The 2013-14 academic year is shaping up to be a pivotal one for the American student movement. Developments both on-campus and off promise to shape the landscape of higher ed organizing in huge ways.
All this week I’ve been posting about the big upcoming stories I’ve got my eye on as the fall semester gets underway. On Tuesday I put up the first set — on Janet Napolitano’s new position at the head of the University of California system, the rise of divestment campaigns targeting Israeli policies and fossil fuels, and the new tuition alternative proposals being floated in Oregon and elsewhere. Wednesday I wrote about President Obama’s plans for higher education funding, the possible resurgence of campus occupations as a student organizing tactic, and the future of the United States Student Association, and Thursday I discussed the Dream Defenders, student voting rights restrictions, and student debt organizing.
That’s nine, which means there are three more to go. Here they are:
3. Cooper Union’s fight to stay tuition-free.
Cooper Union is one of America’s great colleges, and for nearly all its history it’s been free to attend. (Incredibly selective, but free to attend.) In the last several years, as a result of a series of failed investments and poor management choices, Cooper has dug itself a big financial hole, and the college’s administration and trustees have decided that imposing tuition is the way to dig out.
There are a long list of problems with this plan, not least the fact that Cooper’s tuition policy is a major reason it draws the student body it does — start charging tuition and the applicant pool gets shallower. Lower the quality of the students, and the college’s reputation suffers. To shore up the reputation, you start spending more on all sorts of things … which then means you have to raise tuition again, further degrading the applicant pool.
Cooper Union students occupied the president’s office for three months this spring and summer demanding a reversal of the tuition policy and other reforms. They ended that occupation having won a number of concessions, prominent among them a negotiated process for tuition review. That process is getting underway now — if it succeeds, it’ll be one of the biggest campus organizing victories in recent memory. If it fails…
If it fails, Cooper will get real interesting again real quick.
2. Campus affirmative action returns to the Supreme Court.
Last fall the United States Supreme Court heard a case that had the potential to end affirmative action in college admissions — or to shore it up, in one form or another, for at least the next few years. The justices sat on that case for nearly the entire year, only to announce in the closing days of their term that the lower courts had mishandled it and needed to go back and try again.
That case, Fisher v Texas, will be making its way back through the court system this year, while a new case — Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action — reaches the Court’s docket for the first time. In Fisher, the court was asked to rule on the constitutionality of a particular affirmative action plan. In Schuette, they’ll be examining a state ban on the consideration of race in college admissions. And if last year was any indication, we’ll all be waiting for answers for quite some time.
1. Legislative attacks on the state student association movement.
Last year saw Republican state legislatures move to eliminate the existing funding streams for to major statewide student associations — the Arizona Students Association and Wisconsin’s United Council. This year both of those organizations will be working to rebuild on a new footing.
As I’ve written many times before, statewide student associations are an essential component of student power organizing in the United States. They provide crucial infrastructure and continuity for campus efforts, they combine grassroots advocacy work with legislative lobbying, and they facilitate necessary coordination both among states and between state-level and national activism.
An attempt to take down two SSAs in a single semester — one of those, United Council, being the country’s oldest and most historic — is a chilling assault on the ability of American students to organize as they choose. The fate of ASA and UC, and that of the nation’s other SSA’s, which could well come under similar assault in the coming months, will shape the landscape of American student activism for decades to come.