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What we can learn from Missouri students' epic win

One could argue that Tim Wolfe's brief presidency at the University of Missouri lived — and died — by the football team.

Wolfe's selection as President in December 2011 came just days after UM-Columbia announced that it was changing its NCAA conference, leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Years of stagnant state funding was a big factor in the move, which cost quite a bit up-front but held the potential for significant revenues and increased broadcast royalties down the road. So far, the gamble has paid off: UM has garnered almost $10 million in profits from athletics programs in the first two years of SEC membership, the largest portion coming from football ticket sales.

Wolfe knew the power and importance of athletics to a large public university, and did everything he could to aggrandize it — including pushing a $72 million expansion of of the Tigers' football stadium. It turns out that UM football players knew their power too. On November 8, this iconic image was Tweeted out: 

 The very next day, Football Coach Gary Pinkel upped the stakes:

It's at this point that the mainstream media picked up on the story — as usual in the case of social movements and protests, media coverage started near the end, not the beginning. Very few cameras were around at the start of grad student Jonathan Butler's hunger strike. There were no reporters around to cover the months of painstaking face-to-face organizing work done by MU students, including the new group Concerned Student 1950. And UM's long history of being an institution fundamentally hostile to black students and workers was little more than background noise.

In the midst of a fall semester punctuated by racial slurs and intimidation against Black students, Concerned Student 1950 members disrupted UM's homecoming parade directly in front of President Wolfe's red convertible and reminded him of that history:

Jonathan Butler began his hunger strike on Monday, November 2, vowing to continue until Wolfe resigned or was forced out by the Board of Curators. All week he was joined at Traditions Plaza by a growing group of students and tents. By the weekend, momentum was clearly on the students' side. Undergrad student government president Payton Head (himself a victim of racial abuse on campus earlier this fall) was publicly in support, along with many college activist organizations, and UM's English department voted no confidence in Wolfe on Tuesday over a number of issues.

The details aren't clear over how the football team got involved, but as far as we can tell late last week a player met with Concerned Student 1950 members to see what the team could to to support Butler. Over the course of the weekend the rest of the dominoes fell: an awkward response from Wolfe to protesters at UM-Kansas City Friday night went viral; the football team and coaches came out against Wolfe, as did an official resolution by the SGA; late Sunday faculty members announced a walk-out of classes all Monday and Tuesday and promised a teach-in; two graduate student organizations, the Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers, called for a strike Monday and Tuesday; the Kansas City Star published a pointed editorial calling for Wolfe to step down.

Sunday evening, while 150 protesters in coats and tents vowed to occupy Traditions Plaza until Wolfe was removed, the University of Missouri's Board of Curators announced an emergency closed-door session for 10am the next morning. Wolfe announced his resignation late Monday morning. UM Chancellor Loftin will be gone from his post as of January 1. The Board also announced several new initiatives which, while seemingly drawn from Concerned Student 1950's list of demands, were for the most part vague and noncommittal.

For a detailed and much more comprehensive timeline of events, check out this Slate article.

While students didn't get everything they wanted and the struggle continues, the relative swiftness of victory here is worth examining. Some things that organizers got right:

1. They escalated their tactics. As support grew, students engaged in increasingly confrontational and risky actions.

2. They mobilized all sectors of the university. Student, athlete, faculty and staff organizations were contacted and included in their efforts and encouraged to take action.

3. They knew the political landscape they were working in. UM-Columbia is a two hour drive from Ferguson. Hunger striker Jonathan Butler visited Ferguson after Mike Brown's murder and was radicalized by the events he saw there and around the country. Black Lives Matter protesters over the past year have shown how to put members of the ruling class — even liberals — on the defensive. Reminiscent of the massive growth in Occupy Wall Street occupations across the country, BLM's strategies and tactics, even down to their chants, have spread organically from coast to coast. UM SGA Vice President Brenda Smith-Lezama has noted that the post-Ferguson era has seen a huge increase in the quantity and quality of campus organizing.

3. They knew the administration's pressure points, and pushed on them. The addition of the UM football team and coaches by all reports seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Football is without a doubt key to UM's financial future, from ticket sales to royalties to high-dollar alumni donations. The coaches turned out to be the layer of university administration easiest to pry away, and pry they did. This was a direct, serious threat to the the university's purse strings.

It's easy to imagine that in the absence of the football team's strike we would still see the struggle continuing with no clear end in sight. We'd likely see more no confidence votes, larger protests, additional hunger strikers, and perhaps a building occupation. While collegiate athletics has recently been in the news as student athletes fight for improved conditions, compensation, and even union recognition, the active injection of a team into a non-sports political issue is incredibly rare. Because this development was so unheard of and unexpected, the tone of campaign shifted immediately. Even the most cynical heads turned.

Sunday afternoon's striking visual of their coaches locking arms in solidarity meant that the administration's public unity was broken. The financial threat of a striking football team was something the administration and Board decided it simply could not bear. Saul Alinsky exhorted organizers to act outside their target's experience. The football strike is a textbook example of just that. With this in mind it's worth considering why so many student activists and groups are vehemently anti-sports, and whether their disinterest in campus athletics is actually a huge tactical mistake (spoiler alert: it is!).

In the coming days and weeks we'll hear more from students and faculty about this past week and the work that led up to it. It's incumbent upon us all to learn from their hard-fought victory as we continue our own struggles, and to support UM students as they continue to fight against white supremacy on and off campus.

UPDATE: Dave Zirin over at The Nation has pointed out that UM would have forteited $1 million if the football team had missed this weekend's game at BYU. Ouch.


Tuition-backing Cooper Union trustees resign, act like sore losers [HUGE UPDATE]


Last night, we learned that five trustees of the Cooper Union suddenly resigned from the board, including the board's recent chairman Mark Epstein. While all five supported Cooper Union's disastrous decision to start charging tuition, Epstein was its head architect and cheerleader. This is an unambiguous victory for anti-tuition organizers and activists, and a victory for the future of Cooper Union.

In addition to these facts, we also learned that Epstein is bitter, bitter man — and a sore loser. Here is his resignation letter:


I am writing to you from under two hats. One as trustee, and one as donor.

As a Trustee, I am hereby resigning from the Board, effective immediately. During my term as Chairman we were able to put the school on a path to sustainability. It was going to be a difficult path with some hurdles to get over. We were on our way, but have now gotten so far off of that path due to the actions (or inactions) of the Board that I no longer want to participate. I know that there are some in the Cooper Community that will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort. I am not resigning due to any pressure from that group, rather that I no longer want to associate with them.

As a donor, I am withdrawing my financial support for the college. Although I respect the rights of those of the faculty, alumni, and students, to act as they see fit, I no longer want to support them.

If the schools fail in the future, it will not be due to the change in the scholarship policy (a major part of the sustainability plan) as some will claim. It will be due to the organized opposition to it.

I’ve spent a good part of the last 30 years being pretty active for the benefit of The Cooper Union. These were not easy decisions to make.

Thank you,

Mark Epstein

Chairman Emeritus

As Epstein's parting shot is written with two hats, let's examine each.

As a trustee, he starts with patting himself on the back for putting Cooper Union "on a path to sustainability," which is highly dubious, given his extensive efforts at alienating and infuriating every single constituency at the school, along with his presence on the board since 2004, which meant he "was intimately involved in most of Cooper Union’s worst decisions." The only path Epstein could reliably claim to have put Cooper Union on is one that leads straight to the NY Attorney General's office.

By going out of his way to state that "some" people "will take my resignation as a false victory of some sort," he's simply verifying that yes, this is an actual victory — of the best sort. And then he tries to cover for any negative effects of this public tantrum by declaring that if Cooper Union fails in the future, it won't be the fault of him, the wealthy trustee running away as fast as he can with all his money, but in fact those who most want CU to remain true to the vision of Peter Cooper.

As a donor, Cooper Union's coffers would be full were it that banks took irony as currency — Epstein is doing the exact thing he chastised other CU alumni for doing. I'll let Angus Johnston explain:

Mark Epstein, who today said that he is “withdrawing [his] financial support from Cooper Union” because he doesn’t support the policies of the majority of the CU trustees, said this in 2011:

“If [alumni] are that pissed off about Cooper Union and don’t want to give back, then I suggest they give back their degrees. You I mean, how do you answer a question like this: why don’t people give back to a school that gave them a free education worth now a hundred-some-odd thousand dollars? To me it’s baffling, it truly is.”

And yes, Epstein is a Cooper Union grad.

It’s baffling. It truly is.

Epstein's entire letter reads with the same kind of pouty harumphing that a child exhibits when he announces that he's going to bed not because his mother told him to, but because he wants to.

But what's particularly interesting is that this turn of events is the exact opposite of what usually happens with activist campaigns in higher ed. Traditionally, administrators can simply outwait their student opponents: most of the dedicated organizers are juniors or seniors so regardless of the ruckus they raise, within several months it'll be summer and many will be graduated, too busy scrambling to pay back their loans to stick around the campus and keep up the fight. At Cooper Union, the student movement (and its allies) essentially outlasted the administration. I'd peg that on two reasons: they 1) were able to keep up enthusiasm and participation over the long haul, maintaining momentum over summer breaks and pulling first-years into the fold; and 2) were able to bring significant outside institutional pressure to bear, in the form of their lawsuit against the trustees, a serious investigation by NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and of course the ongoing negative media coverage as a result.

The departure of five pro-tuition trustees has instantly and significantly altered the balance of power within Cooper's board. Apparently the board is meeting today, so hopefully we'll get a public statement soon. If I were a member of Free Cooper Union, I'd be dusting off the Working Group Proposal and prepping for another board vote. Though first I'd be throwing a massive party. This is a huge victory that organizers and activists have 100% earned, and it's hopefully a beacon that can light a path to a free, open, and democratic Cooper Union.

UPDATE: via email, it has been announced that Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha is stepping down!

He'll be gone effective July 1, 2015. Perhaps AG Schneiderman gave the trustees a quiet nod that this would make life easier for them? I've pasted the email here below:

Subject: Presidential Transition

From: The Cooper Union <alumni@cooper.edu>

To: All community and alumni

Date: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 7:09 PM

Dear Members of the Cooper Union Community:

I am writing to let you know that I will be leaving my post as President of The Cooper Union at the end of June, 2015. Starting in the fall, I will serve as Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the Graduate School of Education.

It has been an honor to serve as the 12th President of Cooper Union these past four years. The focus of my presidency has been to secure Cooper’s finances for generations of deserving students in the future, while preserving excellence and increasing socio-economic access.

The class completing its freshman year was the first to be admitted under the 2013 Financial Sustainability Plan, and the class just admitted will be the second. These two classes uphold Cooper’s unparalleled standard of excellence. With need-based financial aid, we have also been able to increase access to those who can least afford it, as shown by an increase in the proportion of students eligible for Federal Pell Grants.

Jessie and I want to thank all the students, faculty, alumni, donors, friends, and neighbors whom we have been privileged to meet during our stay at Cooper, and we wish you all the very best.

Jamshed Bharucha


On June 10, 2015, the Cooper Union Board of Trustees released the following statement:

The Board of Trustees is grateful to Jamshed Bharucha for his service as the 12th President of Cooper Union.

The financial exigencies with which he was confronted upon his arrival were not of his making and he deserves credit for sounding the alarm about the need to take urgent action to ensure Cooper Union’s long-term financial sustainability.

We wish President Bharucha all the best in his future endeavors, and have agreed to name him President Emeritus effective July 1, 2015.

The board has asked Cooper’s vice president for finance and administration, William Mea, to assume interim leadership responsibilities on July 1. In the fall, the board will form a presidential search committee that will include representation from the faculty, students and alumni.

Mea, who is currently responsible for financial planning and budgeting, the controller’s office, human resources, information technology, public safety, facilities and legal affairs, joined Cooper in September 2014.

Administration Strategies Against Student Activism and Organizing

Student organizers have a wealth of strategic analysis and history to pull from when we start any campaign. Everything from power mapping to the classic Tactic Star, I'm sure we've all been to our share of workshops to hone our activism. However, the point I want to make today is that college and university administrations across the country do the same thing. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic.

Since the explosion of innovative (and successful) student organizing and protest in the 1960s, administrators have sought to understand our tactics and strategy so as to work out the most effective ways to defuse our campaigns and actions.

Just as we have trainings and conferences, so do administrators: conferences with exciting names like the "Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education", and "International Conference on Learning and Administration in Higher Education". There are also journals, magazines, and conference calls all devoted to the job of subjugating administering your campus.

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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