“Education, Not a Corporation”
Students at the University of Massachusetts Boston began their spring semester with peaceful direct action on Monday, January 23, occupying a portion of their school’s Campus Center. Four tents, an information table, pro-democracy signs, and a chessboard welcome all those en route to the building’s food court.
Afforded this prominent free-speech zone at the city’s only public four-year university, Occupy UMass Boston (#OUMB) aims to empower the 99% as budget cuts and ever-rising fees jeopardize fair access to education.
“Since 2006,” an official statement from the group reads, “in-state tuition and fees have increased 38%, and the administration is proposing continued increases by a rate of 8% annually.” This is attributed to “both state and federal government policies defunding public higher education” and “campus administration actions to convert UMass Boston into a privatized university.”
The group expressed solidarity with the greater Occupy Movement and the student movement, citing “Occupy UC Davis, Occupy Berkeley, and the student revolt in Chile and those at hundreds of other universities” as inspiration for their own occupation.
Students object to the Board of Trustees’ status as “an unelected body appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts to manage the entire UMass system,” in which each campus––Amherst, Lowell, Dartmouth, Boston, Worcester––“has one elected student representative, and of those five, only two have any voting power.” Having school policy governed by “corporate executives and politicians” is not characteristic of a social democracy, students reason.
True to tent-city form, signs aim to unite passersby to the cause: “What do you want to see at UMass?” asks one, leaving space for readers to write in their wishes. “We want education not a corporation,” asserts another. “Join us!” urges a third. “Total student debt: $950 billion,” informs a fourth. “Fire the board of trustees,” demands a fifth.
Administrators have tolerated the group’s exercise of First Amendment rights, despite having issued a letter on January 26 requesting compliance with campus policies prohibiting overnight stay. A contingent of travelers from Occupy Wall Street came by to support OUMB when it appeared as though campus police might move to evict them. The tents remained. Administrators met with OUMB representatives the following Tuesday and courteously asked that the area be kept tidy, safe, and free of minors and non-students.
University workers and faculty have broadly supported the activists. The UMass Boston Professional Staff Union endorsed the occupation on January 25, while professors have both visited the site and invited OUMB representatives to speak to their classes.
Political Science professor Dr. Thomas Ferguson voiced support for his students. Ferguson has researched, written, and taught about the influence of money on politics for decades. His “investment theory of party competition” outlines how, across American history, affluent investors have merged together within political parties to, as he writes, “adjust the public to the parties’ views rather than vice versa.” The Occupy movement focuses directly on the “pivotal issue of our time,” Ferguson asserts, “which is whether democracy in America can survive.” He lauds the movement’s “culture of non-violence, tolerance, and respect for individual persons,” remarking “the contrast” borne between this and “the cults of violence growing up elsewhere in the system is obvious and infinitely refreshing.”
American studies professor Paul Atwood reasoned that, as a public university, UMass ought to care for the poverty in its backyard––Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan––rather than transform itself into another expensive, hi-tech research institution. “We have enough of those in Boston,” he told the Harvard Crimson. “We need an institution of higher education for people who don’t have the privilege of being born into the elite.”
Though the student body has generally received Occupy with passive support or indifference, there has been opposition. Unsympathetic students have admonished activists to “get a job,” or to “get out of the campus center.” An online petition titled “Umass Boston Students Against Occupy” boasts 55 signatures. Eleven refer to themselves as “anonymous,” five express sympathy with the movement’s values but deem its manifestation a futile nuisance, while three names—Hassan Sajjad, Peter Dimas, Kevin Mojica––appear on the list twice. By contrast, a change.org petition in support of the occupiers has yielded 460 signatures.
On the morning of Tuesday February 7, students protested the UMass Board of Trustees meeting held at the Campus Center Alumni Room. Junior psychology major Kyle Forrester described how he and several other protesters arrived early at the board meeting and briefly occupied the trustee’s seats in a symbolic act before holding up a sign in a less disruptive section of the room. Toward the conclusion of the meeting, students––joined in unison by 20 or so supporters outside the room––mic-checked the board: “No cuts, no fees; education should be free.”
Forrester suspects that most administrators “know in their hearts [OUMB] is right,” yet “have their hands tied in a culture of bureaucratic indifference.” It’s tricky, he suggests, as the aggression doesn’t manifest on the personal level––where policy deciders behave politely––but rather in “the policies they enact.”
Though admittedly few in number, a core group of OUMB students has nevertheless committed itself to empowering newcomers to share their voice. “Democracy is about you!” occupiers say. And though they remain mindful that students have busy class schedules, jobs, and lives on the side, still they believe that volunteering in small ways to reach out, listen to, and connect with each other will pay off somewhere along the road.
General Assemblies are scheduled for Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3:00 p.m.