December 10, 2020
From Popular Resistance

Above photo:

With an $11 billion endowment, Columbia University has been fleecing students during the pandemic.

Now students are fighting back.

At the end of Novem¬≠ber, mem¬≠bers of the Colum¬≠bia Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty-Barnard Col¬≠lege chap¬≠ter of Young Demo¬≠c¬≠ra¬≠t¬≠ic Social¬≠ists of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca (YDSA) launched a tuition strike cam¬≠paign against ‚Äč‚Äúexor¬≠bi¬≠tant tuition rates‚ÄĚ which, they say, ‚Äč‚Äúcon¬≠sti¬≠tute a sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant source of finan¬≠cial hard¬≠ship‚ÄĚ dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic. Stu¬≠dent demands are wide-rang¬≠ing and include a 10% reduc¬≠tion in the cost of atten¬≠dance, 10% increase in finan¬≠cial aid, and an amal¬≠ga¬≠ma¬≠tion of demands from dis¬≠parate stu¬≠dent cam¬≠paigns, many of which were set in motion long before the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic began. So far over 1,700 stu¬≠dents have signed a peti¬≠tion to with¬≠hold tuition for the Spring 2021 semes¬≠ter and any future dona¬≠tions to the uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty after graduating.

Colum¬≠bia has con¬≠sis¬≠tent¬≠ly topped charts as the most expen¬≠sive pri¬≠vate uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty in the coun¬≠try, charg¬≠ing over $61,000 a year in tuition and fees, which accounts for near¬≠ly a quar¬≠ter of the school‚Äôs rev¬≠enue. ‚Äč‚ÄĚWe just felt like the only way to pres¬≠sure a uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty that is struc¬≠tured around the prof¬≠it motive would be to direct¬≠ly impact their bot¬≠tom line,‚ÄĚ says Emma¬≠line Ben¬≠nett, a stu¬≠dent at Columbia‚Äôs Teach¬≠ers Col¬≠lege and one of the found¬≠ing mem¬≠bers of Colum¬≠bia-Barnard YDSA, which she co-chairs.

Since the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic began, the university‚Äôs $11 bil¬≠lion endow¬≠ment has seen a $310 mil¬≠lion increase while the response from admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion, Ben¬≠nett says, ‚Äč‚Äúhas been most¬≠ly emp¬≠ty rhetoric around shared sacrifice.‚ÄĚ

In These Times reached out to the uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion and did not hear back by the time of pub¬≠li¬≠ca¬≠tion. In a Decem¬≠ber 1 arti¬≠cle in Patch, a uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty spokesper¬≠son said, ‚Äč‚ÄúThrough¬≠out this dif¬≠fi¬≠cult year, Colum¬≠bia has remained focused on pre¬≠serv¬≠ing the health and safe¬≠ty of our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, ful¬≠fill¬≠ing our com¬≠mit¬≠ment to anti-racism, pro¬≠vid¬≠ing the edu¬≠ca¬≠tion sought by our stu¬≠dents, and con¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠ing the sci¬≠en¬≠tif¬≠ic and oth¬≠er research need¬≠ed to over¬≠come soci¬≠ety‚Äôs seri¬≠ous challenges.‚ÄĚ

Bec¬≠ca Roskill, a junior in Columbia‚Äôs school of engi¬≠neer¬≠ing and sec¬≠re¬≠tary of Colum¬≠bia-Barnard YDSA, says that the cam¬≠paign has been care¬≠ful to frame the tuition strike as a means of address¬≠ing the ongo¬≠ing stu¬≠dent debt cri¬≠sis and not just wors¬≠en¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions under Covid-19. ‚Äč‚ÄúWe want¬≠ed to shift the con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion away from pay¬≠ing less because of online class¬≠es and shift the con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion toward a cri¬≠sis that‚Äôs emerged from the fact that we‚Äôre treat¬≠ing edu¬≠ca¬≠tion as a com¬≠mod¬≠i¬≠ty in the first place.‚ÄĚ

Lead¬≠ing up to the strike‚Äôs announce¬≠ment, stu¬≠dents orga¬≠nized a peti¬≠tion for par¬≠tial tuition reim¬≠burse¬≠ment (dif¬≠fer¬≠ent from the one list¬≠ed above), an email cam¬≠paign and phone zaps, a pres¬≠sure tac¬≠tic used to flood office lines, to impress upon admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tors the bur¬≠dens of the university‚Äôs exces¬≠sive costs. Before the start of the Fall semes¬≠ter, a tuition freeze was issued for the university‚Äôs two main under¬≠grad¬≠u¬≠ate schools, Colum¬≠bia Col¬≠lege and the Fu Foun¬≠da¬≠tion School of Engi¬≠neer¬≠ing and Applied Sci¬≠ence‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČcon¬≠ces¬≠sions that Ben¬≠nett believes were a direct response to stu¬≠dent orga¬≠niz¬≠ing over the sum¬≠mer. But sup¬≠port for stu¬≠dents and work¬≠ers across cam¬≠pus, Ben¬≠nett says, has been uneven, and the tuition strike is aimed at much more than just high tuition.

In addi¬≠tion to low¬≠er¬≠ing the cost of atten¬≠dance and increas¬≠ing finan¬≠cial aid, the tuition strike has includ¬≠ed demands to put an end to cam¬≠pus expan¬≠sion, invest in the sur¬≠round¬≠ing West Harlem com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, defund the university‚Äôs Depart¬≠ment of Pub¬≠lic Safe¬≠ty (the cam¬≠pus law enforce¬≠ment body), com¬≠mit to trans¬≠paren¬≠cy around the university‚Äôs finan¬≠cial invest¬≠ments, and bar¬≠gain in good faith with unions on campus.

‚ÄúThe stu¬≠dents orga¬≠niz¬≠ing the tuition strike view it as a last-resort tac¬≠tic to com¬≠pel the uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty to lis¬≠ten to demands that stu¬≠dents have been orga¬≠niz¬≠ing around for the past few years,‚ÄĚ reads a state¬≠ment released Mon¬≠day. The tuition strike has received wide sup¬≠port in part by build¬≠ing coali¬≠tions with oth¬≠er groups on cam¬≠pus that have put for¬≠ward their own demands in the past. This includes ref¬≠er¬≠en¬≠dums vot¬≠ed on by the stu¬≠dent body, which the demands let¬≠ter says should be respect¬≠ed and enforced.

A ref¬≠er¬≠en¬≠dum that was passed in Sep¬≠tem¬≠ber demand¬≠ing the uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty divest from com¬≠pa¬≠nies that prof¬≠it from or sup¬≠port Israel‚Äôs human rights abus¬≠es against Pales¬≠tini¬≠ans was the cul¬≠mi¬≠na¬≠tion of years of orga¬≠niz¬≠ing from mem¬≠bers of Stu¬≠dents for Jus¬≠tice in Pales¬≠tine and Jew¬≠ish Voice for Peace. The ref¬≠er¬≠en¬≠dum has been all but dis¬≠missed by the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion despite being passed by the stu¬≠dent body. Sim¬≠i¬≠lar¬≠ly, admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tors have been slow to respond to stu¬≠dent demands to divest the school‚Äôs endow¬≠ment from fos¬≠sil fuels, a cam¬≠paign that has been waged on cam¬≠pus since 2015. YDSA has been busy build¬≠ing ties with the cam¬≠pus chap¬≠ters of Extinc¬≠tion Rebel¬≠lion and the Sun¬≠rise Movement.

The tuition strike has also includ¬≠ed demands from Mobi¬≠lized African Dias¬≠po¬≠ra (MAD), a coali¬≠tion of Black stu¬≠dent activists on cam¬≠pus that sent its own detailed list of demands to Colum¬≠bia Pres¬≠i¬≠dent Lee Bollinger. After spend¬≠ing the sum¬≠mer mobi¬≠liz¬≠ing against police vio¬≠lence, MAD called for the uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty to com¬≠mit to anti-racism and pro¬≠vide employ¬≠ment and afford¬≠able hous¬≠ing to the sur¬≠round¬≠ing Harlem com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, end the university‚Äôs rela¬≠tion¬≠ship with the New York Police Depart¬≠ment, cut fund¬≠ing from the university‚Äôs Depart¬≠ment of Pub¬≠lic Safe¬≠ty and increase sup¬≠port for Black students.

On Decem¬≠ber 3, mere days after the strike‚Äôs announce¬≠ment, Barnard Col¬≠lege can¬≠celed its search for a new exec¬≠u¬≠tive direc¬≠tor of Pub¬≠lic Safe¬≠ty and announced it would restruc¬≠ture the office to focus on com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty safe¬≠ty under the new Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty Account¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ty, Response, and Emer¬≠gency Ser¬≠vices office. Ben¬≠nett says MAD has been a major coali¬≠tion part¬≠ner, and the group‚Äôs demands to repair harm to the sur¬≠round¬≠ing com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty and invest in com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty safe¬≠ty solu¬≠tions are reflect¬≠ed in the tuition strike.

YDSA‚Äôs let¬≠ter to the admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion also includes a demand to bar¬≠gain in good faith with unions on cam¬≠pus for increased ben¬≠e¬≠fits and com¬≠pen¬≠sa¬≠tion in addi¬≠tion to pro¬≠tec¬≠tions for inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al stu¬≠dents. State¬≠ments from the tuition strike cam¬≠paign have empha¬≠sized that cuts to cost of atten¬≠dance ‚Äč‚Äúshould not come at the expense of instruc¬≠tor or work¬≠er pay, but rather at the expense of bloat¬≠ed admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tive salaries, expan¬≠sion projects, and oth¬≠er expens¬≠es that don‚Äôt ben¬≠e¬≠fit stu¬≠dents and workers.‚ÄĚ

The Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Work¬≠ers of Colum¬≠bia-Unit¬≠ed Auto Work¬≠ers Local 2110 (GWC-UAW), which has been the recip¬≠i¬≠ent of strike sup¬≠port and sol¬≠i¬≠dar¬≠i¬≠ty from YDSA, will be ask¬≠ing its mem¬≠ber¬≠ship to pledge their sup¬≠port for the strike. This would include dis¬≠trib¬≠ut¬≠ing tuition strike mate¬≠ri¬≠als to stu¬≠dents and con¬≠tin¬≠u¬≠ing to teach stu¬≠dents who plan on with¬≠hold¬≠ing tuition even if told not to by uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty officials.

Susan¬≠nah Glick¬≠man, a fifth year PhD stu¬≠dent in his¬≠to¬≠ry at Columbia‚Äôs Grad¬≠u¬≠ate School of Arts and Sci¬≠ences and a mem¬≠ber of GWC‚Äôs bar¬≠gain¬≠ing com¬≠mit¬≠tee, says YDSA and the union have been work¬≠ing close¬≠ly to sup¬≠port each oth¬≠er. ‚Äč‚ÄúIt‚Äôs good that stu¬≠dents rec¬≠og¬≠nize that they have some pow¬≠er to influ¬≠ence the con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tion [around cor¬≠po¬≠rate gov¬≠er¬≠nance], even if they‚Äôre not employ¬≠ees,‚ÄĚ Glick¬≠man said. ‚Äč‚ÄúThey prob¬≠a¬≠bly have more [pow¬≠er] because they‚Äôre the finan¬≠cial base of the university.‚ÄĚ

Tuition strike orga¬≠niz¬≠ers say the idea for a tuition strike pre¬≠ced¬≠ed the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, but was in part inspired by the Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty of Chica¬≠go where 200 stu¬≠dents with¬≠held pay¬≠ments in late April with a num¬≠ber of demands, includ¬≠ing a 50% reduc¬≠tion in tuition. By the end of their tuition strike in mid-May, Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty of Chica¬≠go stu¬≠dents had won a freeze on tuition, which is now over $57,000 a year‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČsec¬≠ond only to Colum¬≠bia. Today, the total cost of atten¬≠dance at the Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty of Chica¬≠go is esti¬≠mat¬≠ed to be upwards of $80,000 a year when includ¬≠ing fees, room and board, per¬≠son¬≠al expens¬≠es and books.

With over 1,700 stu¬≠dents signed on, Columbia‚Äôs tuition strike next spring could rep¬≠re¬≠sent the largest tuition strike since 1973, when stu¬≠dents at the Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty of Michi¬≠gan with¬≠held pay¬≠ments in oppo¬≠si¬≠tion to a 24% increase in tuition from the year before. About 2,500 signed up for a tuition strike which coin¬≠cid¬≠ed with a wave of labor orga¬≠niz¬≠ing on the part of teach¬≠ing fel¬≠lows and oth¬≠er grad¬≠u¬≠ate employ¬≠ees. While the stu¬≠dent tuition strike alone was not enough to win con¬≠ces¬≠sions from the Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty of Michigan‚Äôs admin¬≠is¬≠tra¬≠tion, the Grad¬≠u¬≠ate Employ¬≠ees‚Äô Orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tion (GEO), which rep¬≠re¬≠sents grad¬≠u¬≠ate work¬≠ers on cam¬≠pus, was ulti¬≠mate¬≠ly able to win a tuition reduc¬≠tion and increased pay and ben¬≠e¬≠fits through con¬≠tract nego¬≠ti¬≠a¬≠tions after more than half of under¬≠grad¬≠u¬≠ate stu¬≠dents joined GEO mem¬≠bers in a pick¬≠et line in Feb¬≠ru¬≠ary 1975.

As stu¬≠dents con¬≠tin¬≠ue to mobi¬≠lize toward next semester‚Äôs tuition strike, YDSA orga¬≠niz¬≠ers report an increase in mem¬≠ber¬≠ship and par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion with¬≠in their chap¬≠ter, which some believe has been strength¬≠ened by their abil¬≠i¬≠ty to orga¬≠nize digitally.

‚ÄúI think we‚Äôve seen a strength¬≠en¬≠ing in our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty that we did¬≠n‚Äôt expect to be able to cater to over Zoom,‚ÄĚ says Roskill. ‚Äč‚ÄĚAnd we‚Äôre real¬≠ly hope¬≠ful that social¬≠ist pol¬≠i¬≠tics will pro¬≠vide an answer to the polit¬≠i¬≠cal ques¬≠tions that weren‚Äôt being answered by Biden or Trump, par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly on stu¬≠dent debt advocacy.‚ÄĚ

Indigo Olivier is an In These Times Good¬≠man Inves¬≠tiga¬≠tive Fellow.