Tuition battle in Connecticut

By KORY YORKE and DANIEL ADAM

WILLIMANTIC, Conn.— The students walked through an unfamiliar campus. Attempts by one of the more experienced marchers to start up chants were met with self-conscious and infrequent responses. They had travelled an hour by bus from Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) to Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) to protest impending tuition hikes that will affect over 100,000 students.

The March 21 board of regents meeting (where the increase was to be voted up) had been moved from its original central location in Hartford to the more remote ECSU only a week earlier. It was well known that the only CSU that had not held a protest against the hikes (and the only CSU with a student government in support of the hikes) was ECSU.

Moreover, the campus was about an hour farther from all other CSU campuses than Hartford—not a small difference for a 10 a.m. weekday protest. Many students who signed up for the two CCSU buses didn’t show.

Finally, the group turned a corner and met a crowd of some 250, waving numerous beautiful placards and banners. Two animated young men paced back and forth with bull horns leading the rowdy assembly in chants like “Regents, come out! We got something to talk about!” Veteran protesters may know the chant well, but most of those shouting had never demonstrated before, and to them it was anything but routine. This day was not like all other days.

Despite the best efforts of the ECSU student government to prevent tuition-hike opposition on their campus, a handful of independent ECSU students had broken through. In the last two days before the regents’ vote they made contact with those mobilizing from other campuses and managed to turn out a sizable force on their own turf. Other demonstrators hailed from Western Connecticut State University, Southern Connecticut State University, a variety of community colleges, and even the better funded University of Connecticut schools.

The Board of Regents had originally floated a tuition increase of 12.4% before making clear their intention to pass an increase of 5.1%, which will cost students up to $800 more a year. The increase comes amidst cuts in funding for public higher education that have totaled more than 15% over the last two years (about $93.2 million). These cuts have been accompanied by a cumulative tuition increase of 11.8% during the same period (when the new increase is included). Since 2004, tuition and fees for in-state students at the four Connecticut State Universities have risen from about $5000 to nearly $9000 a year.

This assault on public education is part of a larger austerity drive led in the state by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, and nationally by President Obama. Malloy’s proposals also include shifting responsibility for faculty medical benefits and pensions from the state of Connecticut to the university system. This would mean handing the universities $337.5 million to cover benefits and leaving them on their own. If medical costs go up the state would no longer have to cover the difference (as it does now); this would instead be the responsibility of the university system, which could only respond by raising tuition and fees or cutting services.

Such costs are likely to go up. Medical costs routinely shoot up beyond expectations. If all faculty members simply switch pension plans, costs will go up $78.8 million more a year. Malloy’s plan is designed to pit students against faculty, who would have to fight for the same funds.

While Connecticut students have mobilized against tuition hikes before, this year has seen a higher level of communication between campuses and far more involvement from members of student government. Their participation has opened up useful resources like campus-wide e-mail blasts.

The week before the regents’ meeting students rallied on three separate campuses. Such a rally at CCSU drew some deeply angry, but hesitant layers; a picket line of some 50 students attracted a much larger crowd of spectators. When asked about the situation, members of this audience expressed their anger with the hikes, but always found an excuse to stay on the sidelines. As speakers for the day took their places, the pickets joined the other onlookers, who then accepted their new role as participants in a rally.

Throughout the protests some students felt it important to stick to the message that public investments in higher education yield lucrative returns, and should be prioritized for that reason alone. Still, in numerous signs and wildly cheered speeches, participants pointed to the political context of the attacks on education and the enormous wealth that is diverted to the military, the wealthy, and corporate profits.

Outside the board of regents’ meeting, CCSU freshman Nicole Lopriore asked the crowd, “What does it do to the workforce when we’re all so heavily in debt? … It means you will do whatever you can to keep a job—any job. … They want us to pay more every year for lower quality education, only to face worse conditions in the workplace. … And this is what students are facing across the world.”

When it became known that the board was in the process of voting, and that there would be an open mic afterward for students to voice their concerns, the demonstration moved within the courtroom-like confines of the regents’ meeting.

A vote passed in favor of the hike. Students were then given 20 minutes to respond with short statements. Within seconds a line formed 30 deep and was continuously repopulated. Students spoke about working many jobs to afford to go to their schools, and how now they would have to question their ability to continue. Others spoke about flooding dorms and program closures. Frequent applause and cheers punctuated the remarks. All the while, the regents sat stone-faced like well-tailored golems.

After 20 minutes, with a long line still waiting, the chair of the board stopped the students and asked if there were any faculty members who would like to speak. Immediately, two professors stood up and demanded that their time be ceded to the students. The crowd cheered, and the students won another 20 minutes.

The open mike ended with passionate remarks from a student government treasurer, who said he was paying for college by contracting six years of his life to the National Guard, something that he said, “no one should ever have to do.” He ended with “we will be watching, and we are not going away,” and walked off to a standing ovation. He was right. Students are now planning a statewide march on the state Capitol for April 16.

Photo: Central Connecticut State students rally against proposed tuition increase.                                             By Megan Merrigan / http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com