By Rachel Stern & Jono Kinkade
Co-Managing Editor, Investigative Desk Editor
After a heated open-session debate on Wednesday at UCLA, the University of California Regents voted to raise student fees for the 2008-09 school year. For some, the move appeared the only alternative amidst California budget cuts, yet for others — including the many UC students who gathered in Los Angeles from around the state — it demonstrated misplaced priorities.
"Are you making the choice with the largest and most important constituency in mind–its students?," posed UC Student Association President Louise Hendrickson before the vote, eliciting cheers from the public audience filled mostly with UC students and their supporters.
The UC currently has a $417.4 million budget gap which it’s looking to bridge, according to the UC’s Office on Strategic Communications. The proposed 7.4 percent educational fee increase in university-wide student fees for the 2008-09 academic year will equate to $490 for resident undergraduates. Students will also continue to pay a temporary $60 surcharge, bringing the mandatory fees for undergraduates to $7,126.
"They should be going to the state, but until we change our financial paradigm, we’re fighting over crumbs every year," Ben Allen, one of the student regents, told City on a Hill Press (CHP).
Many opponents of the fees claimed that all but the wealthiest students will be burdened by a greater workload and debt, thus putting a damper on their academics and future career opportunities. Furthermore, they argued, the increasing price of a UC education will prevent students from entering the university system in the first place.
"These fees will significantly limit those underrepresented at the UC," Mathew Taylor, a peace and conflict studies major at UC Berkeley who picketed with other UC students outside the meeting, told CHP.
Some regents had numerous back-and-forths between whether it is better to raise fees or lobby the state.
"I’m all in favor of calling Sacramento’s bluff, if I thought it was going to do any good," said Richard Blum, chairman of the Board of Regents. "But every time we’ve called the bluff for forty years, we’ve lost."
The debate over how to fill the nearly half-a-billion dollar budget gap is mostly divided between fee hike proponents and those who urge lobbying the state for more money.
During the debate, Lieutenant Garamendi persistently pointed out that raising students fees was placing a tax on students, a tax that he feels is best left to be resolved in the state legislature. Prior to voting to raise student fees, the regents voted down a resolution introduced by Garamendi in January, which would have frozen fee increases while deeper issues were resolved.
"Privatization will result in a couple of premier campuses: UC Berkeley and UCLA and the lesser eight–not the power of ten," he said.
A result of this, Garamendi said, is an increase in student debt after graduating, and a decline in those who are able to work in lesser-paying public service jobs. The greater societal implications of a fee increase resonated with both the student onlookers and some of the regents sitting at the table.
"When we turn away working class people, their motivation for supporting the university disappears," said Regent Eddie Island.
Before the decision was made, numerous students stood in the back of the large conference room holding high yellow signs proclaiming "Education is a right!", "Fund High Education!" and "Stop Fee Increases," among others for minutes before the vote took place. "
After the decision, there was an outbreak of chants among the crowd of roughly 90 proclaiming: "Regents, regents, can’t you see; you’re creating po-ver-ty." As the chanting continued from the public seating area, which was filled to capacity, most of the regents and UC administration left the room and police began filing in as a security liaison continually asked them to leave. As the crowd dwindled, 16 people–mostly UC students–linked arms and refused to leave. Police then began pulling each person from the group, one by one, often resorting to compliance holds and scuffles that led to protesters being tackled.
"This should be our space to voice the concerns of the students," one student told a police officer minutes before they were handcuffed.
Celina Ayala, a UC Santa Barbara biopsychology student, also felt that the regents didn’t take enough concern in the future of the students they represent.
As she put it: "They sit in their comfortable chairs and one days they will need to be replaced. But how can that happen if we can’t get higher education?"
_Additional reporting by Cyrus Gutnick and Arianna Puopolo_