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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Why UMass Boston Is In Need of an Organized, Cohesive Student Union

Students protesting in Quebec, Canada



The UMass system has increasingly been forced to find private funding as the state budget allots less and less money for public higher education. The direct result of this shift has been increased tuition and fees, and pandering for private research grants. Students have responded to the pressure of these measures in various ways. For the past two years, students have politely stood in at board meetings to voice their concerns about the affordability of public education.

Several professors have spoken to the board on behalf of the student body and personal narratives—one so extreme as to have a student eating cat food to continue to afford enrollment—and yet the board has consistently voted to increase fees by as much as $800 per semester. If students are suffering and struggling to pay for public university while the state and the board turn a blind eye, what can we do?

We can fight back.

2011-2012 has seen masses of students all over the western hemisphere speaking out about just these topics. In Chile, hundreds of thousands of students have taken to the streets to stand up against their privatized university system—a system that they feel is pricing out the lower class members of society. The Chilean student movement, which started as a student strike, has wowed spectators worldwide by occupying high schools, setting buses on fire and blockading major high ways. A simple strike could go a long way.

Quebec has a long history of student activism, which many cite as the cause for their tuition remaining the lowest in the country. This tactic (student strikes) has also been used in Quebec. It secured concrete victories for students across the province. The most recent strike, lasting over six months, was in response to a plan by the government to double the cost of higher education over the course of 5 years.

Student unions gathered strength and support as hard police crackdowns radicalized larger and larger numbers among students and the wider population. Some public demonstrations in Montreal topped 300,000. The student unions in Quebec and Chile were able to mobilize these large numbers in such a radical way because they stood firmly against further tuition hikes without capitulating the various outside groups proposing slower implementation of the same pain.

 The last student strike at UMass was on the Amherst campus in 2007. The strike gained approval from faculty and staff, but generated negative press from police, administrators and local media.

In the two semesters following the outbreak of the failed Occupy protests, members of the Student Government joined with interested student activists in what was our version of a student union on the UMass Boston campus. Does the failure of this body to unite the variety of voices on campus to advocate in their favor indicate that UMass Boston cannot foster a mobilized student body? I would argue that it does not.

The special conditions under which this student union was forged made it seem closed off to most students. Occupy, whether as its Boston or UMass incarnation, had vague messaging and wildly incoherent structures that did not broadly appeal to the student body. This was evident through the poor reception the protesters got for taking up residence in the Campus Center last semester. The Student Government is widely perceived as an extracurricular activity for students who do not work while going to school and are seeking resume filling material.

To have a strong, empowered student union that enfranchises the whole campus, the body would have to actively seek the inclusion of every student. Rather than falling back on Occupy structures, I advocate a chartered organization with a publicly available founding document.

These bodies need immediately re-callable, accountable elected leaders so that decisions could be quickly discussed on a multi-campus level. Coordinated action is the most proven way to get results. The only way to fight back against wholesale privatization of education is through coordinated action based on our shared interest as students.

The founding of a public student union here at UMass Boston should be undertaken publicly with each campus under the UMass branch invited to participate. Other universities in Boston should also be encouraged fashion similar unions on their respective campuses.

Only bold declarations from a cohesive body can stop the juggernaut of neo-liberal ideology—an ideology which forces students to choke down the bitter tonic of decreased public funding and crippling student debt. The time has come for us students to be bold.