The Betrayal of Student Activism?

The University of California, Santa Cruz, was established in 1965 and has long been known for its radicalism. But officials’ reaction to a recent protest against tuition hikes suggests that times have changed.

Brendan McDermid

Santa Cruz is a sleepy college town nestled at the base of a mountain range on California’s Central Coast. Recently, the city, famous for its beach boardwalk and redwood forests, experienced an act of civil disobedience by six of the university’s students.

This news might seem unremarkable for a college community known for its alternative lifestyle and liberal leanings. But the demonstration—held in early March in opposition to tuition hikes across the state—has led to some soul-searching for the University of California, Santa Cruz, which is coming under scrutiny for abandoning its tradition of political activism and the values it still uses to market itself. Despite lasting only a few hours, the protest has also dragged Santa Cruz into the center of national conversations about student debt, generational divides, and the efficacy of certain protest tactics designed to attract attention.

The six students are all California residents between the ages of 19 and 28 who decided to protest the tuition increases by blocking a major thoroughfare in the area. They now each face sentences of 30 days in jail for two misdemeanors, including for creating a public nuisance, though the local district attorney is reportedly striving to convince the judge to sentence them to more time. (They were initially charged as felons for criminal conspiracy, but those charges were later dropped.) Meanwhile, the university administration has suspended them each for a year and a half, during which time they will not have access to housing or healthcare.

UC Santa Cruz, or UCSC, is part of a ten-campus network that is widely considered to be a paragon of state university systems. Traditionally, California residents were able to attend the world-class institutions at a relatively affordable cost, but that has started to change in recent decades, as budget crises and a decrease in state support for higher education prompted sizable tuition hikes. Undergraduate tuition, which is uniform across the UC system, has more than doubled in the last decade to its current level of $12,192. It’s increased at a much higher rate than the national average, which in 2014 was $9,139. Officials point out that financial-aid programs for low- and middle-income families make tuition free for more than half of the schools’ in-state students—but as the recent controversy suggests, that’s not always enough.

UCSC doesn’t have the same recognition as UC institutions such as UCLA and Cal Berkeley; it’s endowment is much smaller, and its athletics are Division III. What it is known for, however, is its foundation in radical politics and its support of student activism. Founded in 1965, when Vietnam-era activism was growing across American campuses, Santa Cruz’s student body immediately took part in the nationwide movement. That character stuck even as UCSC grew and prospered in the ensuing decades. In 1991, the university hired Angela Davis, a luminary of the Civil Rights Movement and a close associate with members of the Black Panther Party, as a professor of feminist studies. Then, as environmental activism expanded across the country, UCSC students and faculty spearheaded efforts to stop development projects that would have compromised access to the cliffs on the city’s west side. Students and faculty ran for, and were elected to, local political offices. Their liberal politics sometimes clashed with the town’s conservative leaning.

Recently, on-campus activism has revolved around the UC tuition hikes, intensifying after Janet Napolitano, who currently serves as the system’s president, announced in November annual increases of 5 percent over the next five years. Students throughout California loudly opposed the measure, marshaling lobbyists, deploying delegations to a Board of Regents meeting, occupying buildings, and coordinating demonstrations across the state—all to little avail.

For the six students the prospect of even more tuition hikes, especially when university administrators continue to garner high salaries, was intolerable.

So they came up with a plan.

At approximately 9 a.m. on March 3, the students gathered trash cans full of concrete and chains, put them in a U-Haul van, and headed to the Fishhook Bridge, which connects Route 1 and Highway 17, the main thoroughfare between Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz. By 9:30, the protesters managed to form a blockade on the bridge with their materials, shutting down traffic for three hours—and spurring response from 85 uniformed personnel and a helicopter. Officials used a sledgehammer to eventually extricate the protesters.

For much of the morning, commuters—many of whom were on their way to work—sat in traffic until the road was cleared at 2:30 p.m. At one point, a motorist was so angry he marched to the front of the gridlock and launched into a profanity-laced tirade that later made the circuit on social media.

By the end of that afternoon, an online petition calling for UCSC’s chancellor, George Blumenthal, to expel the protesters had garnered 3,000 signatures; as of Thursday, the number had grown to roughly 4,300. Blumenthal didn’t go as far to expel the six students, but he strongly condemned their actions, saying in a statement the day of the protest that the university “deeply [regretted] the impact these events had on our neighbors.” Emphasizing that the university’s students are “all members of this community,” he went on to say that school leaders would “exert” their responsibility and in the future discourage such means of protesting. “It's more than just an inconvenience,” he said. “Obstructing traffic jeopardizes public safety in ways that potentially could put people's lives at risk.” In the afternoon, as the students sat in jail waiting to be processed, the university then notified the students of interim suspensions; the suspension was eventually extended.

An increasing number of community members, faculty, and students, however, have begun pushing back, circulating letters of support and criticizing the university administration of caving to outside pressure by enacting excessively harsh punishments without following appropriate due-process protocol. Bettina Aptheker, a feminist-studies professor, characterized the university’s decision to suspend the students as “draconian and unnecessary.” “I’ve been here for 35 years and I’ve never seen this level of punishment for civil disobedience that was nonviolent,” she said. “The punishment is way out of proportion to the offensive.”

Still, Lori Nixon, the only one of the six students who agreed to an interview, said she was bewildered by the initial reaction to the protest. “We set out to send a political message,” she said, noting that freeway shutdowns are a common tactic in other places. Indeed across the country, shutting down critical thoroughfares has recently figured as a popular protest tactic across the country. Following the St. Louis County Grand Jury’s announcement last November that Officer Darren Wilson would not be charged for shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, many of the demonstrations focused on shutting down highways. Marchers in St. Louis blocked traffic on Interstate-70, while in New York, demonstrations thwarted traffic on FDR Drive at the Williamsburg Bridge. In Boston protesters sat down on Massachusetts Avenue, and in Oakland protesters shut down the bridge at the I-580, a method protesters in that community have employed repeatedly, including just last month.

Those in favor of protest movements and who support the underlying social issues inspiring them have argued that the inconvenience of encountering annoying traffic jams is minor relative to the grave and systemic injustices to which the movements are attempting to bring attention.

A recent high-profile controversy involving a Twitter-rant by the actor Alec Baldwin revealed that divide: Baldwin complained about sitting in New York City traffic because of fast-food workers who were rallying to raise the minimum wage to $15, obstructing a large swath of midtown traffic. “There are ways to rally people without inconveniencing an entire city,” Baldwin wrote in a tweet. Then, the day after his post, he was blasted in The New York Times by the opinion writer Rachel L. Swarms: “The convenience factor! Now, that, Mr. Baldwin, is an issue that doesn’t get raised every day by your fellow supporters of a living wage. And it reminds me that this point rarely comes up when we consider the history of social movements in the United States: the sheer inconvenience that peaceful protests create for people who are not protesting.”

Deborah Gould, a sociology professor at UCSC who studies social movements, said attitudes such as Baldwin’s are common. “People who participate in social movements are invariably disparaged by the media and by bystanders,” Gould said. “People don’t like to be inconvenienced, and I understand that, but in order for necessary social change to occur people are going to be inconvenienced.” With regard to the tuition hikes at the university, students often feel their grievances are routinely dismissed by the administration, she said, and believe that protests are their only recourse—a sentiment demonstrated by Nixon.

“In the face of very bleak futures, the economic crash of 2008, an economy that is not only limping along but doesn’t seem to really need these students,” Gould said, “we should not be surprised that these students have turned to more militant forms of protest.”

But in Santa Cruz, issues beside the cost of college are at play, too. The protest has underscored divides between the Baby Boomers, many of whom paid for college simply by getting summer jobs, and Millennials: a generation incurring tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, often just to have an opportunity in an already-crowded job market.

Among UC students who took out loans and graduated in 2013, the average debt was $20,500. They are also paying more for less, as the higher volumes of incoming freshman combined with cuts to faculty mean higher class counts and less individualized attention.

Eric John Nelson, the attorney representing Lori Nixon, said there is a deep irony in that the young people grew up dealing with financial crises ranging from the recession to widespread unemployment, largely because of poor policy choices made by the very generation that is now seeking to punish them for taking a stand on the repercussions of those policies.

Yet, one theme frequently evoked by those criticizing the students’ protest tactics is that the young people were spoiled and entitled brats unfamiliar with the “real world.”

Nixon, who was four classes away from graduating with a degree in sociology at the time of her suspension, said she is currently $25,000 in debt. A victim of the recession, she lost her job at the San Diego Unified School District in 2011 due to across-the-board employee cuts and had her house foreclosed as a result. “I know the struggle of working to pay for community college classes and trying to make ends meet,” she said. “I’ve struggled a lot to get where I am and now I’m in danger of losing my health care again. It’s really scary.”

Moreover, according to Nixon, some of her fellow demonstrators face difficult prospects, too, now that they’ve lost on-campus housing and have had to scramble for places to stay while going through an onslaught of administrative processes.

“The scary part of this whole thing is that the state can punish them twice,” Nelson said. The UC System is a state entity, meaning the students continue to face heavy penalties from two government agencies, according to Nelson.

Furthermore, student advocates claim the group’s due-process rights, as guaranteed by the university, were also violated, citing the university’s decision to suspend them within hours of their arrest. It’s in violation of university policy, they said, to take such action without a hearing.

“The suspensions were issued within hours of them being arrested,” Aptheker, the feminist-studies professor said. “These students are being disciplined for off-campus actions and you can’t suspend them until they have a hearing.”

The UCSC spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason declined to comment on the specific case, citing university policy, but emphasized that “due process is at the heart of the student conduct process.” The university has the right to punish students for off-campus activities, he said, noting precedents in which students have been subject to disciplinary action for hosting parties that disturb neighborhoods. Still, concern is growing among the faculty and student body that establishing such a precedent is troubling and has the potential to be applied arbitrarily and unevenly. The university, for example, hasn’t taken any disciplinary action against a UCSC student who was recently ticketed after participating in a protest outside the U.S. Capitol.

All in all, the Santa Cruz community now appears ambivalent over the outcome, many criticizing the heavy punishment handed to the students but supportive of their mission. Ultimately, even if UCSC had taken steps to discipline the student, the university’s tradition of radical politics raises questions about its decision to punish students who participated in peaceful demonstration.

“The Original Authority on Questioning Authority,” reads a T-shirts for sale in UCSC’s gift shop, bearing a popular school slogan. Indeed, many argue the university has strayed far from its founding philosophy—a philosophy that it still uses to market itself to prospective students. And, at least according to its website, it’s one the school should continue to espouse today. “Our very founding in 1965 was a revolt against the educational status quo,” reads a passage on the university website. “Now, in an era of increased conformity and risk aversion, we invite you to join us in pursuit of a more just, healthy, and sustainable world.”