UC Santa Cruz has spent 50 years touting itself as a bastion of radical politics tucked between the redwoods. Its slogan, “The original authority on questioning authority,” can be seen on banners attached to street lamps and plastered on buses up and down Highway 17.
At a university with such a rich history of student activism, a recent act of civil disobedience has revealed a profound contradiction between the university’s reputation and its response to students who decide to put their bodies on the line for an issue that affects all students in the UC system.
Six students were arrested for blocking Highway 17 on March 3 in protest of tuition hikes and police violence. They now face up to 30 days in jail but their attorneys are fighting for the alternatives of probation, community service, house arrest or work release for the two misdemeanors they were each charged with.
These aren’t the only consequences for their five hours chained together on the highway. They also face up to $20,000 in restitution and have been suspended from the university until fall 2016.
The highway blockade generated debate on campus and in the city about what activism should look like. Many argued about whether the blockade was an effective method of civil disobedience, but the real debate should be centered around the fairness behind the students’ punishment on behalf of the state and university.
A survey conducted this quarter by the Student Opinion Center, a group of undergraduate students, showed that of 437 UCSC students surveyed, 70 percent felt that the March 3 action was not an effective form of protest. However, the same survey indicated that an overwhelming 84 percent of students agreed that the administration shouldn’t punish students for off-campus protests.
UCSC administration has no direct say in how the students will fare in the justice system, but the year and a half suspension is excessive. At the least, it delays graduation for some students, affecting their eligibility for financial aid, but at worst it prevents the possibility of ever getting their degree.
UCSC is quick to exploit student activism as a branding tool. Its reputation as a liberal, hippie enclave on the Central Coast entices students and donors alike, but UCSC only brandishes its activist flag when there is something to be gained, otherwise students are intimidated out of action.
The abrupt manner in which the interim suspension was issued to the students immediately following their arrival at the jail led the students to fail out of their quarter, and left some who lived on campus without access to health services, food and a home.
Administrative response, at every level, to student activism has been troubling. At the March UC regents meeting, UC President Janet Napolitano was caught on video saying “we don’t have to listen to this crap” in response to students protesting tuition hikes and UC Berkeley’s development of a new Richmond campus without a community benefits agreement. The following day she offered a very underwhelming apology and went about her way.
And just a few weeks ago, when the two-year tuition freeze was announced, Napolitano thanked students for their advocacy, stating in an email, “Your voices have been instrumental in helping to bring about this historic agreement, and I sincerely appreciate your partnership.”
The utterly condescending and patronizing nature of the comment aside, one has to wonder what advocacy Napolitano is referring to. Could it be the highway blockade? Or could it be the occupation of administrative buildings that took place at UCSC and UC Berkeley in November? Or could it be the very regents meeting protest she referred to as “crap,” and that somewhere in the span of a few weeks her opinions on student activism changed?
The students who Napolitano and the UC as a whole have dismissed are the ones who have stood up against issues affecting all those enrolled in the UC system, and certain communities are more gravely affected than others.
Tuition hikes and the diminishing accessibility to the university are frightening prospects for students of an institution of higher education whose mission is to generate long-term social innovation through the sharing of knowledge. Increasing the financial burden on students and their families furthers a system catering to the elite, as students of color and low-income students will be less likely to view higher education as a possibility.
Activism is not convenient. When students are being priced out of the opportunity to receive an education, it would be foolish to expect polite picketing on a sidewalk. While the method of protest can be contested, the intent behind the action of the “Highway Six” was noble. They were standing up for their fellow students, for their siblings and cousins, for prospective college students 10 years from now whose chance to earn an exceptional and affordable college degree is in jeopardy. These six students should not be left to bear the steep consequences alone.