March 10, 2010

Challenging the Day of Action Protests

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Prompted by the 32 percent tuition increases in the University of California system, on March 4 students around the country protested in what organizers called a “Day of Action.” While we certainly support the cause of making public education affordable — Cornell receives, of course, significant state funding — we question certain elements of their campaign.

We must first remember why these cuts are occurring. Last year, amidst a serious budget crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $600 million from the University of California budget, prompting the deans of the various UC schools to raise tuition. As UC President Mark Yudof stated, there was no other reasonable way to close the budget gap. We must therefore question the protesters’ assertion that “a nationwide resistance movement is needed.” The decisions to cut budgets and raise tuitions — though undeniably causing much pain — are, given certain circumstances, justifiable.

In these difficult economic times, states such as California that face dire budget straits are forced to make difficult cuts to vital programs. But considering the other areas budget cuts could have affected, raising the price of higher education is reasonable. It is important to keep in mind that while these increases place a greater burden on students, they may be a necessary compromise to maintain the strength of the UC system. Making college more expensive hurts — we sympathize with the frustration of those students who are hit the hardest, and understand the protesters’ argument that “education cuts are attacks against all of us, particularly in working-class communities and communities of color.” But is increasing tuition preferable to closing high schools, day care centers or free health clinics? Such cuts may affect “working-class communities and communities of color” more on a day-to-day basis, and they should be the programs that remain well-funded despite the economic climate.

Moreover, the protesters’ destructive actions hurt the legitimacy of their cause. Students across the country blocked campus and building entrances, obstructed traffic and, in the case of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, “threw ice chunks at campus officers.” Such actions do very little to address the issue at hand, namely, what to do with shrunken state budgets — which is the work of lawmakers, not campus officers. Worse, such misplaced anger can distract university officials from tackling and solving these problems.

As The Sun reported on March 8, Cornell students were barely involved in the nationwide protests. Though we can certainly understand why — Cornell’s tuition hikes, compared to those elsewhere, have been minimal — it is essential that the student body familiarize itself with the details of this unfolding issue, as it impacts us more directly than perhaps any current policy issue. Cornell’s students should therefore be sure to be a part of the debate. As the University continues to “reimagine” itself, students must take on an active role in the process. Things like forums for the strategic planning task force or Brown Bag Lunches might not seem like ideal forms of afternoon entertainment. But student involvement will undoubtedly shape the University going forward and will work towards ensuring that Cornell students will not have to call for a “Day of Action” of their own.