POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 6, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 2:03 a.m. HST, May 6, 2012
NORTHRIDGE, Calif. >> Angry about tuition increases and cuts in courses and enrollment, a dozen students at California State University have taken their protest beyond marches — their usual tactic — and declared a hunger strike.
On Thursday, the second day of the fast, supporters were preparing a kale, apple and celery juice concoction for the protesters at the Northridge campus. The students have pledged to forgo solid food for at least a week, perhaps longer if the administration does not move to meet some of their demands, which include a five-year moratorium on student fee increases and a rollback of executive salaries to 1999 levels.
The fasting protest was the latest display of anger at the 23 California State University campuses. The system has lost roughly $970 million in state financing since 2008, and administrators have said they have no choice but to increase tuition.
But while California’s governor and Legislature are responsible for the state budget that the system relies on, university administrators have received the brunt of student and faculty furor. Protesters say the administration has allocated too much money for their own salaries and perks, and not enough for faculty and facilities. Negotiations with the faculty union have broken down.
“It’s like they forget that we’re the reason the university exists,” said Sarah Garcia, one of four students at the Northridge campus who is participating in the fast. “What we have now is so much less than we thought we would be getting when we enrolled here.”
Garcia, a sophomore majoring in deaf studies, said she is taking only one required class this semester because she was unable to enroll in any others.
Garcia voiced her frustration to prospective students touring campus Friday, even as she encouraged them to enroll. As visitors passed a table with information from the protesters, she asked them to sign a petition supporting their efforts. As they signed, another student prepared the juice concoction for the protesters.
Faculty members, too, are moving to express their displeasure. The union representing faculty members, which has been supportive of the student protests, announced last week that members had voted to authorize a rolling strike at campuses statewide after efforts to reach an agreement on a contract stalled after nearly two years of negotiations.
The rolling two-day strike, which would most likely take place in the fall, would be the largest in state history and would affect more than 400,000 students, the union said.
Faculty members on two campuses, Dominguez Hills and East Bay, held a strike last fall, the first in the faculty union’s nearly three-decade history. The union has asked for a 1 percent raise and says administrators have asked to freeze faculty salaries, which have not increased since 2008.
But even more concerning than the salary issue, they say, is the university’s reliance on part-time lecturers, some of whom teach a full load of courses but do not have tenure. Those lecturers make roughly $50,000 a year, about half of what a tenured professor makes.
University officials are trying to end a policy that automatically renews contracts for such lecturers; the union is arguing that such a change would limit academic freedom.
Emily Magruder, a humanities lecturer at Dominguez Hills, said that when she began teaching eight years ago, she had about 45 students in each class. Now, she said, her classes have ballooned to 60.
“You can’t have the contact you want to have with students, and you spend an enormous amount of time grading,” she said. “Research is supposed to be the backbone of academia, but to survive economically, this is the only choice.”
Since the 2007-08 school year, tuition at California State University has climbed to $5,472, from $2,772. Tuition is higher during the summer sessions, which many students rely on to take courses that otherwise fill up quickly.
The anger escalated last year when San Diego State University hired a new president with a salary of $400,000, about $100,000 more than his predecessor, while increasing tuition 12 percent. In January, the board of trustees approved a plan to freeze the use of state money for pay increases until 2014, although they will continue to allow individual campuses to use money from private donors and foundations when it is “deemed necessary.”
The system’s financial situation could become even worse. If voters do not approve a tax measure on the November ballot pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the system will face another $200 million cut, which administrators have said would force them to further cut enrollment, eliminate roughly 3,000 faculty and staff positions and shutter some academic and athletic programs.
Already, enrollment on most campuses will be frozen next spring, and campuses limit the number of courses students can enroll in.
“The budget has made it extremely difficult to do what we want,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the chancellor. “We are really burdened by what is going on in the state, but we don’t control purse strings. Putting a moratorium on tuition increases sounds great, but if we would have done that five years ago, we would have lost many more students.”
Uhlenkamp said most administrators had not had a raise in five years and that the increases were needed to attract top candidates.
But doing so could become more difficult. “California was once the model system, and now that seems to be breaking down at every level,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the director of the Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell. “Cal State was the opportunity that many of the poorest students in the state had to make it into the middle class. By forcing them to restrict enrollment numbers, you’re almost eating the seed corn of the future.”