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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.

A few weeks back I wrote up some thoughts on one of the classic essays in American student activist history — Ray Glass’s “Are Student Governments Obsolete?” In that piece I argued that there was a strange paradox lurking in Glass’s repudiation of the student government model in favor of voluntary student unions, since Glass himself had helped to found one of the most important and effective statewide student associations the nation has ever seen — an organization funded through mandatory dues with student governments as its membership base.

In the course of exploring this contradiction I took issue with some of Glass’s criticisms of mandatory dues structures in the labor movement, quoting one historian’s suggestion that if “the price of civilization is taxes, the price of unionism is solidarity. And, yes, that does involve coercing people to contribute to the union.”

Patrick St. John at For Student Power has written a really worthwhile response to that, in which he pushes back — quite convincingly — against my assessment of the role of mandatory dues in the labor context. “When an organization’s bureaucracy has become calcified and disconnected from its members over the years, thanks to guaranteed revenue,” Patrick writes, the organization can “collapse under its own weight” at the first moment of challenge.

He continues:

“Like most unions, student governments are handed a large pot of money at the beginning of the year without necessarily having done anything to actually earn it — regardless of whether the last election had 90% turnout or 2% … understanding the conservative and bureaucratic tendencies that automatic dues can engender is crucial to avoiding the pitfalls that so many fighting organizations inadvertently run headlong into.”

This is important stuff, and well worth saying. Anyone who’s ever spent any time at all around student government is familiar with the phenomenon Patrick describes, and the insularity, disconnectedness, and lack of accountability that typifies student government is surely one of the American student movement’s greatest challenges. But even so, as Ray Glass himself demonstrated, such student governments can be mobilized to do great things, and I think it’s worth spending some time contemplating why that is — and under what circumstances it happens.

It makes sense to criticize student governments’ lack of accountability, as Glass and St. John do, but in some weird ways that lack of accountability may be worth standing up for. A student government isn’t just its elected leadership — not just the president and officers and assembly that get so much deserved and undeserved flak. It’s also the other projects that those folks facilitate — on my undergraduate campus, SUNY Binghamton, the student activity fee, administered by our student association, funded not only all our student clubs, but also the student newspaper, and the radio station, and a campus bus service, and all sorts of other stuff as well. (For a while we controlled the budget for campus athletics, too, but that’s a story for a different day.)

The mandatory activity fee is a large pot of money, but even in poorly-run student governments a tremendous amount of that money typically winds up going to vitally important student organizations that wouldn’t find much funding any other way. At Binghamton today (according to a 2010 budget I just Googled), the student-run bus system gets more than $400,000 a year, a student-run ambulance service gets $100,000, and programming gets nearly $200,000.

And that’s before you get to the three quarters of a million dollars a year that goes to Binghamton’s hundreds of student clubs. More than twenty thousand each to the Black Student Union, Asian Student Union, Latin American Student Union, and Jewish Student Union. Seventy-five hundred to the Rainbow Pride Union. Thousands apiece to Students for Students International and the Women’s Center and the Children’s Dance Theater and the Thurgood Marshall black pre-law organization. And a few hundred each to dozens more, from the Society of Women Engineers to the College Libertarians.

That’s a huge amount of under-the-radar grassroots student activity, and most of it would disappear if even half of Binghamton’s students declined to pay a voluntary student fee. (Student government election turnout at Binghamton today averages about 15%, which means that non-voters supply the student association with nearly $1.9 million of its annual $2.2 million budget.)

Yes, it would be possible to keep rates of participation in a voluntary fee up, and yes the organizing work required would likely bring a higher profile and greater engagement to the work of the student government. But it would also consume a tremendous amount of time and energy, time and energy that was devoted to restoring most of the funding that nearly every American student government — the finest and most engaged as well as the least competent — now wields as a matter of course.

When I served on Binghamton’s student association budget committee as a 20-year-old undergraduate, I was one of a dozen elected students who spent two weeks meeting with representatives of nearly two hundred clubs to recommend how to divide up more than a million dollars in student money. When we got done, we presented our proposal to the student assembly, who spent some ten hours hearing from dozens of those groups again, going over the budget line by line, hammering out a plan to provide students with the support they needed to do all of the hundreds of different things — from tutoring struggling undergrads to providing safe spaces for underrepresented student communities to playing intramural touch football — that they wanted to do in the coming year. (What they wanted to do. Not what some student affairs administrator wanted them to do, what they wanted to do, and what their fellow students wanted to support them in doing.)

That’s student community. That’s student engagement. That’s student organizing. That’s student power. And it’s made possible by student government, an institution that many activists — back then and today — spurn as pointless, ineffectual, and hollow.

Those criticisms aren’t completely misplaced, of course — much of the work that student governments do is pointless, ineffectual, and hollow. But if you believe, as I wrote in my Ray Glass essay,

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.

In my next post I’ll talk a bit more about why I believe in that route, and what shape I picture such organizing taking.

An environmental activist expelled from Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) has won a $50,000 award in a lawsuit against the university president who kicked him out of school in 2007. In a dramatic rebuke to President Ronald Zaccari, the federal jury that heard the case found Zaccari personally liable for violating Hayden Barnes’ due process rights.

The case emerged from a dispute over a planned parking structure that Barnes considered a waste of money and an environmental blight on the campus. At least three times Zaccari reached out to Barnes to complain about his organizing against the garage — which included flyering about other uses to which the money could be put and calling members of the VSU board of regents to urge them to reject the proposal —  and when Barnes posted a collage on Facebook that called it the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” Zaccari claimed it was a threat to his safety and expelled him without a hearing.

Zaccari’s conclusion that Barnes posed a threat of violence was contradicted by campus mental health officials and Barnes’ own therapist, and his decision to expel Barnes without due process violated university policy. The University of Georgia System’s board of regents reversed the expulsion the following year, and Zaccari took an early retirement from the university as the scandal around his actions grew.

When college administrators violate students’ rights they are generally protected from personal liability by a legal principle known as qualified immunity. Under qualified immunity, a government employee who acts wrongfully may only be sued as an individual if his or her behavior violates “clearly established law” of which a reasonable person would have been aware.

In this case, however, a federal jury found Friday that Zaccari’s actions were so egregious that he could be held personally responsible for them, and that his position as a government employee did not shield him from individual liability. Zaccari was told to pay Barnes damages of $50,000 plus attorneys’ fees, which will be assessed at a later date.

A separate lawsuit against the VSU board of regents is currently pending.

Barnes was represented in his lawsuit by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Though I’ve clashed with FIRE on some issues in the past, they got this one exactly right and won a very important victory.

College and university administrators need to know that if they wantonly violate students’ rights they run the risk not only of damaging the institutions they serve but also of facing personal legal consequences.

As a result of Friday’s decision, such administrators have new reason to tread carefully.

A computer science undergrad at Montreal’s Dawson College was recently expelled after stumbling across — and reporting — a coding flaw that compromised the security of the personal information of the college’s students.

Ahmed Al-Khabaz, 20, found the security leak while working on a mobile phone app for students. Thanks to “sloppy coding,” he says, anyone with basic skills could have accessed “personal information of any student in the system, including social insurance number, home address and phone number, class schedule, basically all the information the college has on a student.”

Al-Khabaz reported the flaw to Dawson’s Director of Information Services and Technology on October 24, and was assured that the college and Skytech, the company that had written the software, would take immediate action to plug the leak. Several days later he ran a test of the system from his home computer to see whether the students’ information — including his own — had in fact been secured.

Within minutes Al-Khabaz received a phone call from Edouard Taza, president of Skytech. (He had made no attempt to conceal his identity while running the probe, he says.) Taza accused Al-Khabaz of launching an attack on the system, and demanded that he sign a non-disclosure agreement covering the incident. (Skytech later declared that Al-Khabaz’s test had compromised the responsiveness of its site.)

Not long afterwards, Al-Khabaz was called into a meeting with top college officials, after which — with no notice to Al-Khabaz and without hearing his side of the story — the faculty of his department voted 14-1 to expel him. Two attempts to overturn the decision were rejected, and now Al-Khabaz is out of college with a semester’s worth of failed classes and a dismissal for academic misconduct on his transcript.

Since this story broke in the National Post on Sunday, however, Al-Khabaz has seen his fortunes begin to change. His plight was featured in Boing Boing, the Twitter hashtag #HamedHelped began to blow up, and the Canadian — and global — media began to knock on his door.

A large portion of this attention came from the Student Union at Dawson College, which set up a website providing resources relating to his case, a petition calling for his reinstatement, and assistance to media looking to talk with Al-Khabaz. At this writing, 7,763 people have signed the Student Union petition, with tens of thousands more visiting the site.

More recently, Edouard Taza has offered him a full scholarship to complete his studies elsewhere, while the number of job offers he’s received in the wake of the scandal have reached double digits.

Dawson College, however, shows no signs of backing down. A statement posted to their website asserts that “the reasons cited in the National Post article for which the student was expelled are inaccurate.” In an interview yesterday, Dawson director general Richard Filion called Al-Khabaz’s actions “a criminal act,” though the college has not contacted police about the incident.

About This Blog

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

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