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Forum on The People’s State of the University

U of MN Students, Staff and Faculty Unite!
By Grace Kelley |
May 4, 2010
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March 4 protest for education rights at the University of Minnesota
March 4 protest for education rights at the University of Minnesota. (Fight Back! News/Kim DeFranco)

Minneapolis, MN - On April 28, the Save Our School and Chop from the Top coalitions held a community forum called “The People’s State of the University” in Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota. Initiated by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the event served to counter President Bruininks’ State of the University address (which was only presented as a written document online) with alternate viewpoints from the University community.

Bruininks claims in his address to “have the best interests of the University and our students at heart,” but the administration continues to balance the budget on the backs of students and frontline staff. The forum served as a venue to speak out against the hypocrisy of the administration and as an opportunity for students, staff and faculty to continue the discussions ignited by the national March 4 education rights protest.

The forum’s speakers included Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME 3800 clerical workers’ union; Professors Eva von Dassow and William Messing from Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education; Eli Meyerhoff and Elizabeth Johnson from Graduate Student Workers United; Student Solidarity Alliance member Jesse Simmons and SDS member Mia Overly. The audience included students, staff and faculty. Noticeably absent was the representative from the administration who President Bruininks had promised to send. It is clear that the administration is not interested in hearing our voices, despite Bruininks’ claims to the contrary.

AFSCME 3800 President Phyllis Walker declared that although the administration has continually stated that everyone should be tightening their belts in light of the current budget crisis, it is the lowest paid workers that have been targeted for layoffs: clerical, technical and health care workers. The administration has proposed forced furloughs, which, Walker states, would mean a “1.15% pay cut to the lowest-paid.”

Things aren’t much better for students. As Jesse Simmons of the Student Solidarity Alliance pointed out, the average student from the U of M graduates $30-40,000 in debt, and tuition just keeps increasing. Meanwhile, the administrators are paid bloated, ridiculous salaries.

Mia Overly of SDS said, “The [budget] crisis… has been brought on by the greed of the administration and now are they are kindly asking the students to pay a bit more in tuition, the grad students to continue to pay their extravagant fees, the staff to kindly take a few more unpaid days, the faculty to teach more and larger classes, and the list goes on.” Explaining why SDS wanted to have the forum in the first place, Overly expressed doubts about President Bruininks’ intentions, despite his claim to have the students’ and workers’ best interests at heart: “SDS finds this hard to believe when the majority of the cuts to funding and to programs are aimed at the most underprivileged in our community.”

Overly also pointed to the skewed priorities of the U.S. government, stating, “Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Cuba, Sri Lanka and Brazil, just to name a few, are countries that provide free higher education to their citizens, some even including funding for non-citizens. The priorities of the United States in comparison are obvious when we can spend trillions on war and occupation and negligible amounts on higher education.”

Proffessor Messing also spoke of the free universities in Europe, hoping that the U.S. could follow their examples. Meyerhoff took the comparison a step further: Students in Europe riot when university fees go up. “Where are our riots?” Meyerhoff asks, adding, “Non-action is supporting the status quo."

The panel members, along with the organizations they represent, are fed up. Although the groups involved in the Save Our School and Chop from the Top coalitions have diverse backgrounds and tactics, it is clear that their goals are the same: to make a more fair university, where faculty work together instead of competing for grants and promotions, where staff are valued and paid fairly and where any person can afford to attend this public university. Education should be a priority of our nation, not a privilege to the wealthy.

Mia Overly finished her remarks by quoting Howard Zinn: “’The oppressors always try to force victims to turn on other victims.’ This is clearly the way the administration would like us all to see it - one group against the other, let us fight for the limited remaining resources, when in fact we should be allies together in this struggle against the one oppressing us all: the administration at the University of Minnesota.”

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