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Activism operating in the red

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Online Managing Editor

OCTOBER 10, 2014

Behind every celebration of the Free Speech Movement in the past few weeks seemed to lie heavy, nostalgic hearts for what used to be.

Commemorative articles from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and NPR all bemoaned on the diminished state of student activism on campus. UC Berkeley in the past 50 years has changed dramatically, and the current student body is nearly unrecognizable from that of 1964 in its demographics and its priorities.

All the articles hinted at one particular source on the shortcomings in student activism: rising tuition costs and declining state support to the UC system. It has been the bigger change to public higher education since 1964 and the toughest issue to tackle.

Large-scale tuition-hike protests in 2009 and the Occupy Cal movement in 2011 were largely been ineffective in turning the tide. Nothing on the horizon shows this issue will tackled either through policy or protests.

This economic burden has been a more effective and insidious muzzle on student activism than any administration or police force. The prospect of high costs and growing debts threatens our right to higher education, let alone our free speech on campus.

The high price tag threatens the basic opportunity to attend UC Berkeley, pressuring many students to forfeit the time and leisure to participate in political activism for internships and part-time jobs. The pressure of debt and unemployment in an unwelcoming economy looms high and mighty over our collective thoughts.

This is not to say that UC Berkeley students are forsaking the lessons of the Free Speech Movement. Many students, including myself, have chosen UC Berkeley because of the legacy of the Free Speech Movement.

But many students are already engaged in a personal uphill battle for their education. For a growing number of students, fighting for a larger cause has simply become out of reach economically .

To start, the inflation-adjusted costs for a UC tuition have increased sixfold since 1966, and the amount of federal loans disbursed to UC students have doubled since 2000. The average debt for graduating seniors is about $18,000.

Yet the numbers don’t convey the baggage some students volunteer to take for a UC Berkeley degree. I saw friends walk the stage with me in May with more than $50,000 of debt in their pockets. Several friends from middle-class families had to take a semester or two off because they needed a break from the financial pressures.

While the university has made great strides to ease the rising costs, such as the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, many students still cannot bear the weight. With higher in-state tuition and a smaller percentage of financial aid given to students than the national average for public universities, some Californian students are unable to finance their way through UC Berkeley.

With Sacramento constantly falling back on its obligation to support higher education, students who were once supposed to receive a free tuition during the ’60s under the Master Plan for Higher Education can’t afford college.

And what do the students earn after all this trouble? The days of the college-to-job pipeline are long gone. Considering the unemployment rate of U.S. workers under the age of 25 is around 15 percent this year, and many more are underemployed, the students are devotedly spending their time in college with the hope of a job right after graduation.

While in college, many students take a job or two to help pay for tuition and living expenses. With insufficient help from the state, the university and their family, each student has to fend for his or herself. As the Great Recession generation, economic uncertainty is branded in our genes.

The embedded fear of economic uncertainty is more insidious than the fear of political oppression because the former actively threatens our basic needs. Students constantly have to calculate how their decisions will maximize their potential earnings. The political idealism displayed during the Free Speech Movement doesn’t pay, so often it gets pushed aside.

No amount of political idealism can wash this reality away right now. It still pays off to go to college, and UC Berkeley is an elite university. To be a student at UC Berkeley, one has to accept the high costs and the accompanying loans. At least for now.

One of the reasons the Free Speech Movement was successful was the clarity in its vision and objectives. But against rising tuition costs and student debt, student organizers have yet to find the clarity that attracts the silent majority to join.

From the Occupy movement to rag-tag building occupations, student protests during my four years came and went without lasting impact. Meanwhile, students toil away at work — not because we want to, but because we have to.

I don’t believe political activism is dead in UC Berkeley. But to curb the rising costs, acts of protest and civil disobedience won’t be enough.

With UC President Napolitano musing about another tuition increase after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed $100 million in extra funding for higher education, the current tuition freeze won’t last for long. To curb another increase, taxpayers and voters need to alert Sacramento to the fact that higher education is still valued in this state.

This is an issue that one generation cannot solve alone. The financial ensnarement of student is a threat to the state’s current well-being and its future.

The current students need the alumni and their influence more than ever to shift attention in state government back to higher learning. Perhaps in the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, this can change if the old, grizzled alumni can lay themselves upon the gears and the levers with us young folks one more time.

Contact Seung Y. Lee at  or on Twitter


OCTOBER 10, 2014