How can we stop the cuts at CSU?

Jerald Reodica looks at the impact of Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans to slash spending on the California State University system.

CALIFORNIA GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling for 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts to deal with a projected deficit, including a $4.8 billion reduction in education spending and suspension of Proposition 98, the voter-approved minimum-funding guarantee of K-14 education.

At the elementary and high school level, pink slips have been issued to thousands of teachers, nurses, counselors, secretaries, vice principals and contract employees--nearly 20,000 in all, according to the California Department of Education--warning of layoffs that could be finalized by early summer.

The California State University (CSU) system--the largest and most diverse four-year higher education system in the country--isn't immune, either. According to officials, Schwarzenegger's across-the-board cut would take another $386 million away from the CSU system, on top of more than half a billion dollars slashed in 2003 and 2004.

Television journalist Kim Baldonado put the news in context. "Administrators say that a $386 million cut is equivalent to shutting down both Cal State LA and Cal State Dominguez Hills," Baldonado said, referring to two of the system's 23 campuses.

"Instead, the cuts will be spread across all campuses, meaning fewer classes offered and larger class sizes. The governor is also proposing raising student fees by 10 percent. He says it wouldn't be fair to give education a break while cutting everywhere else, and so the budget battle continues."

In response, the Alliance for the CSU has formed, bringing together "students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators, parents of students, business people, church and union members, and people who depend on the main benefits the CSU provides to our state and local communities," according to its Web site.

While faculty and administrators were on opposing sides of a short-lived picket line a year ago, the alliance claims to have brought these groups together to lobby California lawmakers and persuade them to vote against further cuts to education spending.

On March 17, the campaign held its tenth campus meeting at San Francisco State University (SFSU), with about 800 students, faculty and staff attending. Part pep rally and part organizing session, speakers included SFSU President Robert Corrigan, state Sen. Leland Yee, Associated Student President Claudia Mercado and others.

During his speech, SFSU Academic Senate President Jim Kohn pointed out the state government's misplaced priorities in spending about $43,000 per inmate per year, compared to only about $8,400 to educate a student at SFSU.

Almost all of the speakers talked about the importance of activism in stopping the cuts. Such calls are welcome--but the methods coming from the front were focused mostly on faculty and staff lobbying the legislature. None of the speakers represented--or even acknowledged--the grassroots activism already in motion since the beginning of the semester.

Two groups in particular, the Fight the Fees Coalition and the New Front Coalition (NFC), are attracting more students in their fight against the rising cost of education at SFSU. Members of the NFC attended the March 17 meeting, chanting during the question-and-answer session and presenting a document encouraging administrators to charter buses to transport students to Sacramento to lobby the legislature and attend a rally set for April 21.

"It's easy to say they support our cause," NFC member Jessica Aguilar told the Golden Gate [X]Press, an SFSU newspaper, "But for us to be successful, they actually need to do something to support us."

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THE ORGANIZING by the Alliance for the CSU is an attempt to legitimize particular methods by which students should demand their right to an accessible quality education. But the history of SFSU shows that very different methods have been successful.

SFSU was the site of the longest campus strike in U.S. history, beginning in the fall of 1968. The Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front (a coalition of the Black Students Union, the Latin American Students Organization, the Filipino-American Students Organization, and El Renacimiento, a Mexican-American student organization) presented a set of 15 "non-negotiable" demands, including expansion of the new Black Studies Department (the nation's first), creation of a School of Ethnic Studies and increased recruitment and admissions of minority students.

By January, the students gained the support of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local at SFSU. In addition to urging trustees to negotiate with the students, the AFT went on strike over teaching workload and other labor issues. In late February 1969, the AFT local announced a tentative agreement.

On March 20, representatives of the Third World Liberation Front and Black Students Union signed an agreement with campus officials. The administration claimed victory in reserving the right to regulate faculty and staff hiring, and student admissions, but the strike won the establishment of the School of Ethnic Studies and expansion of the Black Studies Department.

This history is in contrast to the methods advocated by the Alliance for the CSU--such as writing the editor of a local or campus newspaper, wearing a "CSU Is the Solution" button and attending alliance events. Nowhere on the list of "Ten Things You Can Do Now to Help Stop the Cuts to the CSU" do they suggest that students organize independently of the administration and trustees.

That isn't surprising considering that the interests of those involved in the "all-inclusive" alliance are quite different. For example, as SFSU president, Robert Corrigan gets a salary of $260,000 annually, on top of a $12,000-a-year car allowance and $60,000-a-year housing allowance.

Corrigan may shake his finger at Schwarzenegger and the Legislature for proposing to cut education funding, but he has no problem with the CSU board of trustees treating him and fellow top administrators to incredible pay increases and perks, while student fees and class sizes increase.

According to the Alliance for the CSU, as many as 10,000 eligible students could be denied an education next year as a result of the proposed spending reductions and fee hikes. Reversing the cuts will require a united struggle of students and faculty, built from the grassroots up.