UVM students’ occupation against the cuts

April 23, 2009

Colin Doherty and John McDonald report on the student occupation at the University of Vermont that came in the wake of growing protest against budget cuts and layoff threats.

AROUND 100 students marched on administration offices at the University of Vermont (UVM) April 22 and staged a sit-in in two joint actions. The action ended late in the evening, with police moving in to arrest protesting students who refused to leave, with a total of more than 30 arrests during the day.

Coming on the heels of a 1,000-strong, faculty-supported walkout two weeks earlier, these actions were the culmination of a semester-long campaign aimed at turning back UVM President Daniel Fogel's proposed cutbacks.

The administration's budget plan will result in 107 faculty and staff layoffs, ballooning tuition and an increase in class sizes. Meanwhile, UVM's 40 top-level administrators have combined base salaries of more than $7 million--and they were recently revealed to have received nearly $1 million in bonuses in the last several years.

If these administrators were to take a 5 percent pay cut, the savings would be enough to restore all 27 lecturers laid off from the school of Arts and Sciences.

UVM students sit in to protest the administration's layoffs and budget cuts
UVM students sit in to protest the administration's layoffs and budget cuts (Joanna Grossman)

After weeks of preparation, students decided they would sit in and refuse to leave until the administration reinstated all of the jobs lost because of budget cutbacks; publicly promised to halt further layoffs; and created a democratic process for students, staff and faculty to have a voice in university decisions.

Angered by the administration's continued refusal to listen to their demands, the Students Stand Up! (SSU!) coalition decided to disrupt university business so long as the business of the university continues to be layoffs.

At 1:40 p.m., a group of occupiers and direct support gathered in the Waterman building, the main administration building on campus, and was able to enter the president's wing, where seven people chained themselves together to make it harder to remove them. The students demanded negotiations with the administration over the budget cuts, and vowed not to leave until they got them.

The second stage of the occupation began at 2:45 p.m., when SSU! called a rally at the student center, and 100 more students gathered. The group passed out flyers with their demands and explained the situation over in Waterman. The students who got the flyers were already well informed and angry over the budget cuts. "It's absolutely ridiculous that the administration is so bloated that it can't see past itself to see the needs of others," UVM student Mark Leach said.

What you can do

UVM student activists are calling for supporters to flood President Fogel and the UVM board of trustees with calls and e-mails supporting their demands, and in favor of dropping all charges against the 34 arrested students. Call President Fogel at 802-656-3186, or e-mail [email protected]. Call Vice President of Finance Richard Cate at 802 656-0219. E-mail the UVM Trustees at [email protected].

You get information and send messages of support to the students involved in the action at the group's Facebook group UVM students in support of budget cuts from the top.

The group marched to the Waterman building to stage a sit-in in support of those already in the president's wing. From there, everyone was encouraged to call and text friends to swell the size of the action.

The action received community support from UVM staff, the Vermont Workers' Center, student activists from St. Michael's College, and from a group of visiting French shepherds, who sang a song in solidarity with students.

Helen Scott, a professor of English and member of the faculty union, United Academics, gave a short speech. "As you know, throughout this struggle against budget cuts, the faculty have looked to you, the students, to speak truth to power, and to stand up for those individuals who are losing their jobs," she said. "[W]e are with you all the way. Solidarity!"

PRESIDENT FOGEL and Vice President of Finance Richard Cate eventually did open negotiations with the student occupiers, but outright refused to budge on the issue of layoffs or pay cuts for the administration.

In what can only be described as the definition of "negotiating in bad faith," Fogel left the table, saying he would return shortly, only to leave the building out a side exit and authorize the arrest of the seven students in his office.

Pleading their case to the media, the administration was overheard claiming that the protesters were being "too radical," and that the administrators were "always open to dialogue."

In an attempt to intimidate those inside and outside the office, police covered all the doors and windows with sheets, as they cut apart the occupiers' lock boxes. To keep up the energy, chants of "Money for jobs and education, not Fogel's administration" and "Fire Fogel" were taken up by the crowd outside.

While the occupiers were being issued trespass citations, discussions were ongoing about what to do next. The students ultimately decided to call for a support rally at 9:30 p.m. after receiving an ultimatum that all students remaining in the building after 10 p.m. would be arrested.

Catching wind of the group's plan, the police locked down the building so as to prevent any potential protesters from joining the group inside.

Despite pouring rain, a crowd of between 200 and 300 students and community members assembled outside the building by 9:30 p.m., chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, these budget cuts have got to go."

At 11 p.m., the chief of UVM police entered the hall where the remaining protesters were seated with locked arms. Police allowed 30 students to leave before placing the remaining 25 under arrest.

The group leaving voluntarily exited singing "Solidarity forever," but when they had difficulty getting through the doorway, owing to the larger number of supporters gathered on the other side, police reacted by dragging one of the activists back into the building and immediately placing him under arrest. Because he had been involved in the earlier arrests, he was detained overnight at the UVM police station.

The demonstrators outside continued to chant and sing until all the remaining protesters were released. They then issued a call for all charges to be dropped before dispersing for the night.

President Fogel has demonstrated his disregard for the student body so blatantly--and so shamelessly put his Wall Street-style salary and budget-cutting practices before the jobs of faculty and staff members--that many students left feeling that the time has come for him to resign from his posts, or for the board of trustees to remove him.

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