SAN FRANCISCO — Riot police on campus. Student sit-ins and poetry readings. It seems like the 1960s, but these are common scenes today on California campuses as students continue to protest large fee increases across the state’s university system.
On Thursday morning police arrested 33 protestors at San Francisco State University after students had barricaded themselves inside a campus building. That school is part of the California State University system, which is raising undergraduate fees by about $1,000 a year, cutting enrollment by 40,000 students, and forcing employees to take furlough days across its 23 campuses.
Over at the University of California, Berkeley, students have amassed in Wheeler Hall in what they are calling an “open occupation.” They’re sleeping in the building and holding forums and workshops, though they have yet to completely take it over as they did in November, right after university regents agreed to a 32 percent fee hike.
Both university systems are facing tough economic realities. The state cut funding at the two systems earlier this year by 20 percent to pass a balanced budget.
The resulting school fee hikes have provoked among students the sort of unified outcry and activism not seen since the 1960s. The San Francisco and Berkeley protests follow a string of actions by students at Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, students occupied a building for a week in September and again in October.
But unlike the 1960s, when free speech, civil rights, and antiwar movements roiled campuses, today’s students are rallying against things that have a more direct impact on them. Many are the middle-class children of immigrants who are already working jobs and receiving financial aid to pay for college. The recession also means graduating students face the worst job market in years.
Indeed, the similarities between the 1960s’ protests and today’s are “easily exaggerated,” said David Hollinger, professor of history at Berkeley, in an e-mail. “By and large, 1960s campus protests were not chiefly directed at issues in higher education as such. Now, the big issue is taxpayer support for higher education.”
What’s more, the students and administrators largely find themselves on the same side of the issue, he said.
“If someone occupies a building and the cops are called, everyone gets excited about that and too easily looses track of the fact that the administrators who call the cops and the people who occupy the building are both committed to the same large goals,” said Professor Hollinger.
Still, there are some parallels between today’s protests and those of the 1960s, says Lisa Rubens, a research specialist at the Regional Oral History Office at Berkeley.
“These student have certainly invoked the free speech movement in trying to save the university,” she says, referring to the protest movement at Berkeley in the mid-1960s that aimed to overturn school limits on political speech.
She sees a similar commitment today to upholding the broader goals and “the commitment to maintaining the public university.”
One of the biggest differences, though, can be found in the types of students protesting.
“You are seeing a kind of diversity in the student body that wasn’t typical in the 1960s. Many of these students are the children of immigrants so they are cognizant of what kind of burden [the fee increases are] is going to put on their families,” she says. “There is a keen sense of being on the edge.”