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Another university is possible: Why we must continue to fight for a COLA

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Impending cuts to state funding confront the UC system with a familiar crisis — a crisis about what education entails and whom it will serve. Though news of the cuts has arrived under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, they are better understood as another link in a chain of events.

Over the past two decades, UC administrators have imposed successive waves of austerity that have restructured education in ways that exacerbate existing social and economic inequality.

In the ongoing conflict between divergent visions for public education, system administrators have pointed to budgetary constraints to defend austerity as the unavoidable price of saving the university in difficult times. But austerity has never been inevitable.

Although further cuts seem imminent, UC budgets are expressions of administrative priorities, not responses to objective conditions. When university officials call for unity in times of crisis, it is thus all the more urgent that undergraduates, graduate students, instructors and faculty continue to demand an equitable distribution of resources and a redirection of funds to the work of education.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UC system has responded to state budget cuts by expanding enrollment while raising tuition. In 2009, the Board of Regents voted to raise tuition by 32%, and it has only continued to climb. Tuition hikes have contributed to the rise of student debt, disproportionately affecting students of color.

Meanwhile, the university has shifted the responsibility for educating a growing student population onto the shoulders of underpaid, precariously employed instructors. Non-tenure-track faculty, such as lecturers, teach 42% of student credit hours at UC Berkeley, but lecturers have no job security during their first six years and earn a median salary of just $19,900 across the UC system — and even less at UC Berkeley.

Student workers occupy a similarly essential but precarious position in the UC system. They teach roughly 50% of educational hours — the time an educator spends interacting with students, including tutoring, mentoring, office hours and instruction — across all UC campuses, yet account for a mere 2% of the total operational budget.

This past academic year saw graduate students organize in new ways to demand that the UC system confront these inequities. With a strike that began at UC Santa Cruz in December 2019 and spread to other campuses in March, graduate students called for a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, that would allow them to live free of rent burdens (defined as spending more than 30% of income on rent and utilities).

When responding to demands for a redistribution of the university’s wealth, administrators tend to claim resources are scarce. We appreciate the difficult position of leaders facing a shrinking budget. However, we must take administrators’ replies first and foremost as statements of what they are willing to do, not what they can do.

UC chancellors have volunteered to take a 10% pay cut, but COVID-19’s immense impact warrants further reductions. If the 47 people at UC Berkeley who make more than $400,000 were to take a pay cut to $400,000 for the next academic year, they could generate $6,463,793. If every UC employee paid more than $150,000 took a 10% reduction, we could raise more than $1 billion.

In truth, though, there are deeper wells of resources that make it altogether unnecessary to impose austerity in the first place. Last week, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, the union that represents the UC system’s front-line and service workers, revealed that the UC system has at least $5 billion to $6 billion of excess liquidity reserves it could draw on to address the crisis without raising tuition or laying off a single worker.

The rapidly unfolding events of the crisis contain lessons for campus organizers and proponents of public education. First, obfuscation and claims of scarcity can make particular allocations of resources seem like the natural, inevitable outcome of dramatic economic shifts — not the political choices they are.

Second, labor organizing can effectively recover resources from reluctant leaders and persuade them of the power of workers, academic and nonacademic alike.

In one version of events, the fully realized “austerity university” would lay off instructors and staff, raising the student-to-teacher ratio while increasing tuition and further overpaying administrators. In April, for instance, UC Berkeley administrators announced a hiring freeze that threatened more than 750 lecturers’ jobs and could have drastically reduced course offerings.

In response to UC Berkeley’s freeze on reappointments, lecturers circulated a petition demanding that the campus prioritize its core education mission.

The petition garnered more than 1,000 signatures and prompted articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Californian. A month after imposing the freeze on lecturers, UC Berkeley reversed course, exempting lecturers from the freeze and recognizing them as indispensable to the campus.

While lecturers’ organizing provides evidence that we can fight effectively against austerity, the future is still uncertain. The Chronicle of Higher Education calls attention to the negative impacts of freezes in faculty hiring, noting that for the foreseeable future, universities are likely to depend to an even greater degree on an underpaid teaching force.

Whatever the future holds, resuming business as usual should be the last thing we want if it means continuing to forsake the people whose day-to-day work makes education possible. Nor should we dream of some golden age of free and just education to which we might return.

Racism and exploitation are at the heart of the UC system’s history. They persist, for instance, in the university’s violations of indigenous sovereignty with its investments in the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Maunakea in Hawaii. Such so-called “new frontiers” of research only perpetuate the university’s colonial history of expropriation.

But another university is possible, one that opens its eyes and those of its students to the interconnectedness of multiple social ills: the channeling of resources away from instruction and the millions of dollars invested in projects such as the Maunakea development and in a militarized police force known for its racist practices.

We should take the ruse of crisis-time austerity as an invitation to make the university what it has never truly been: free, accessible to all and invested in restitution.

When leaders call on us to work harder for less, applauding our resilience, we urge you to join us in responding with unyielding imperatives for a university that takes responsibility for the material well-being of all its members. Such slogans as “No. 1 public university in the world” are not good enough.

We will continue to fight for a COLA because of what the health crisis has revealed about how system administrators commandeer public education in the name of saving it.

Contact [email protected] to stay updated and get involved in organizing efforts on campus. See here for a full list of supporters and to add your name.


Undergraduate students

Yanira Cortez (ethnic studies and geography), Augustin Guerrero (political science), Sophia Deva Long (climate justice), Olivia Nouriani (mathematics and political science), Fatima Patino (psychology), Diana Pelayo (comparative literature), Stephanie Gutierrez Rios (Chicanx studies), Briseida Rodriguez (prospective major in political economy), Dahlia Saba (electrical engineering and computer sciences), Youn-Ju Suh (comparative literature), Anna Tseselsky (global studies), Giancarlo Tucci-Berube (comparative literature), Dharaa Upadhyaya (public health and molecular and cell biology)

Graduate students

Anthony Abel (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Jeremy Adams (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Spencer Adams (rhetoric), Helen Bergstrom (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Wendi Bootes (comparative literature), Rumur Dowling (English), Richard Grijalva (rhetoric), Zachary Hicks (Slavic languages and literatures), Shannon Ikebe (sociology), Adam Jadhav (geography), Naima Karczmar (English), Yanin Kramsky (city and regional planning), Chris Lesser (geography), Emily Laskin (comparative literature), Juliet Lu (environmental science, policy and management), Jonathan Mackris (film and media), John Mundell (African American studies), Tara Phillips (comparative literature), Michael Song (integrative biology), Nicole Trigg (Italian studies), Julian Tucker (city and regional planning), Ashley Wagner (public health and city planning), Hannah Welsh (Environmental Science, Policy, and Management), Katherine Wolf (environmental science, policy and management)


Barbara Barnes (gender and women’s studies), Crystal Chang Cohen (political economy and global studies), Joey Kellner (history), Michelle Koerner (English and gender and women’s studies), Karina Palau (comparative literature)


Amanda Goldstein (English), Kristin Hanson (English), Lyn Hejinian (English), Alastair Iles (environmental science, policy and management), Grace Lavery (English), Jake Kosek (geography), Alex Saum-Pascual (Spanish and Portuguese), Joanna Picciotto (English), Charles Schwartz (physics, emeritus), Jeffrey Skoller (film and media)

UC Berkeley alumni and Berkeley residents

Abhi Kodukulla (philosophy), Brett Burning, Angie Sijun-Lou


Howie Fisher, Anne-Lise François, Marianne Kaletzky and Katie Latimer are two graduate students, a lecturer and a professor.

MAY 26, 2020

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