At a series of protests to celebrate National Day of Action to Defend Public Education, staff, students and faculty marched at public universities in California, Louisiana, Boston, Wisconsin, New York and Detroit to protest the strain on public education caused by the financial crisis.
The event, organized by students in California in response to a proposed 32 percent increase in student fees at its public universities, struck a chord with campuses nationwide facing cutbacks that many say could place affordable public education in jeopardy.
In Illinois, which is suffering from the second-worst budget crisis after California, nearly 200 people picketed at the University of Illinois’ Chicago (UIC) campus on Thursday, calling out slogans such as “no contract, no peace” and “they say furlough, we say hell no.”
The University of Illinois’ Chicago has proposed budget cuts centered around a reduction in faculty hours, a decrease in maintenance staff and a rise in tuition fees. Mark Rosati, associate chancellor for public affairs at UIC, said, “The university is owed $487 million in appropriations by the state. That’s creating a significant problem. State funding is crucial to the instructional enterprise.”
The protests were also attended by union supporters, public schoolteachers and students from other schools around the city.
At a forum held before the protest, Howard Bunsis of Eastern Michigan University spoke of the need for collective action to make sure that the administration’s solution to the $900 million budget deficit did not adversely affect students, staff and faculty members. Quoting a report he authored on the university’s financial condition, Bunsis said, “the UI system is in a solid financial condition” and “has a lot of reserves, and reserves should be used for rainy days, and that’s exactly what this university is going through.”
He suggested that UIC take out loans to offset its temporary lack of cash flow, and called for the university to “reduce your own administration costs … before furloughing hard working employees.” No administration representative was present at the forum.
The discussion also highlighted the destructive legacy UIC was founded on, and the debt it still owes the community – the Italian Village, a thriving working-class neighborhood, was razed in 1961 by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley Sr. to build the university and highways in the surrounding area, and much of the student body comes from similar neighborhoods in the Chicagoland area.
The University of California Los Angeles and the University of California Berkeley,the epicenter of the protests where close to 1,000 people marched Thursday, risk losing their place as the number one and two most economically diverse schools in the nation.
Liz Thomson, interim director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at UIC, also fears that cuts to her department will affect some of the most vulnerable members of the student body. “We don’t have any other revenue stream but the state budget,” she said. The proposed cuts range from 2 to 13 percent and staff members like Thomson, who has already taken furlough days, worry that no area of university life is safe.
Nonacademic staff have also been affected by the cut-backs. Gerry Dotson, an account technician who has worked at UIC for more than 30 years, said she recently received a layoff notice.
“They have taken the work that I’m doing and given it to other employee,” Dotson said. “They have hired five academic professionals since 2007 to do their account technician work. Why should you take my work and give it to someone else? I deserve to have respect; I deserve to continue to work and I deserve to retire when I’m ready, not when you want me to!”
The protesters leave the campus and march downtown.
The UIC community set up a soup kitchen Thursday serving bread and soup in the central dining area, to illustrate the plight of UIC employees whose wages and jobs have been cut. It said that if administrators continue to ignore their pleas, they will head to the state legislature – as their compatriots in California have already done.
Photos by Yana Kunichoff.