On February 23rd, 2016 students and campus workers at Portland State University joined Portland Jobs with Justice and the Portland Area Campaign for $15, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU), 15 Now PDX, The Organizing Committee of the PSU Graduate Employees Union (PSU GEU), and allies in an event called “Poverty State University: Campus Fight For $15” to “demand economic justice and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers.” Poverty is a reality for campus workers nationwide as more colleges and universities have turned to business models that hike tuition and shortchange the value of labor to maximize institutional profit.
In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Tabitha Alajmi, a senior at PSU and a volunteer in their food pantry, said: “People don’t expect students to be struggling with food and security. As students we’re perceived as being well off since we’re able to have an education, but people don’t understand what it takes to get the education.” When basic necessities aren’t met and students struggle to make a living wage, it impacts their ability to learn and contribute to society.
PSUSU leads the charge for dignity, respect, and fair wages on campus in addition to calling for campus security to be disarmed. It’s no secret that the administration has reacted to PSUSU’s ongoing direct actions with letters threatening expulsion, which the activists believe may intend to scapegoat particular students and silence protests. This comes at a critical time when student activism is on the rise, but sometimes misunderstood. Increasingly, small squads of activists are on the frontlines battling alone—without resources or public understanding of why, when negotiations stall or student unions are silenced, students turn to civil disobedience, retreat in fear of retaliation, or face expulsion.
Of course, student protests are alive in North Carolina in the UNC System with the state’s Board of Governors who undemocratically appointed Margaret Spellings as president on the heels of ousting Tom Ross, it happened at the University of Missouri, and now PSU’s struggle is heating up. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warns: “freedom of speech is under continuous threat at many of America’s campuses, pushed aside in favor of politics, comfort, or simply a desire to avoid controversy.” The freedom to express ideas is vital to the university, and a fundamental right, though.
There’s no denying that the pressures students face are significant and market driven. Tuition is at an all-time high, and wages have not kept pace with the cost of living and learning in our society. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that in a given year: “At 4-year institutions, the average total cost of attendance for first-time, full-time students living on campus and paying in-state tuition was $22,190 at public institutions, $44,370 at private nonprofit institutions, and $29,950 at private for-profit institutions”:
As students take on more and more debt, some are questioning the administration of the system that leaves them in the red. And when the high cost of tuition doesn’t always guarantee a quality education because funds aren’t being directed at frontline teaching and resources, demands for change seem reasonable.
Professor and distinguished scholar Henry A. Giroux talks about the “theatre of cruelty” that students and faculty face in his book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, in which he sees the “role higher education will play in both educating and mobilizing students [as] a crucial issue that will determine whether a new revolutionary ideal can take hold in order to address the ideals of democracy and its future.” Recent protests show that more students are exercising democracy and there is a need to know how best to balance the interests in a way that ensures positive student outcomes and values their agency and involvement in campus culture and politics.
It’s not unusual to hear the bootstrap metaphor applied to students who challenge university politics or call attention to student debt, which anecdotally goes something like: “I worked full-time and paid for the majority of college out of pocket, and then I worked hard to repay my student loan balance. Today’s students are full of demands, but lack responsibility.” The facts tell a different story, though. PSUSU activist Alyssa Pagan adds:
If bootstrap mobility applies to you [clap, clap], applause. But more and more people are realizing that the ability for a shrinking few to achieve their dreams is only possible because they are among the growing many that are being sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism.
Pagan is also a member of SLAP, which is a joint project between Jobs with Justice and the United States Student Association. SLAP PSU is unique in that it is a women of color collective building solidarity and united in the argument for campus equity and justice.
Faculty Forward Network is building coalitions and creating a higher education system that prioritizes student learning, invests in educators, and reduces student debt to create a 21st-century university. Events like PSU’s Campus Fight For $15 help raise awareness that people are struggling, and when a small group of concerned citizens stand together change is possible.
FFN has developed resources to help faculty and students get informed, organized, and connect with other activists and allies. For example, it’s crucial to know your board and the decision-makers at your institution so you can hold them accountable. FFN also has tools to check out the data behind the reports on local and national faculty and student issues. It boils down to this: students, faculty, and campus workers face unique challenges brought about by the financialization of higher education. Together, faculty, students, and allies can do more to confront this in order to reduce student debt and improve the quality of life and learning.