Students Seek to Mobilize a Movement

Dozens of chanting student protestors surrounded Humanities in a walk-out to raise awareness about budget problems in higher education.
Dozens of chanting student protestors surrounded Humanities in a walk-out to raise awareness about budget problems in higher education.

Eirik Bjorkman climbed atop a stone bench outside of the Humanities Building Wednesday to remind dozens of chanting student protestors surrounding him of an old saying: “no one can make you go through a door.”

“They can show you the doorway, they can show you the key, but you’ve got to turn the key and walk through the door yourself,” he said.

Nearly 100 students left their residence halls and walked out of their classrooms once again on Oct. 5 to participate in SUNY New Paltz’s second teach-in program this year.

Bjorkman, a SUNY New Paltz alum and New York Student Rising (NYSR) member, said the walk-out focused on the direction public higher education is going in.

“They’re not being run to educate students anymore, they’re being run to make money,” he said, “and that restricts what people can do with their minds [and] with their futures, their critical thinking skills.”

The walk-out, teach-in program was facilitated by Students of the Final Cut and the NYSR in protest of massive cuts to public higher education alongside tuition hikes, student debt and rising unemployment.

Fifth-year English major Christopher Gordon, one of the facilitators of the walk-out, said that NYSR planned the walk over the summer. Students like third-year Black Studies and sociology major Jonathan Espinosa, who were involved with Student of the Final Cut, went on two retreats over the summer “where [they] found out about what NYSR was planning to do and they brought the information back to Students of the Final Cut.”

The walk-out, teach-in program started with a libation, led by Gordon, which is a ritual consisting of pouring water in memory of those who have died. After the libation, students  led a karibu ceremony where participants hugged and greeted each other with a simple word – “Karibu,” or “you are welcomed here” in Kiswahili, Espinosa said.

Bjorkman then introduced the walk-out, teach-in program, saying that the SUNY school system is in danger.

“This is a very important time right now,” Bjorkman said. “We have budget cuts, less regulations, the administration is doing whatever they want.”

Ten facilitators directed students to a series of different workshops that occurred simultaneously. Each workshop ran for 50 minutes.

One workshop focused on issues affecting the public higher education institutions on statewide level such as the privatization of universities, budget cuts, and NYSUNY 2020. The other workshop localized these issues, focusing only on how they affected SUNY New Paltz.

This walk-out is a continuation of the walk-out that took place last semester on March 30, which was led by Students of the Final Cut.

“Unfortunately none of the issues that we brought up last year have been resolved,” Bjorkman said. “Last year we were mostly students saying ‘we don’t want this, we don’t want that,’ but this year we’re students with solutions because we’ve got models and ideas on how to fix things.”

The walk-outs are a response to the $31 million cut to the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), and the budget cuts made to SUNY and CUNY schools. This particular walk-out focused on the same issues but mainly focused on NYSUNY 2020 bill, legislation signed two months ago  instituting a five-year tuition plan that will raise tuition $300 each academic year for five years. The five-year rational tuition plan took effect this fall and was reflected in student’s fall 2011 invoice.

The mission statement of the NYSUNY Challenge Grant Program, which is a component of NYSUNY 2020, is to make SUNY a leading catalyst for job growth throughout the state and strengthen the academic programs of the four university centers: Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook. The four university centers will be competing for $140 million dollars in capital funding. In order for the university centers to be eligible for funding, the four campuses must institute financial mechanisms, such as capital funding, tuition increases and private sector financing.  If successful, the program might expand to SUNY New Paltz and other SUNY schools.

“[NYSUNY 2020] is a test run for a national education plan,” Bjorkman said. “Our SUNY schools are in danger.”

President Donald Christian, who has publicly declared support of NYSUNY 2020, said one month before the walk-out that he was unsure of the specifics of what students were protesting.

“I want to know more about what the organization aims to do and what their goals are,” Christian said. “I know the organization and I have heard about the intended walk-outs, but I don’t know enough about their aims or concerns.”

Fourth-year International Relations and Women Studies major Ashley Drzymala, who is participated in “Occupy Wall Street,” attended the walk-out to protest the privatization of public higher education institutions and bringing corporations into the educational system.

“[Corporations] already have enough influence in our politics,” said Drzymala. “Now they’re going to be controlling our education system, creating corporate zombies on a more personal level.”

They have proposed a few solutions for budget issues, said Bjorkman. One of the solutions is called the Public Pivot Model, which he said gives temporary pay-cuts to the administrators at each SUNY school “that will make up X amount of money and save Y amount of teachers.”

Despite only approximately 85 students showing up to the walk-out, teach-in program, the facilitators are just happy that people came.

“We didn’t get as many people as we hoped for,” said Gordon. “But it’s always nice to work with small groups just because we tend to get a lot more people who are willing do something and move forward with the movement. A big factor about this movement is that it affects everyone…that is not making over six figures.”

Bjorkman said New Paltz students joined peers from 73 other campuses across the nation, many of which are public institutions in New York, for Wednesday’s demonstration. Some participants said they saw the walk-out as a sign of changes to come.

Third-year marketing major Ethan Kramer thought the walk-out, teach-in program was exceptional and informative.

“As a member of our student body, its activities like this that unite us and give us power,” said Kramer.  “But I wish there was more awareness such as flyers or activists informing us that the meeting was going on.”