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November 2008

Student Organizers: Use the Economic Crisis to Press Your Advantage

Administrators and Trustees show their true colors

In the face of record budget cuts for universities and colleges across the country -- both public and private -- now is the perfect time for students to assert their influence on important decisions coming down the pike.

Thanks to their insistence that students and faculty have no real say in the budget process, university administrators and trustees have few other places to point the finger of blame (other than to generic woes like the stock market, investor skittishness, state budget shortfalls -- but you'll note they use these excuses just as often during times of surplus too). Idiotic "investments" into massive stadiums and grandiose buildings are permanent, unrecoverable costs. The aspects of higher education that are truly meaningful and important are, unfortunately, all too recoverable: scholarships can be rolled back, professors can be fired, and department budgets can be cut.

Administrators and Trustees are eager to assert responsibility, except when something goes wrong. During times of plenty, the line is "trust us, we're the experts with money, and only we can handle the budget effectively." During times of scarcity and crisis, all of a sudden it's "Don't blame us! We're victims of circumstance and factors outside our control - blame someone else!" If they're so keen on taking responsibility when they're flush with cash, then let's hold them to it when they've mismanaged themselves into the red.

This is an opportunity for students to unite and tell those who run the university "you've had your chance -- it's time for more responsible people (that's us!) to take the reins."

Possible goals:

  • Read up on concepts like participatory budgeting, adapt them for your campus, and present them as alternatives to the current closed-door method of budget-setting.
  • A popularly-elected board of trustees and President, with a majority consisting of students, faculty, and support staff.
  • A binding say in the budgets of departments students are majors in (e.g. Biology majors should have a voice and vote in the budget plans of the Biology department).
  • A campus-wide referendum requirement when tuition hikes are proposed.
  • Open and transparent budget proceedings.

Possible talking points:

  • Emphasize the staggering numbers involved. Huge budget shortfalls, often in the millions even for small schools, are likely compelling enough to rile up the most apathetic of students.
  • Capitalize on the prevalent "throw the bums out" feeling. The trustees and administrators, like the executives on Wall Street, are the ones who got us into this mess. We shouldn't reward them by letting them continue to foul up our education.
  • And let's not forget, many of the business leaders on our Trustee boards literally have their hands in the current economic fiasco -- if there are concrete links, play them up like there's no tomorrow.
  • This is our money, and look what happens when others are put in charge of it! If the university expects us to pick up the tab, then we get to decide what's being ordered.
  • When those in charge screw up, we -- students, faculty, and staff -- are the ones who pay for it. Most students are incensed that the government bailed out these irresponsible financial giants. Remind them that when it comes to the university's finances, we the students are the "government" that administrators expect to bail them out. Are we going to be just like the government and give them our tuition dollars, no strings attached?
  • History has shown that it isn't a matter of appointing "better" Presidents and VPs - it's a matter of wielding power ourselves, collectively and democratically.

Some possible tactics:

  • Fill the op-ed (and hard news) pages of the student newspaper with outrage about the mismanagement of university resources, demands for its change, and models of alternatives.
  • Organize "No Bailout for the Board!" protests. Tell those on the Board of Trustees (who in most cases are overwhelmingly exceedingly wealthy) to make up any shortfall difference from their own pockets, as they themselves were the ones who approved the budget in the first place. We students shouldn't have to bear the burden of their sickening combination of incompetence and stinginess.
  • Hold an election on your campus for "replacement Trustees" (perhaps preceeded by a "no confidence" vote on the current ones). Get at least enough candidates to cover each of the Trustees, and once the election is held, send them to disrupt and ultimately commandeer the next Board of Trustees meeting. Invite the press.
  • Get alumni (preferably ones who have donated before) to sign onto a public letter, refusing to donate to the university until the administration and trustees reform their budget process.
  • Talk to the local and regional press, using talking points like those above, to link the financial crisis to the school's budget crisis in a more useful way.

Have your own ideas and suggestions? Personal experiences? Toss 'em in the comments!!
(cross-posted at Future Majority and YP4)

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