Public Universities Join Attack on Progressive Activism

by Randy Shaw on February 28, 2011

As Republican attacks on public employees garner headlines, public universities are also driving to stamp out progressive activism. The University of California, Santa Cruz has abolished its Community Studies department, which allowed students to major in a curriculum focused on social change, and provided field studies placements with nonprofit groups. The University of Oregon, whose campus is dominated by buildings funded by Nike founder Phil Knight, has seen the administration’s longtime hostility to OSPIRG (the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group) backed by conservative student representatives seeking to defund the campus’ leading activist and community service group. Santa Monica is another progressive city where local college administrators seek to squelch student activism; in this case, a CALPIRG chapter at Santa Monica College. These attacks on student activism are less publicized, but involve the same strategy as the undermining of collective bargaining for public employees: eliminating organized resistance to corporate power.

Defunding Progressive Student Activism

I was in Eugene, Oregon last week when I came across the Oregon Commentator a self-proclaimed “Conservative Journal of Opinion.” Funded by the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, its agenda is clear from its Mission Statement on the inside cover: “We believe that the University is an important battleground in the ‘war of ideas’ and that the outcome of political battles of the future are, to a large degree, being determined on campuses today.”

Winning this war of ideas means killing campus funding for OSPIRG, whose students combine work in food banks, homeless shelters, and community gardens with aggressive advocacy against corporate polluters, big banks, and other financial backers of the conservative movement. The lead editorial in the magazine’s February 9, 2011 “Sex Issue” compares OSPIRG to “genital herpes, ” and claims that OSPIRG’s efforts to mobilize students for social justice are akin to spreading “gonorrhea of the throat.”

“I OPPOSE OSPIRG” takes up the entire back cover of the Commentator’s January 26, 2011 issue, which features interviews with the founder of the school’s anti-abortion “Students for Life” chapter and with a student senator who continually bashes OSPIRG.

This is the anti-progressive, anti-community service, anti-activist message that University of Oregon students are funding.

And they are funding this message instead of the activities of OSPIRG, which provides students with community service opportunities and has been a leading force for increased Pell grants and reduced textbook costs, both of which benefit U of O students far more than The Commentator.

Why is a publicly supported university in a progressive city backing right-wing interests over OSPIRG, the only campus group that provides a training ground in organizing and activism? Because student funding is allocated by a student senate (the ASUO) elected by a small number of student voters disproportionately affiliated with fraternities and sororities. These representatives have every incentive to align with a school administration that has been hostile to OSPIRG since its former campus president, Ben Unger, publicly attacked Nike sweatshops in the 1990’s.

Last week, the ASUO rejected OSPIRG funding for the third consecutive year, though student body president Amelie Rousseau is an OSPIRG ally and is expected to veto the budget. The state OSPIRG chapter is keeping the campus chapter going, but the combined opposition from school administrators and ambitious student politicians eager to do their bidding has forced the activist group to divert energy toward funding battles at a time when their importance to students has never been greater.

The Transformation of UC Santa Cruz

Just as Governor Walker is making headlines by attacking a liberal institution in a traditionally liberal state (you would not likely see nationwide protests over attacks on workers in Alabama or Georgia), school administrators in progressive cities like Santa Cruz and Santa Monica are also attacking progressive student activism.

UC Santa Cruz was created with the express purpose of providing an alternative educational experience to that offered by other UC’s. Yet school administrators have been trying to transform the school into Silicon Valley’s educational partner since at least the late 1990’s.

California’s fiscal crisis finally gave UC Santa Cruz administrators the crisis it needed to implement its version of what Naomi Klein has described as the “Shock Doctrine.” Although closing the Community Studies department has as much to do with the budget crisis as Governor Walker’s plan to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin, UC administrators succeeded in using the crisis to kill its popular and widely heralded program.

UC’s action eliminates the department that has long been at the center of progressive student struggles both within the campus and in the larger community. It means fewer opportunities for students to make connections with nonprofits that help for post-college employment, and facilitates the transformation of the school from a progressive, activist bastion to an eager “partner” with high-tech companies seeking profit, not social change.

The Santa Monica Outrage

The worst example of administration efforts to squash activism may well be occurring in the city often described as the People’s Republic of Santa Monica. Here, administrators are actively suppressing a CALPIRG chapter that would primarily comprise Latino and African-American students.

Last spring, the school’s students voted by a 62% margin for a $1.50 increase to the Associated Students fee specifically to fund CALPIRG. The student government affirmed the students’ will and voted to fund a CALPIRG chapter. But the administration did not want this chapter, despite the training, internship and ultimately post-college employment opportunities it would provide for the school’s many Latino and African-American students.

So, as occurs in many campuses these days, administrators “worked” on student representatives to change their vote. As is almost always the case — student governments attract ambitious people who see an opportunity to get recommendations and job referrals from influential school administrators — they succeeded, and last December the support for CALPIRG was revoked.

The racial and class impact of the administrator’s action is disturbing. Because CALPIRG has faced staunch administrative opposition throughout California’s community and state college system, it is not on the campuses where most of the state’s Latinos and African-Americans are enrolled.

CALPIRG is sometimes unfairly criticized for not including such racial minorities (it includes many Asian-American students), when the fact is that the campuses where they have a presence — such as Davis, Berkeley, Santa Barbara and UCLA — include few Latino or African-American students. These students are among those most desirous of becoming community organizers and nonprofit service providers, yet cannot get the training and experience because administrators place barriers to opening a CALPIRG chapter at their schools.

As public universities increasingly depend on private donations to make up for federal and state budget cutbacks, administrators see CALPIRG, which mobilized student opposition to the Chevron and corporate-backed Prop 23 on California’s November 2010 ballot, as bad for business. Business donors like Phil Knight want schools to be free of progressive activists (Knight vowed to cut off funding when U of O joined an anti-sweatshop consortium, leading the school to quickly change course), so ridding the campus of groups that train and mobilize progressive student activists serves this agenda.

In a few months, college administrators will be hosting graduation ceremonies and urging the departing class to always remember the value of community service. But in between graduations these administrators are stifling student efforts to make a better world, though they try to avoid leaving their fingerprints by having their student government allies — whom they can help with jobs and references — do the dirty work.

Is it a coincidence that these broad attacks on progressive student activism followed soon after young people voted in record number for progressive candidates in November 2008? Whether there is a provable connection or not, public universities should be under a greater microscope for their suppressing progressive student activism while increasingly privatizing their institutions.

Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

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