State of the University

Among several speakers, Sean Estelle was an energetic force on the podium at the March 1 “Rally for Higher Education,” leading chants and marching in the frontlines of the protest. Estelle, a third year Sixth College Visual Arts and Theater major, has been a prominent figure in recent student protests at UCSD geared at reversing fee hikes and encouraging more investment into public education.

As a member of the Outreach Committee for the Public Education Coalition, a UCSD-based organization that started at the beginning of Fall Quarter 2011, Estelle has been leading rallies, creating Facebook events and talking to the press on behalf of the PEC. On Dec. 5, when students staged a non-violent break-in of the recently closed Center for Library & Instructional Computing Services (CLICS), Estelle was a key player in the “reclamation,” claiming he probably slept there every night following the action.

As a student activist who calls for protest, and civil disobedience by fellow students as an agent of change, Estelle’s philosophy on what he and other activists call the recent “privatization” of education is similar to the “Occupy” rhetoric that has been emerging throughout the state of California and the nation as a whole.

“It really is starting to turn into a statewide and a nationwide and even global movement,” said Estelle.

Estelle and the rest of the PEC, which includes undergraduates, graduate and Ph.D students and members of faculty and staff, are part of a larger movement of activism at UC campuses, which has entailed clashes with protesters and campus police. The infamous pepper spray incident at UC Davis and the subsequent call for the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi garnered extensive media attention, creating lingering tensions between UC students and administration throughout the state.

Alfredo Mireles Jr., the current Student Regent on the UC Board of regents does not subscribe to exactly the same type of activism that Estelle and similar activists call for, but acknowledges many of the grievances brought forth by the PEC and organizations at the other UC campuses as legitimate evidence of the need for change.

In discussing privatization, Estelle cites figures from teachthebudget.com, a website that explains the UC-wide budget crisis and outlines the frustrations with UC administration that have driven students from across the state to participate in protests and sit-ins. The site lists figures, like the recent salary raises for 12 highly ranked UC administrators and attorneys in December of 2011, as indicative of a mishandling of the UC budget. He also mentions that, as defined by the California constitution, the current structuring of the Board of Regents is not representative of the students, staff and faculty.

“[A majority of] the board of regents are appointed, they’re not democratically elected,” Estelle said. “Only four are democratically elected regents, and there’s one Student Regent.”

A UCSF graduate student, Mireles echoes Estelle’s disapproval. As the Student Regent, his vote is equal to those of the other 25 regents, but he explained that his role is the only one among the regents that is designed to represent the UC student population of 220,000 as his specific constituency. The Student Regent position, like the other regents, is an appointed position, though the selection process entails a greater deal of student involvement. He is reviewed by A.S. presidents of various councils, as well as the University of California Student Association.

Alongside him, Jonathan Stein, graduate student at UC Berkeley, serves as a Student Regent-Designate. He is currently a non-voting member of the Board of Regents, but will become a voting student regent once his term begins in July of this year. Mireles said that he is often outvoted by the other regents, indicating a discrepancy between his agenda as a Student Regent and the agendas of the other regents.

“We all support access, affordability and quality of the university,” Mireles said. “Every regent supports that. But each regent emphasizes different aspects of that system. Whereas I think affordability is the most important component of that three-idea system, many of the other regents prioritize quality over affordability.”

The March 1 list of demands drafted by the PEC calls for an investigation into the regents’ conflicts of interests. Estelle cites Monica Lozano as an example of said conflict. Lozano, who, in addition to her current role as a regent, also serves as a director for Bank of America — a corporation that profits from student loans. Because of these ties, he insists that the current regents should all resign from their positions. For the system to be truly representative, Estelle said, students, staff and faculty should have greater representation, holding at least 51 percent of the votes in the board of regents.

Mireles agreed with Estelle and other students that one student regent among a board of 26 is a flawed system.

“It’s insane that there’s only one student regent,” Mireles said. “The board is too big, there’s too much influence from Sacramento and very little influence from students.”

But while Mireles agrees with protesting students that there is room for change at the UC level, cuts by the state and the federal government have made it increasingly hard for regents to keep fees from rising.

“I’ve read some studies that say there’s been some growth in administration,” Mireles said. “That is a valid criticism — we have seen administration grow in both size and incomes, which are already way too high in my perspective. But that only scratches the surface of everything that’s been happening and why college is more unaffordable. We got cut $760 million, over 30 percent, in one year. That is, in nobody’s mind, a sustainable way to run an organization. All of the chancellors can get paid nothing and the problems will still remain.”

California and national budget crises that limit university funding are forces to be reckoned with, and Estelle acknowledges that along with a change to the UC system, institutional change is necessary at the state level, especially in encouraging legislatures to funnel more money into the educational system. But both individuals agree to a dire need for local change, despite current economic challenges.

The question presented by students who don’t see how a rally or reclamation can implement that change remains: Do these protests actually work?

“Lobbying to administrators and having call-ins is not a form of direct action,” Estelle said. “That’s politely coming to the structures and hierarchies in power. Instead, with rallies and marches and reclamations of buildings they’re constructing, we’re saying, ‘We’re not okay with this and we’re going to do something about this. You’ll have to listen to us.’”

And for Estelle, breaking the law — in the case of breaking into CLICS or the Chancellor’s Complex — is a legitimate means to an end, as long as “it’s not doing harm to any human being,” Estelle said.

“Civil disobedience is the breaking of unjust laws because you feel that there is a higher law, namely that of human rights and solitary and the willingness to give people a chance and fight back against these institutional structures,” Estelle said.

Mireles supports the non-violent protests of UC students as a legitimate tool of communication to those in power the need to implement necessary changes. But he also believes that such actions can sometimes inhibit the very change that students call for, and that strategies don’t hold the students’ interests.

For example, on Jan. 19 student protests interrupted a regents meeting, leading to a relocation of the meeting as well as students being barred from the meeting.

Mireles was condemned by an article in the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s official newspaper, for his silence during a regents meeting in September of 2011 that discussed possible fee increases of 16 percent. But Alfredo explained that as the Student Regent, he intends to work with the board on behalf of the students, avoiding a manner of communication that would inhibit dialogue.

“Be cautious that you don’t sabotage your ability to be successful in advocating [your cause],” Mireles said. “You might be alienating the people you’re trying to influence.”

Meanwhile, Student Regent-designate Jonathan Stein is working on developing another possible solution to the funding crisis for the UC system. Stein is in the process of developing a Political Action Committee (PAC) for the UC system. A PAC, an organization that campaigns and increases leverage for a specific institution, could theoretically provide the UC system the leverage it needs within the state government to promote state funding of the public universities.

In terms of direct student action, Mireles advocates the power of student protest as a means to influence the regents in power, while Estelle’s philosophy is geared more toward changing the current power structure completely. Currently, the Public Education Coalition is engaging in what Estelle considers “coalitional” dynamics, while trying to move into being more of a “movement.”

“The difference between a coalition and movement, which is what we’re really trying to start, is that a coalition is a cohesive but loosely affiliated group that comes together for a specific action, like the reclamation of CLICS or the March 1 rally, that sort of thing,” Estelle said. “It then drifts apart, and then comes back together for another action, and then drifts apart. A movement is when you are able to politicize a large group of people and get everyone super involved and have a continuous mobilization.”

Estelle hopes that a more established and lasting student movement will effectively begin to approach the regents, and even state and national legislatures to implement change.

Mireles’ method of influencing regents rather than alienating them, as well as acknowledging their limited power in the face of state and federal budget cuts, is no less critical of the UC administration. To Mireles, there exists a generational and economic, gap that limits the regents’ understanding of the significance of a fee hike.

“I’m not going to say the regents are necessarily evil people, but I am going to say that their current life experience as corporate lawyers and real estate developers are dramatically different from almost every student who goes to the UC,” Mireles said.

Rather, the regents’ decisions are made based on differing perspectives and positions in life.

“I think the regents cannot fathom what it’s like to be an undergraduate on one of our campuses,” Mireles said. “To them, raising tuition another thousand dollars would be pocket change, but to many of the students that would make or break whether than can go to school or not.”

Despite their differing perspectives on how exactly to address issues regarding the current state of public education, Mireles and Estelle both believe in the power of the student rally to solve problems that both agree exist.

“Student protesting over the years has brought about victory after victory for the movement of social justice,” Mireles said. “Anybody who tells you otherwise is not being truthful.”

Readers can contact Mina Nilchian at [email protected].

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