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Students protest cuts to higher-education funds

By Jenna Johnson and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 4, 2010; 3:46 PM

Student activists in California and elsewhere took to the streets Thursday in a national day of protest against rising fees and dwindling services in public higher education, drawing attention to a wave of tuition hikes, budget cuts and furloughs at colleges and universities across the country.

Organizers said they seek to dramatize mounting frustration as the recession forces deep cuts in higher-education budgets, especially in California, whose higher-education system is both largest in the nation and facing the deepest cuts. Colleges in Virginia and Maryland and across the nation have raised tuition, cut positions and absorbed funding cuts, but not to the extent as in California.

California student activists declared Thursday a Day of Action to Defend Public Education, and rallies were planned for nearly every college and university campus in the state, in addition to several K-12 schools. The University of California at Santa Cruz, expecting disruptions, had advised employees and others not to come to campus Thursday. Dozens of students blocked roads, prohibiting drivers from entering the campus at its main and west entrances. There were also reports of students intimidating employees. At Berkeley, the Academic Senate urged protesters to "stay on your feet" and offered helpful hints for those who chose arrest. Organizers hoped to spur events in 30 other states.

"There are student activists all over the country who are looking to California as something to emulate," said Doug Singsen, 32, a graduate student at the City University of New York who has helped organize events outside California. "We want this to be the beginning of a movement that gets stronger."

At the University of Maryland in College Park, some students walked out of classes at noon. About four dozen people gathered at the student union and then marched to an academic building that was decorated with posters reading "Demand nothin occupy 'erything'" and "Life sucks, Let's dance." Early this afternoon students discussed how much money goes toward athletics and how to grow their small movement. Junior Marty Handelman heard about the rally from a flier and decided to attend. "It really clicked. This is really important and I should really be a part of this," said Handelman, 21. "This is really just a gathering about what's wrong with public education."

Organizer Bob Hayes said Maryland students are angry that their tuition dollars are going to pay for development projects and the salaries of administrators, instead of better instruction.

"We feel disconnected from our education," Hayes said. "We're being run by a Fortune 500 company instead of by a university."

Ironically, the rally threatened to be upstaged by the Maryland-Duke basketball game Wednesday night, which sparked a celebration that drew police in riot gear and briefly shut down Route 1.

California's budget cuts have crippled a higher-education system known as one of finest and most accessible in the world.

"It's really a denied dream," said Jack Scott, chancellor of the 2.9 million-student California Community Colleges.

The community college system took $520 million in cuts in the 2009-10 academic year, or 8 percent of its budget. Scott estimates the system is serving 200,000 "unfunded" students, and thousands are being turned away from oversubscribed or unavailable classes.

The Cal State system has lost one-fifth of its state funding in the past two fiscal years, a $625 million reduction, and students have absorbed a 32 percent tuition increase this year. The system's 48,000 employees took a 10 percent pay cut through furloughs -- two full days per month, across the board. The system is cutting 20,000 students this year.

The UC system has raised tuition from $7,788 in fall 2009 to $10,302 in fall 2010 for resident undergraduates, to help close a $1 billion funding gap. The system is cutting enrollment and introducing a wait list for the first time in its history. UC employees are taking weeks of furlough days and pay cuts of 4 to 10 percent.

"Nobody can see how the state is going to come out of this," said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities and former Berkeley chancellor.

Last week a riot erupted at Berkeley as more than 200 people set fires, shattered windows and clashed with the six police agencies that were summoned. On Monday, five students were arrested in Sacramento for refusing to leave a state assemblyman's office because he wouldn't sign a letter promising increased financial support. Wednesday morning, students broke into the Humanities building at California State University at Fullerton and barricaded themselves inside for several hours.

There have been no significant protests in the D.C. region over budget cuts. But the fiscal drama in California is playing out across the country, albeit on a smaller scale, as state after state copes with declining funds for higher education.

The University of Virginia has undergone three budget cuts totaling $32 million, or one-fifth of its state appropriation, since the start of the downturn, and faces a proposed $4.6 million cut in fiscal 2010 and 2011. The university has trimmed more than 160 positions, so far without layoffs. The staff has gone two years without raises. The College of Arts and Sciences, heavily dependent on state dollars, is trimming 7 percent of its 2,900 course offerings.

State funding to the College of William and Mary has slipped $17 million, or 32 percent, since spring 2008. The school's governing board approved midyear cuts that eliminate 18 positions, including 12 layoffs. The school enacted an unusual $300 midyear tuition increase.

Maryland universities, in contrast with most of the nation, have ridden out the recession with a four-year tuition freeze and comparatively generous state funding. But Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) responded to the funding crisis this year by ending the freeze and proposing a 3 percent tuition hike in the next academic year.

Tuition has risen 12 percent to $9,672 at the University of Virginia in two years. Over the course of the Maryland tuition freeze, Virginia's public tuitions have eclipsed Maryland's.

California's problems are far worse, analysts say, because its higher-education system is more dependent on state funding than those in Maryland, Virginia and most other states, and because the cuts have been deeper.

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