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Here’s a mind-boggling one.

Florida Atlantic University, a 29,000-student public university in Boca Raton, will announce today that it has sold the naming rights to its football stadium to a private prison company that until recently ran a youthful offender facility in Mississippi whose “pervasive level of brazen staff sexual misconduct”  was called “among the worst in the nation” by a 2012 Department of Justice investigation.

The Justice Department report on the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility found not only that Walnut Grove management was “deliberately indifferent to staff sexual misconduct,” but also that the facility “often use[d] excessive force as a first response” to disciplinary issues, tolerated active gang membership by facility employees, failed to protect inmates against physical and sexual assault by peers, and was “deliberately indifferent to the suicide risks and serious mental health needs of its youth.”

Walnut Grove was operated at the time by GEO Group, a global private prison operator. Later that year, after a federal judge described Walnut Grove as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts,” GEO was removed as manager of the institution. The company would later claim that it had chosen not to renew the contract because Walnut Grove was “financially underperforming.”)

So why would FAU choose to associate itself with a company with such an appalling record? Two reasons.

First, the university has been searching for a corporate sponsor for the stadium without success since it opened two years ago. The $5 million reportedly offered by the GEO Group was apparently impossible to resist.

And second? Well, there’s GEO Group’s CEO, George Zoley. He’s a FAU alum and the former chair of the university’s board of trustees.

Update | It’s official. Thanks to a $6 million donation to the university, the stadium will now be named “GEO Group Stadium.” The university’s press release on the deal calls GEO Group a “fully integrated equity real estate investment trust specializing in the design, financing, development, and operation of correctional, detention, and community reentry facilities around the globe.”

Wednesday Update | The New York Times reports on the story, calling the deal a “a jarring case of the lengths colleges and teams will go to produce revenue, of the way that everything seems to be for sale now in sports — and to anyone with enough cash.” As well, it quotes local private-prison opponent Bob Libal as saying that the GEO Group has recently “poured enormous resources” into attempts “to take over a large portion of the Florida prison system,” characterizing yesterday’s agreement as an extension of that lobbying effort. GEO is, Libal says, “a company whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents that really draw into question their ability to successfully manage a prison facility.” As the Times itself notes, GEO “has been cited by state and federal regulators and lost a series of high-profile lawsuits.”

Asked by a Times reporter whether FAU had investigated such incidents before partnering with GEO, university president Saunders said, “we think it’s a wonderful company, and we’re very proud to partner with them.”

The Times also notes that two past FAU student government presidents have gone on to work for GEO Group.

Third Update | It has emerged that the GEO Group owns an immigrant detention center just ten miles from the Florida Atlantic campus that has been the target of criticism based on complaints of inadequate medical care and unjustified incarceration. The Miami Herald reported today that at least one current FAU student is a former detainee at the center.

The Board of Regents of Connecticut’s state university system is meeting today to consider a $778 fee increase, and a group of students and activists are promising a system-wide walkout it the hike goes through.

In the last two years, state funding to public higher education has been slashed by more than 15 percent. Today’s planned hikes would amount to an aggregate fee hike of 11.8 percent in the same period — bringing in-state costs to nearly $9,000 a year. As recently as 2004, tuition and fees at Connecticut’s four regional universities — Central, Eastern, Southern and Western — stood at just over $5,000.

But not all students will see tuition increases if today’s proposal is approved. Facing declines in lucrative out-of-state enrollments, the Regents plan to cut out-of-state tuition for the second year in a row.

Public universities nationwide have been raising out-of-state tuition and increasing out-of-state enrollment to close budget gaps — at the University of California, out-of-state students now pay more than they would at Harvard. But only four percent of students enrolled at Connecticut’s regional state universities are out-of-staters.

In advance of today’s vote, a group called Students of Connecticut Universities for Democracy called for a system-wide walkout in the event that the increases pass. The Regents are meeting now, and supporters of the walkout are livetweeting at the hashtag #hikemeanswalk.

Check it out.

Wednesday Update | The Board of Regents delayed the vote on the proposed tuition increase until their next meeting. Their current proposal calls for a 5.5% increase for in-state students, coupled with a 2.6% cut for out-of-staters. The regents’ finance committee will consider the plan at a March 5 meeting, with the full board scheduled to take up their proposal on March 21.

“Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, an early-70s essay by New York student activist Ray Glass, has enjoyed a boomlet of attention in recent months. A couple of people put the text up online, and it’s been getting passed around quite a bit — I keep seeing it pop up on Facebook and Twitter and various blogs.

Ray Glass was one of the founders of SASU, the system-wide student association for the State University of New York. He was the engine behind SASU’s successful campaign to get an elected student representative on the SUNY board of trustees (and on those of all the SUNY campuses), and was completing a stint as the organization’s legislative director when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver in Albany in 1975.

When I joined SASU in the late 1980s the group’s annual organizing conference bore his name, and “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” was one of our touchstone documents — a passionate, broad-ranging critique of university governance, student government, and campus organizing as they had existed fifteen years earlier. In it, Glass argued that voluntary student unions, “dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces,” are the path to true student power, an argument with a powerful allure for anyone who, like those of us who worked in SASU, had spent years struggling in student governments compromised by their institutional relationship with the university.

Student unionism is today experiencing a rebirth of interest as our contemporary wave of campus activism grows, matures, and begins to ponder next steps. It is that phenomenon that has spurred the Ray Glass mini-revival, and that element of his work that has drawn the most attention.

But there is a strange paradox here. Ray Glass helped build SASU from a perch in student government, serving as student association president at SUNY Binghamton while he did much of the early organizing that brought the statewide group into being. The SASU that he and his peers constructed wasn’t a voluntary union of individuals but a confederation of student governments, and it was the power of that confederation that enabled SASU to win SUNY students’ first ever direct role in university governance — a victory to which Glass devoted years of his life. And neither was SASU funded by individual memberships, as Glass advocated in the essay. At the time SASU drew revenue from those same student governments, and later it would be supported through binding campus referenda.

This seeming contradiction puzzled me when I first encountered “Are Student Governments Obsolete?”, and the essay offered no guidance as to how to resolve it. An editorial note on the first page of the typed version we all endlessly photocopied said that Glass had written it while serving as SASU’s legislative director, but SASU was — bizarrely, it seemed to me — mentioned nowhere in the document. (My hunch now is that the piece may have been written earlier, but I’ve never found anything to confirm that theory.)

For nearly twenty years the unfolding story of SASU, the organization to which Ray Glass devoted the entirety of his adult life, stood at odds with the thrust of his best-known written work. In the years after his death the organization continued to grow, emerging as the nation’s strongest and most successful statewide student association — winning victories on tuition, governance, and student rights issues, building stronger and more independent student governments across the SUNY system, and helping to transform the United States Student Association into a more activist, progressive, effective force nationally. The collapse of SASU in the 1990s left a void in American student organizing that is still felt today.

So how are we to reconcile these facts?

To start with, much of Glass’s critique stands even if we demur from his conclusions about organizational models. His criticism of student government is acute and lacerating, and many of his arguments about the nature of real student power are cogent and convincing. If student government has more potential than he recognized, it is in part because his generation of activists, and those whom he and his peers influenced, fought like hell to make those institutions into something more worthy than they’d been before.

It’s also, I think, worthwhile to interrogate the specifics of Glass’s argument in favor of voluntary dues. He envisioned the student union as a direct analogue to the labor union, with collective bargaining standing as its central task and responsibility. Voluntary dues were crucial to this project, he wrote, because “the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor.”

Reading that sentence today, one is struck by its datedness. Where Glass wrote of labor unions as an “entrenched … conservative” force in the workplace, today nearly all observers — including those unions’ radical critics — would argue something close to the opposite, on one or both counts. Indeed, our era’s legal and organizing struggles around so-called “right to work” laws proceed from a mirror-image premise from Glass’s — nowadays, right-to-work’s voluntary dues schemes are understood by supporters and opponents alike as a mechanism for union-busting.

Consider the following, from a December interview with labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on the right-to-work struggle:

“Solidarity isn’t a purely altruistic concept. Unions have to be a combat organization, ready to fight the boss. That means there is an element of coercion involved. It’s like taxes. The price of civilization is taxes. The price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union. Unions are not like the NRA or the Sierra Club, they’re not purely voluntary organizations. They were given a slice of state authority in order to solve the problem of industrial violence. … [Unions] need money, staff. They’re the ones hustling for votes. That’s where the battlefield is being fought. And the money to do that comes from dues. When you don’t have that, unions shrink.”

There are obvious critiques of this perspective to be offered. But its core message is hard to dispute, and its applicability to the student unionism movement as Ray Glass conceptualized it seems clear.

Students like Ray Glass fought hard to build to gain access to mandatory funding mechanisms for student activist organizations, and their successors are fighting hard to keep them, and expand them, today. (As I write this, the Arizona Students Association has seen their democratically-approved student fee funds frozen by the university in a dispute over ASA’s pro-student organizing activities. The fate of the ASA may well hang in the balance.)

If you believe — as Ray Glass wrote, and as I agree — that every American campus should have a student union “which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students,” then the events of the last four decades suggest that you have to entertain the idea that building a robust, democratic mechanism for implementing mandatory dues schemes is a valid, even essential, organizing goal. And if that’s your goal, you have to at least contemplate the possibility that student government organizing may be the path most likely to get you there.

If reading Ray Glass is the first step in building student unionism in our century, arguing with him may well be the second.

When incoming Cal State system chancellor Timothy P. White takes office at the end of the year, he’ll be making about $40,000 less than his predecessor.

That’s because White, in a letter to the CSU trustees, requested a 10% pay cut as his contribution to balancing the system’s books.

White’s salary reduction doesn’t apply to other top administrators in the CSU system, of course, and amounts to just one fifty-thousandth of the system’s state appropriations for the coming year, so assessing whether it’s a worthy step in the right direction of a meaningless bit of PR work is left as an exercise for the reader.

Here’s another stat worth contemplating, though: The pay cut took White from a salary amounting to 105% of that of the President of the United States to one amounting to 95% of the president’s.

In fairness, though, POTUS does have a nicer airplane.

Nineteen states cut higher education spending by more than ten percent last year, and total state funding to higher ed dropped by 7.6% nationwide, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

A quarter of the cuts came in California, which slashed its higher ed budget by 13.4%, but in percentage terms, ten states cut more. Three states’ cuts topped 20%,  with New Hampshire clocking in at an incredible 41.3% decline.

And though the budget crunch bore the blame for a lot of cuts in 2009 and 2010, the latest round is taking place in an environment of growing state revenue — according to the Chronicle, aggregate state tax revenue has risen nationally in each of the last seven quarters. Meanwhile, higher ed spending is now 4% lower than it was in 2007, and still dropping.

And of course the brunt of these cuts are being felt by students, in many cases by those least able to pay.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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