Grad Student Demonstrators Crash Alumni Awards


Image by Hector Arrieta for The UCSD Guardian

Chaz Cepielik-Weeks, Copy Associate Editor

Approximately 60 graduate, undergraduate, and post-doc workers rushed the stage of the 44th UC San Diego Alumni Awards last Friday to protest the university’s alleged violations of the newly-ratified union contract. Immediately after taking the podium, Chancellor Pradeep Khosla was surrounded and presented with a cardboard sign reading “Most Overpaid Worker Award,” a reference to the chancellor’s recent $500,000 privately-funded pay raise resulting in an annual $1.14 million base salary. 

The event was hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in downtown La Jolla and attended by university administrators, professors, students, and high-status members of the community. 

After a brief period marked by laughter, scowls, and shock, attendees were relocated to the secured interior of the museum while demonstrators continued chants such as “Pradeep, Pradeep, the rent is too steep!” from the stage. When police arrived, the demonstrators were escorted out and continued to protest from the sidewalk. No arrests were made.

A press release from representatives of the union claims numerous contract violations as the cause of the protest, emphasizing “The refusal to uphold the promise that graduate workers will be paid a minimum of $30,000 a year,” and “thousands in [owed] wages,” as a result of the university’s “refusal to pay workers for the 20 hours of work per week they are owed.” Last month’s announced reduction in the number of discussion sections in the school of biological sciences (resulting in “zoom-room” sections of over 300 students) was also mentioned.

Maya Gosztyla, biomedical sciences doctoral candidate and UCSD head steward for the UC academic student employees’ union, UAW 2865, also provided a statement. 

“Our goal was to draw attention to the blatant disregard that UCSD has shown for our union contracts … We’ve been planning the action for nearly a month now, ever since we learned that Khosla would be present at the awards ceremony.”

“I think everyone was a little nervous to attempt a disruption this bold,” she said. “But we knew we had to take advantage of the opportunity. I’m really proud of everyone who participated in the action. It was incredible to feel the power we hold as workers standing together in solidarity.”

“We’ve organized multiple petitions and rallies to put pressure on university leadership, but were met with radio silence. This left us with no choice but to escalate our tactics. Friday’s disruption was our first major cross-unit action since the massive UC-wide strike last year, and it was a major success in bringing awareness to our cause. We plan to continue these actions until UCSD fully implements and funds our contracts.”

The disruption’s reception by attendees was mixed, and all those interviewed requested to remain anonymous. 

“I called it, I called it!” an undergraduate student said. “Like I knew, I knew something was going to happen. Honestly, it made me feel proud of the grad students and the TAs and the IAs for having a voice. Good to see democracy at work.”

“I mean, we’re sympathetic to it, we were all grad students as well many years ago, we didn’t get paid well then either so we can understand that it’s a tough life for them,” an academic said. “I think many people here are sympathetic, the problem is we came to an alumni ceremony. I can understand the frustration because of the chancellor getting a half-a-million dollar raise.”

“It looks like a spontaneous protest, and it seemed that it was very successful in the sense that it shocked them,” another attendee said. “You know, there’s never a perfect time to do that, so I feel empathetic. But I also feel empathetic to the people who were maybe upset by it, so I think there’s two sides to it. I definitely feel some solidarity with what happened.” 

Others, however, did not see it as very successful, with one saying the effectiveness of the surprise was lost as the protestors refused to leave the stage and, in doing so, gained more enemies than allies.

This demonstration is the most recent attempt by graduate, undergraduate, and post-doc student workers to be provided with higher wages, beginning with November’s 40-day UAW strike and continuing with a march on Khosla’s residence in Feb. 2022. Addressing San Diego’s high cost of living, it joins a string of increasingly active protests since at least early 2020 demanding affordable housing, higher wages, and increased diversity, equity, and inclusion. Demonstrations against the university and  Khosla have become more common, with April’s Walkout for Climate disrupting classes in response to the school’s reliance on fracked methane for 72% of its electricity.  

Editor’s Note: Interviewees were granted anonymity by request due to concerns over the event’s legal nature and extreme controversy.

Editor’s Note (5/8/2023 11:54 am): The link to the press release was removed due to it not yet being available to the public, and information about the demonstrators, the march on Khosla’s residence was updated, and the length of the strike in November.