"Georgia Students for Public Higher Education" Rallies Hundreds Against Cuts
It's official. Georgia has now joined the many other states experiencing an upsurge of student activism against budget cuts threatening the very nature of public higher education. On March 15, over 500 students from across the state rallied at the Capitol to demand that profound cuts, including an up to 50% fee hike and up to 4,000 layoffs of campus workers, be utterly abandoned and that new taxes be instituted to fund the public sector. From Dalton and Carrolton, to Savannah and Valdosta, students pledged to start branches of an emerging grassroots coalition, "Georgia Students for Public Higher Education" (http://www.gsphe.tk). The rally culminated with an electric mass meeting, where hundreds of students remained to discuss their ideas for "next steps" by bullhorn, making it clear that the fight was only beginning...
Photo courtesy of Josh D Weiss Photography
(For more photos, check out Caitie's slideshow here.)
The process that led up to March 15 began last November, with students organizing against an extra $200 in fees imposed by the Board of Regents over 2009. Even if the fees weren't a huge burden to most traditional students (many of whom get a lottery-funded full tuition scholarship for maintaining a "B" average), non-traditional and low/no income students were feeling frustrated. Several groups banded together at Georgia State University (GSU) to begin voicing opposition to these fees, with the analysis that this was only the first round in a longer fight. It was better to start now rather than having to play "catch up" later on, we reasoned.
To kick off our public campaign, we launched a petition to the Board of Regents demanding to revoke the fee hikes and place a moratorium on future fee increases. While we didn't necessarily think this in itself would stop the fees, it would at least provide us with a tool to begin discussions with other students around campus. It would also work as an "entry level" activity for new students to work with us on a basic issue of economic justice. GSU, having a large, diverse, and overwhelmingly working class student body including many non-traditional students, seemed like a good place to start. With a few weeks of work, we gained 2,000 signatures and presented them to the Board of Regents after a rainy, but well-attended February demonstration.
Just several weeks later, we found out how correct we were about the coming "round two." An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution floated the possibility of a 77% tuition increase and set off a firestorm of opposition and outrage. College students instantly "mobilized" by the thousands to say--well, more like click--"NO" to the tuition hike, by creating a facebook group for each campus. While our group had about 3,000 members, some of these instantly hit over 6,000 members within two days. Before the haters start doing what they do (hatin'), we noticed there was some concrete reflection of this "mobilization." Though we can't say whether it started online or in the RL ("real life" for those of you that actually have real lives), spontaneous demonstrations were eventually popping up on campuses unfamiliar to even some of us longtime Georgia residents. Georgia Students for Public Higher Education (GSPHE) used facebook to make connections with activists hundreds of miles away, heard news of demonstrations that were larger than anything we had accomplished, and connected with some students from several other campuses planning on holding a press conference at the Capitol. In a short time, we had our first truly state-wide GSPHE meeting. Since the Student Government Associations (SGAs) had called for a March 15 rally--through a facebook event, of course--we decided to endorse this action and devote our new collective energy to making it as big as possible.
As we began to really plan for the March 15 demonstration, more shape was given to the proposed cuts by lawmakers, the Board of Regents, and university administrations. Their "compromise" included a 30% tuition hike, a $1,000 fee increase, 4,000 layoffs across the state, and more furlough days for faculty. Some entire campuses in North Georgia were slated for total closure and key programs, like Dalton State College's Social Work program (the only bilingual one in Georgia) and Augusta State University's Music program were also on the chopping block. The state was required to close a budget gap over $300 million and a Republican-dominated legislature was not about to propose any tax increase or redistributive measure to stop this catastrophic chain of events!
If that wasn't enough, we then discovered the SGAs were hatching a plan to propose their own compromise behind the backs of students they supposedly represented. Their plan was to simply cede a "modest" tuition hike, more targeted furloughs, and no opposition to layoffs of campus workers. They promoted a "students first" platform and didn't care where the money came from, even if it hurt K-12 education or other public services. At the same time, Fulton County had just announced the possible layoffs of 1,000 K-12 teachers, 50% cuts to social worker and counseling staff, and cutting art and music programs. The potential for students being pitted against workers in higher education and other areas of the public sector was great.
Photo courtesy of Josh D Weiss Photography
From the start, we in GSPHE advocated a "no cuts" message and pushed for solidarity with workers and measures that supported the entire public sector. We framed our struggle in the context of an economic crisis that affected all working people unfairly and identified several proposals already raised in the Georgia General Assembly that could raise hundreds of millions in a more equitable manner (for example, a 1% tax on incomes over $400,000, a $1 sales tax on cigarettes, and closing several big corporate tax breaks). Since we're technically in a recovery (albeit a jobless one), corporate profits are rebounding and stock prices climbing. Wall Street has representatives in the business press telling investors to "buy!" and assuring us that profits are safe from downturn, but it's clear they want it both ways! We had a quick answer to anyone claiming the money “simply wasn't there” for the state.
Had students chose to alienate themselves from the politics considered "partisan" by the SGAs, this move toward solidarity would not have been possible. Struggles that are more universal allow for party lines to blur and for movements to be made. Some elements of the right-wing and dissident SGAs were glad to work primarily with us on building March 15. Critically, buses from faraway campuses were organized by SGAs and, utilizing their access to funds and ability to promote, more students were able to come out for the rally.
Rather than being public about the backstage drama, we in GSPHE chose to work parallel to the SGAs and in alliance where possible. We were able to obtain a permit to the Capitol steps and offered them space on our speaker list, though it was declined. The result was a massive (by Georgia numbers) rally that had our message of solidarity and equitable, redistributive proposals up front.
In the future, we hope to continue to be proactive and act in anticipatory ways. We plan on getting more involved in vetting future SGA candidates and possibly running our own. Due to our visibility and some excellent media work, we were able to obtain a meeting with the Democratic caucus of the Georgia General Assembly to discuss our endorsed legislation. While some of us are skeptical about the possibilities here, we all agree that independent base-building is the key to gaining strength. We will continue to organize affiliates and broaden discussions about the effects of the economic crisis on public higher education as well as the rest of the public sector. Our Atlanta branches have also reached out to a newly formed "Atlanta Public Sector Alliance" that works with K-12 teachers, transit riders and workers, and community activists.
There remains a long road ahead, though. GSPHE should seek to form closer alliances with campus workers Just at GSU, there is talk of over 600 workers being laid off by the end of June. This is a “worst case scenario” number, but shows the seriousness of the situation. With rare exceptions, most faculty have abstained from the budding movement. Some have communicated support, relayed information about rallies, and spread our call to action to students. We hope that continued activity of students will assist our more intentional discussions with workers and faculty in the future.
It's becoming clear that students are concerned about the future of higher education--and not just their individual conditions, as many graduating seniors came out in support. Through these actions, we've have invaluable opportunities to pursue discussions about what a just response to the economic crisis would be like and the "pressure from below" that it will necessarily take to implement. On March 15, our state had it's first 500+ protest against symptoms of the crisis, a full three years into the recession and jobless "recovery." Students can be the spark that ignites similar protest in other sectors, as long as solidarity between all segments of the working class is pursued.
Photo courtesy of Josh D Weiss Photography
The sad truth is that we have no choice. Public higher education faces fundamental transformation if the deepest cuts are imposed, barring working class students and many students of color from attending. This combined with continually high unemployment, decreasing access to health care, declining quality of K-12 education, and a variety of other maladies, only sets the stage for tragedy in the decade to come. Like a train gearing up to leave the station, it's best to stop it before it starts or at least slow it as it's starting. Once it leaves the station and hits full speed, the conditions of struggle will be even more difficult. We're lucky to have the enthusiasm of hundreds of students new to activism, but the message must be clear and the pressure focused: NO cuts to the public sector, and NEW funding for services! Time to get to work.
Stay tuned for video of rally speeches and interviews with student activists!
Ryan and Tim are student organizers and Solidarity members in Atlanta.
Some photos courtesy of Josh D Weiss Photography