Students come last at DePaul

March 8, 2012

Amanda Walsh and Carlos Enriquez report on actions by Chicago students angry about mounting student debt and proposed tuition increases at schools like DePaul.

PROTESTS BY Chicago college students for the national day of student action on March 1 culminated in actions at DePaul University to confront the administration's plans to put an even greater burden on students by increasing tuition.

The March 1 demonstrations began in Chicago with some 200 activists mobilized by the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education (CACHE), a citywide coalition of students from different campuses.

Working with Occupy Chicago, the activists gathered at the "Horse" statue in Grant Park--the site of Occupy General Assemblies last fall--before marching to a nearby Chase Bank to protest the bank's involvement in the current national student debt bubble that recently eclipsed the $1 trillion mark.

From there, nearly 70 students and supporters moved on to an event planned in large part by the DePaul Anti-Capitalist Coalition (ACC). Protesters marched to the office of DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider to deliver a petition rejecting the university's proposed tuition hike of 2.5 percent for current students and more than 5 percent for incoming students.

Students and supporters occupy DePaul's student center
Students and supporters occupy DePaul's student center

After making students wait for nearly two hours, Holtschneider met with about 40, including Student Government Association President Anthony Alfano, who was present in Holtschneider's office when protesters first arrived.

ACC members opened the meeting with a list of demands: An immediate freeze on tuition; a series of public forums open to all students, faculty and staff before any decisions on tuition are made; and Holtschneider's retraction of his approval of the budget.

"The trustees don't work for me, I work for the trustees," responded Holtschneider. He went on to reject the protesters' demands and then left after 30 minutes.

"He was polite and cordial and put on a demeanor that made it seem like he wanted to help us, but I think he made it pretty evident that not a single one of our demands would be met, and that that didn't matter to him," said Jordan Weber, a DePaul student and ACC member. "He made a clear statement: the voice of the board of trustees comes before the voice of the student body."

Holtschneider's response prompted the students to refuse to leave the room until given a date and time for a public forum on tuition. Soon after, it was announced to the room that any non-DePaul student present past 6 p.m. would face arrest.

After getting word of a heavy police presence in the building's lobby, 20 non-DePaul students decided to leave the boardroom and hold a rally outside the building in support of the students occupying inside.

Around 8 p.m., the occupiers decided to end their sit-in in the office in order to focus on an action planned for the following day. They came out to warm support from more than 30 supporters chanting, "All for one, and one for all. Occupy DePaul!"

THE FOLLOWING night, students started arriving at DePaul's Lincoln Park Student Center for a speak-out. But it quickly became obvious that the Student Center was on lockdown. The doors were covered with "caution" tape, and no one was let inside without DePaul student identification. In fact, several DePaul students were not allowed inside because they did not have "proper identification."

Though the students were locked out, the speak-out was a success. Rev. Jesse Jackson started off the event by saying that students around the world need to demand tuition reductions and that such protests need to go viral.

After some time, about 30 students made their way to the third floor to sit in front of the room where the Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet the next day in order to vote on the new budget. DePaul officials had tried to keep the meeting location secret, but the location leaked out. At the same time, a few dozen supporters and members of Occupy Chicago held a rally to show solidarity with the students occupying the building.

The students were told they had to leave at 1 a.m. when the building closed. When asked what the consequences were for staying later, Dean of Students Art Munin could not provide an answer. A vote on whether to occupy the building overnight was roughly a 50/50 split.

A group of students decided to stay in the face of the unspecified threat of arrest or disciplinary action, and the administration blinked, allowing the 14 students there past curfew to stay overnight in the first floor atrium. Once in the atrium, the students set up sleeping gear provided by Occupy Chicago and had a discussion about producing a press statement for morning release. With the press release finished, many of the students tried to catch a few hours of sleep.

When Saturday morning rolled around, the administration announced that the board meeting had been moved to an undisclosed location. Security guards stopped checking identification at the doors, but no press was allowed inside.

The student activists decided to call the student government President Alfano to find out if he knew about the meeting location--since he was supposed to have speaking privileges there. Alfano explained that he was told that he would be picked up at his house in a private car and taken to the event.

Alfano texted the group when he arrived at the location to say that the administration had led him through a garage to a back door, and he could not identify where he was.

The group then decided to rally outside Holtschneider's office once more, and members read a statement that has since been transcribed by Occupy Chicago.

Since 2005, DePaul has increased tuition by 35 percent, and rates have risen more than 400 percent in the last 35 years. The average undergraduate at DePaul leaves the school with $28,000 in debt, and the average graduate student leaves with more than $50,000.

What's more, DePaul's refusal to make public the time and place of the board's vote, and then the decision to switch the venue at the last moment once it was leaked, go against the "Vincentian mission"--such as "philanthropy" and contributing to "the societal, economic, cultural and ethical quality of life in the metropolitan area"--that the institution prides itself on.

All this makes it clear that institutions like DePaul are more interested in running their schools like a corporation than in focusing on education in order to improve the lives of their students.

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