Students in N.C. stand up against tuition hikes

February 21, 2012

GREENSBORO, N.C.--For the last 10 years, public universities have found themselves on the chopping block in North Carolina, even though the state constitution guarantees accessible public higher education for all its residents.

This year, the University of North Carolina (UNC) system sought to overstep its tuition hike cap of 6.5 percent and institute increases that would average 9 percent across the system--but could be much higher at some schools. Under this plan, most students will see a per semester tuition increase of $400 or more. In addition, the UNC Board of Governors also proposed a financial-aid freeze that would make the tuition hikes even more painful to students.

And while all this is going on, massive construction projects that put students' tuition in the pockets of private developers continue at campuses around the state while class sections are cut, making it harder for students to graduate on time.

In response, the statewide North Carolina Defend Education Coalition, which had formed in order to organize against budget cuts in 2009, began organizing once more. This time around, we found students far more eager to participate than they had been just three years ago--partly due to the deepening crisis, and partly due to the emergence of a global fightback and the Occupy movement. We set as our target the Board of Governors meeting, which took place on February 10.

In the run-up to the protest, the Association of Student Governments (the system-wide SGA body) voted to use its budget money to pay for busing for students from every UNC-system school in the state. However, after pressure from the administration, the ASG backed down and reneged on its promise of transportation, leaving organizers with only days to find methods of transporting students from up to seven hours away. In the end, this limited the number of students who were able to attend, though online donations helped cover some transportation expenses.

AT 8 a.m. on February 10, students gathered in the center of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus--the flagship campus of the UNC system--to prepare for the march to the building where the Board of Governors meeting was to be held. Joined by the North Carolina NAACP and the AFL-CIO, a group of at least 200 students began the nearly mile-long march to the administration building, taking the streets and chanting "Money for jobs and education, not for war and incarceration!" and "Student power! Worker power! Immigrant power!"

At the entrance to the building, police blocked us, but quickly relented and let us inside. Inside the building, we filled the hall outside the meeting room and held our own "people's meeting." Some students had gotten to the building earlier in the morning. They sat in the Board members' seats and refused to move. They should be, after all, our seats.

After a brief standoff, the Board acquiesced and allowed them to stay. Police presence in the halls tripled as the meeting began, and they began to make preparations for mass arrests.

At one point, a student who had been allowed inside the meeting room had to leave to go to the bathroom. When he tried to re-enter, the cops claimed to have never seen him leave the room. They arrested him--choking him and dragging him by his hair through the hallway. The students inside mic-checked the board before walking out.

The board took a 10-minute recess so they could be off camera (the whole thing was being streamed live on TV). When they returned, they quickly voted to pass the tuition hike and financial-aid freeze. They had, in fact, just finished voting when we finally managed to enter the room after nearly an hour and a half in the hallway.

Although they clearly expected us to sit quietly and listen to the proceedings of the meeting, we quickly took control of the room. All but one member of the Board retreated out of the room, and we took their seats, tossing their name tags in a pile in the center of the room and declaring the floor open for "people's resolutions"--which included demands to provide free higher education to all people in North Carolina, including undocumented students, by taxing the rich, closing the prisons and ending the wars.

The only member of the Board to stay was Franklin McCain, who was staunchly opposed to the hike and aid freeze--and who was himself a member of the Greensboro Four, the group of civil rights activists who began the sit-ins at the Woolworths's lunch counter in 1961. He stayed in his seat as other Board members encouraged him to leave, and he stayed for the duration of our meeting in an act of solidarity.

A solidarity committee for the student who had been arrested was formed, and the assembly reached consensus in favor of a march to the Orange County Jail, located in a rural section of the county about 30 minutes outside the city, where police had moved the student.

When police saw were confronted with both NAACP legal assistance and protesters, the arrested student was released without being forced to pay bail.

At the end of the protest, planning sessions were held to decide what action to take next. Plans for further demonstrations at the state house, a statewide student conference and campus protests to build resistance to paying increased tuition are in the works.

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