When students at San Francisco State University took over that campus’s business school building in December, the university responded with force. Administrators brought police from campuses across the state to the scene, broke a window to gain access, and arrested eleven student activists.

In the weeks after the arrests, administrators and students worked out a deal to resolve the charges. Ten of the eleven students signed on to the agreement — admitting their participation in the occupation, accepting a semester’s academic probation, and promising to pay the university restitution for damage.

No exact figure for the restitution was agreed upon, but students were promised that the amount would be minimal. Students say they were told they would be charged for minor physical damage like scratches to walls, and that the total assessment would be no more than $50 per student.

But when the university finally billed the group not long ago, the figure was nearly fifteen times that high — $744.25 per student, $8,186.71 in total. The fee included not just cleanup from the damage done by the students themselves, but also the replacement of the window the cops chose to break and even the lodging costs for housing non-local police.

Reached for comment this week, university spokesperson Ellen Griffin acknowledged that the university had promised the students that charges would be minimal. “$8,000 would seem to be a minimal charge,” she said.

SFSU’s approach to the December occupation has a parallel at UC Berkeley, where administrators claimed in a campus newspaper article yesterday that the year’s protests had cost Berkeley “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” That tally included everything from overtime for police and maintenance workers to $2,631 to replace decorative planters.

But there are two problems with this line of reasoning, above and beyond a general healthy skepticism about the specific dollar figures put forward.

First, student protest is a legitimate and appropriate campus activity. Students rally. They march. And yes, sometimes they take over buildings. They always have, and they always will. The costs associated with such activities are intrinsic, not extrinsic, to the university’s basic functioning.

Second, administrators must take responsibility for their own decisions. When a protester breaks a window, as one did at the residence of the Berkeley chancellor on December 11, that act — right or wrong — is the moral and legal responsibility of the protester in question. But when an administrator directs a campus police officer to break a window, as one did at the SFSU business building the previous day, that is a choice, not an inevitability.

Mere weeks after Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau invited campus activists to “occupy any space they like,” universities across the UC and CSU systems adopted a harsh, punitive — and expensive — stance in opposition to such protests. That stance was not merely reactive. It was not merely defensive. It reflected and advanced a particular vision of the university and of students’ place in it.

I have argued in the past that it would have been better for the university to have handled these protests differently. It’s important to remember, as administrators put forward this new line of attack, that it would have been cheaper, too.

Update: I don’t have any independent confirmation of this yet, but over on Twitter UCSC grad student @BrianMalone writes, “Protestors at UC Santa Cruz charged $972 EACH for Kerr Hall occupation. No news story yet, but check it out.”

Anyone know anything?