Campus braces for student strike

The Student Government Association (SGA) in conjunction with the Graduate Student Senate (GSS) is calling on students to participate in an all-student strike scheduled for Thursday and Friday of this week.

Students’ refusal to attend classes is hoped to attract media attention that will bring the governing bodies’ demands into state-wide public consciousness.

Organizers of the strike said a rollback in student fees, accountability for diversity funds, student control over student space and police presence in dormitories have warranted the move to hold informational meetings in lieu of scheduled classes at the end of the week. The issue has largely polarized the student body with many in agreement and a seemingly equal number in opposition.

Opinion may be split, but few students can disagree with smaller bills, an action that SGA vice-President Ruth Thompson said is both possible and deserved. Governor Patrick’s Capital Plan is expected to bring $1 billion in revenue to the University of Massachusetts system and approximately $500,000,000 to the system’s flagship Amherst campus. Due to the added revenue, strike organizers have said on their Facebook.com group that Patrick’s plan shows the state’s commitment to better funding public higher education and thus warrants a rollback in student fees.

University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski explained the University’s stance saying that the Board of Trustees [BOT] has worked to raise fees at a modest pace. Organizers cite fees having gone up 200 percent over the past 20 years; however, Blaguszewski said that in recent history the BOT has worked to raise fees at a level that is either under or equal to inflation as defined by the Consumer Price Index. Last March, the BOT voted to raise fees for this year by 3.4 percent, which is under the reported inflation rate of 3.6 percent.

Blaguszewski said budget cuts in the past have necessitated a package of action to reduce University spending while maximizing revenue. He said the increase in student fees was not done in isolation but was instead part of this program that included a large number of layoffs and forced retirement among other things.

The GSS’s Web site reads that the increase in fees has had a major effect on campus diversity as it allegedly prices students out of public higher education.

According to Thompson, graduate students who apply for money from diversity funds have been rejected, leaving many scratching their heads.

Blaguszewski said the University’s policy “has to do with the decision to invest funds in different ways.” He said, “A year or two ago, the University received a federal grant to encourage more under represented minority students to pursue careers in sciences and mathematics.”

Blaguszewski added that a lack of funds necessitates the need to get outside grants.

“It’s a policy issue,” he said. “The University pooled the money and decided to allocate the funds to emphasize a nationwide need for professionals in the highlighted fields.”

GSS President Jeff Napolitano said on the GSS Web site, “For the administration to fulfill the requirement of diversity as a core mission of the University, we call on them to institute a transparent, accountable and democratic process that incorporates student input and oversight.”

He added in an interview that graduate students studying in the humanities have seen their funding “evaporate” and that there needs to be more accountability as to how the federal money is spent. He said the GSS receives a one-page, double spaced, “cryptic” rundown but the report is a far cry from the transparency that should exist.

However Blaguszewski reiterated his prior point saying, “It’s a policy choice, not an issue of transparency. You may disagree, but that’s the decision made.”

Thompson said that while the administration may have made decisions to maximize revenue to aid shrinking budgets, decisions regarding the running of student space such as the Lincoln Campus Center and the Student Union should be left to the original caretakers of the areas – students.

“When something in the Student Union that is funded through student fees, we should not have to pay the added fees often placed on students,” Thompson said. She added that campus center rooms are not rented with student priority in mind.

According to Thompson, student groups looking to use a free room have to compete with private companies who pay for the space. She added students rarely have priority over the paying parties, even if a student group were to successfully reserve the space, steep fees on projectors, catering and other services leave many student functions without amenities that could be enjoyed if such policies did not exist.

“The University has the hotel, conference services and other ways to get revenue. We’re already paying enough in fees to be here, so we don’t need to pay more money in order to have an event.”

Blaguszewski agreed that it is hard to reserve a room in either building but he said the reason was due to the fact that the spaces in the buildings were small, and competition was to blame for students’ difficulties rather than that of the building administrators’ priorities. He added UMass plans to build a new Student Union building, but a lack of funds has stopped any real plans from being formulated. The University recognizes the need for larger, more accessible rooms, but students must work with administrators to make the most effective use of the space, he said.

According to Blaguszewski, fees for electronic equipment and catering are determined with efficiency in mind by those who run the buildings.

The SGA added to its list of grievances a desire to return “freshmen only” dormitories back to buildings that feature students of all grades.

The strike’s Facebook.com group reads: “With little student input and consideration, the Office of Student Affairs and Campus Life has ordered the implementation of a policy ‘All Freshman’ dorms, particularly in the Southwest Residential Area. This is an abrupt shift in long-standing policy which negatively changes peer dynamics and creates an artificial divide amongst the student body. We call on an end to ‘All Freshman’ dorm housing and for student input and influence into future housing policies.”

However Blaguszewski said the original decision was indeed driven by feedback from students’ freshman experiences with academic performance in mind. He added that while many of the decisions may not have had a great deal of engagement with the SGA, the administration’s decision was one that was influenced by high student support from others not affiliated with student government.

He said students in residential life ? including those in Greek life ? were asked about the issue.

As supporters of the strike demand a greater say in who lives in certain dormitories, they also demand to have control over who doesn’t enter student rooms.

Thompson said that illegal searches are being conducted by plain clothed officers of the University of Massachusetts Police Department. She added that students’ fourth amendment rights are being overlooked as officers patrol private areas of student dorms.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Gargano said in an e-mail, “All of the national studies identify the abuse of alcohol, abuse of prescription medicines and the use of illegal drugs as the general cause for the types of crimes and bad behavior we witness in our towns and communities as well as on college campuses. This behavior is a national society concern. The unacceptable behavior we see and read about in our towns and cities eventually get played out on the college campus.”

Deputy Chief of Police Patrick Archbald said the demands are not valid as police officers do not enter the halls unless they are responding to a call from a Resident Assistant or a concerned student. According to Archbald officers must be certain probable cause exists before going th
rough the Assistant District Attorney’s Office for a search warrant.

He added that officers do check on the lobbies and cluster offices of dormitories but do not patrol private areas of dorms. He added that officers responding to calls often knock on the doors of suspects who often open it to officers and charges.

“Anything they see in plain view becomes evidence in a potential case. We don’t patrol the floors. It’s not our practice,” Archbald said.

But the SGA disagrees.

“That’s false,” Thompson said. An RA herself, she said that personal experience has shown her that police are not following the law.

“They come and patrol dorms when RAs aren’t calling them. It makes their job harder because RAs are trying to build a community out of their students while cops come in as pizza delivery guys trying to bust students with whatever it is they have in their rooms,” she said.

Thompson added the civilian clothing police wear makes it harder for students to protect their rights as they are less likely to realize they are being threatened.

“It’s not the role of police officers to patrol [the dorms]. It’s the role of the resident directors, the assistant resident directors and resident assistants in the housing department.”

The teachers union has signed a non-retaliatory agreement that prevents students who wish to attend the strike instead of scheduled classes from disciplinary actions of teachers.

Gargano added, “It is a personal decision whether to attend class. We know this as freedom of choice. Folks make decisions that meet their personal need or interest.”

Blaguszewski said the University will be “open for business.”

“We expect classes to be taught and students to attend classes. If we do get complaints forwarded that students showed up to classes only to find their teacher or teaching assistant is not there, we will investigate according to the terms of their contracts. We’ll review that and see what’s appropriate.”

Thompson said the all-student strike is not a rash reaction to policies recently introduced by members of the administration but rather a last resort.

“These are the issues every year,” she said. “Every time we try to change an issue, we have people blowing us off or ignoring us. That’s really what the strike is for: to educate the student body, to get the media to show people that these are the issues that we want to change.”

“Since my first year [three years ago] we’ve had rallies, teach -ins. There has been so many things that have happened. They take us as kids. We represent the students who are tired, who are frustrated.”

Though the strike is in effect a boycott as student refuse the services of the University rather than their refusing to provide a service to UMass, Ruth Thompson said this is her legacy.

“I’m graduating in May, and I want to know that something has changed. I want to know that there has been change. I don’t want all the work that I’ve done and all the work others in student government has been in vain.”

Will McGuinness can be reached at [email protected]