note to this is that UC students are ineligible for certain US federal government programs because those programs provide support for tuition costs that UC students technically do not pay.

So, the UC system has already strayed rather far from its stated goal of a free education, and the latest giant fee increases certainly do little to help.  I just don’t know what the government of California is thinking when it dramatically cuts funding to a higher-education system that is not only in-place and functioning, but by most standards is performing brilliantly.  It strikes me as rather poorly-conceived to underfund something with an established infrastructure and systematised operation.  The land is bought, the structures are built, the staff are hired and trained — the hardest and most expensive part of establishing and running a university is already done, and all that effort and expense is being underused because of the government’s unwillingness to keep things going.  It’s like paying a fortune for an apartment and then not moving in because you don’t want to cough up the building’s maintenance fees.

*   *   *   *

All of that leads back to the student protests today, the “strike.”  I support the students 100% in their efforts against the absurd fee increases.  Their voices need to be heard.  I’m also aware that I was pretty damned lucky to finish my degree when I did, so as to avoid this kind of  abrupt increase in the cost of education.

But… a “strike,” really?  What exactly are the students striking against?  The university isn’t (for most, at least) their employer, and isn’t paying them for the work they do.  The relationship is actually just the opposite, where the students pay the university for its effort and resources.  When students don’t attend class, that isn’t a strike.  It’s not even a walk-out.  It’s a boycott, a consumer rejecting a product with which the consumer is unhappy.  Boycotts are a practical and effective way to communicate with an organisation — the protest model is certainly sound.

However, the student actions over the last three days have highlighted why these protests are frustratingly inefficient: you can’t boycott a product that you’ve already paid for.  Not going to classes right now is the functional equivalent of ordering a pizza, paying for it with a credit card, and then having the driver go to the wrong address; it’s a great prank, except that you already paid for the pizza.  The students who aren’t attending class today have already paid for these classes.  It’s done; the money is spent.  Would anyone protest high food prices by buying food and then letting it rot for three days?  When the underlying disagreement here is about the effective use of limited resources, it seems awfully bizarre to frame a protest around the under-use of resources.  How much does it hurt the university to have a bunch of students not attend class?  The answer — not much.  But, how much does it hurt the students?

Of course, in theory the “strike” by students frees them to attend the protests, and the protests are what will make a difference in communicating their frustration and anger to the Board of Regents and the government of California.  But, how exactly does not going to class facilitate this?  Students, for all their hard work, don’t actually spend much time in class.  A full course-load for most students is three hours a day, give or take.  That leaves plenty of time to attend protests.  And, protesting between classes would actually increase the number of students attending the demonstrations, because for every student who arrives late or leaves early because of a class, two more students can attend who wouldn’t even have been around at all otherwise.  This “strike” has dramatically reduced the overall number of students on campus, and as such has dramatically reduced the number of people around to protest.  By “cancelling” classes, the protest organisers are encouraging their manpower to stay home.  I know an awful lot of people who used this strike as a chance to go home for Thanksgiving early, and many of those people would cheerfully have attended a protest if their classes had forced them to be around anyway.  The “strike” action has made for a smaller protest.

Added to this, I see that today’s boycott of classes is actually being run by protest organisers as if it were a real strike.  Protesters were running into buildings and setting off fire alarms to force evacuations, for example.  Now, if this were really a strike that would be a very effective strategy, because it would prevent the services originally offered by the striking workers from happening without them.  But, again, this isn’t a strike.

If the effort here is to force solidarity among the boycotting students and those who chose to attend class (a class they already paid good money for), then the effort fails.  The students who chose to attend class are very unlikely to think, “I’m really worried about my grades this semester, and now I’ve lost my chance to get the Professor to answer my questions, and I’m outside standing in the rain.  Naturally, I’ll go join the protests that ruined my class.”  They’re going to home annoyed, and the protest will have alienated valuable potential allies.

If the effort here is to punish Professors who insist on mandatory class attendance during the boycott, and therefore to liberate students who would otherwise be at the protest, then that would be a good strategy.  Except, profs aren’t doing that.  Faculty has in general been very supportive of the protests.  I’m sure that there must be a few profs out there who are insisting with draconian firmness that students must attend classes during the boycott, but they are clearly very rare.  I’m not aware of a single professor who has insisted on attendance during the boycott, and I don’t know of anyone who is.  I assume that such profs are out there, but clearly not in enough numbers to matter.  Instead, the attitude among faculty who are holding classes today is overwhelmingly, “Go to the protest if you like, but I’ll be here to help anyone who needs it.”  Those are the classes that are being shut down by fire alarms and building takeovers — the ones run by profs who support the protest and don’t want to see students suffer.  How on earth does it help the protest movement to interrupt such classes with yelling and screaming until the prof gives up and sends students home?  The students aren’t liberated; they’re just more stressed about failing their finals.

So, I look at these protests, and I wonder just whom they are designed to help.  The organisers have encouraged their biggest manpower base to stay home, or go to the airport.  The student protesters themselves are letting a service that they already paid for rot in order to demonstrate how important that service is.  And, sympathetic students and faculty who chose not to directly join the protest are being alienated from the movement.  How is this effective protesting on any level beyond the most basic notion that loud noises get attention?

The cynic in me wonders, if this student protect is being organised as if it were a strike, aren’t the people to benefit most the unionised workers who are (actually) striking for several days during the course of the protests?  It seems fairly obvious that striking university employees are gaining overall protest manpower by striking with the students.  And, while the students lose overall manpower by framing their protest around an ill-fitting strike strategy, the union employees actually benefit as any striking labour entity would.  It’s hard not to think that the student protesters (who form a fairly significant majority of the protest) are being used by the striking unions as an avenue for enhancing the effect of the union walkouts; if the students could have protested their own causes more efficiently by not following an employee-oriented strike strategy, the only reason I could see for them to intentionally adopt a less-effective protest technique is if it were intended to primarily benefit a group other than protesting students.  Of course, it’s also possible that protest leaders were simply more concerned with being loud than being heard, but I do wonder what role union organisers had in shaping the student protest strategies.

It’s really, really lame what is happening to current UC students with these fee increases.  I think protest and activism is absolutely the way to go with this, because the government of California is going to keep cutting university funding as long as it thinks people don’t care enough.  But, the activists need to be smart about this.  A successful protest doesn’t hurt the people it tries to help.  A successful protest doesn’t encourage protesters to stay home.  A successful protest creates sympathy, not alienation.  I really, really hope that the student voices have been heard over the last few days, because I would hate to think that all of this mismanaged effort could be for nothing.

Protest isn’t about being loud; it’s about being smart.  University-educated protest organisers should be able to figure this stuff out.

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