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Berkeley students, faculty protest fees, budget cuts

Thousands of students, faculty and staff flooded the heart of Berkeley’s picturesque campus Thursday to protest painful financial upheavals throughout the University of California system.

The rally marked the height of a day of campus-wide demonstrations, including student and faculty walk-outs, building closings and picketing by campus worker unions. UC Berkeley’s events were part of a larger series of demonstrations throughout the UC system – from the San Diego campus in the south to Santa Cruz on the northern coast – protesting tuition increases and employee layoffs and furloughs.

The proposed tuition hikes seek to increase student fees by 32 percent for the 2010-2011 academic year; next year’s raise comes on the back of 9 percent increase already approved in May.’

Meanwhile, to cut costs and close an $813 million deficit, UC administrators approved in July a plan to implement 11 to 26 furlough days a year for UC faculty and staff, reducing salaries by 4 percent to 10 percent depending on the position. UC President Mark G. Yudof called the cutbacks ‘as fair as possible while preserving, to the extent possible, excellence and access to opportunity for students, researchers and patients.”

To voice their disapproval with these changes, protesters streamed throughout Berkeley’s campus with strips of red cloth around their arms and foreheads as a sign of solidarity. Some carried signs reading ‘Public Service, Not Public Plunder’ and ‘Layoff Yudof.’

By mid-morning, a boisterous picket line 50-strong had formed at a southern entrance to the campus, where union members mixed with students and even Berkeley alumni. At the center of the picket, a man behind a megaphone joined the picketers in shouting ‘Chop from the top’ suggesting sacrifices from executives rather than students and staff.

Ricardo Gomez, a third-year student and an organizer of the events, said he was impressed by student turnout, both at Thursday’s walkout and at a discussion held the night before at a campus auditorium. At Wednesday night’s events, 200 to 300 students were turned away because there wasn’t enough room in the auditorium, he said. Those students, however, formed an impromptu discussion of their own on the auditorium’s front steps where speakers passed the megaphone and talked tax policy and budget cuts for more than an hour.

‘It’s a really rare thing getting a thousand students engaged in what can be a boring issue like budget cuts,’ Gomez said.

In addition to picketing, the morning before the rally included a number of teach-outs, in which clusters of students gathered for group-led discussions at outdoor locations throughout campus. The topics included ‘Protecting the Public University’ and ‘Republic of Dunces: Why and Who Is Dismantling California’s Public Education System.’

Ann Smock, a French professor at Berkeley, led one such teach-out and afterward praised the coordination among students, faculty and staff.

Smock, a member of the faculty solidarity group SAVE, which co-organized Thursday’s protests, said her group’s goal is ‘to fight together with all these other groups to save the university.’

By midday on Thursday, several thousand people had gathered for the rally at Sproul Plaza, forming a sea of signs, placards and cameras all held aloft. Students filled the front steps of Sproul Hall, to the point where there was hardly room to even move.

The Sproul Plaza location holds a special place in Berkeley history. Twenty-five years ago activist Mario Savio delivered his impassioned speech standing atop a police car that ignited the free-speech movement.

Indeed, many of the rally’s speeches invoked Savio’s spirit, and that of Berkeley’s activist heyday in the 1960s. The speeches also decried the dwindling access to UC schools, increasing costs and the shutting out of low-income and minority students.’

‘We have to be courageous like the 1960s,’ said Percy Hintzen, a professor of African American Studies. ‘Because it is the ’60s that produced this group of us here.’

The crowd met at each of the speeches, like Hintzen’s, with thunderous applause throughout the rally that stretched for more than an hour.

Kathryn Lybarger, who represented the AFSCME union’s Local 3299 branch, told of the layoffs and furloughs to her workers, who make around $40,000 a year, and cast Thursday’s events as part of a larger struggle against the UC administration.

‘We are the front line of this fight,’ Lybarger told the crowd, ‘and we are prepared to defend it.’

Protesters targeted Yudof in particular and returned often to their ‘Layoff Yudof’ chant. Several speakers highlighted the UC president’s annual salary of more than $800,000. The UC system has also taken criticism for approving pay increases for two dozen executives earlier this summer, on the same day it announced the $813 million deficit.

Not all students felt the urge to join the protests as they rushed to class. Despite more than 1,100 faculty members signing a faculty-wide walk-out petition, some still held classes and plenty of students only caught of a glimpse of the rally or earlier teach-outs on their way to and from classes.’

But for some, like second-year student Taylor Zhou, the imminent tuition hikes could have serious consequences on her future at Berkeley. An international student from China, Zhou already pays more than $40,000 a year to attend Berkeley – a price tag that continues to increase year after year.’

For her, Thursday’s rally was much more than symbolic.

‘My hope is that it is effective, and that they won’t increase costs by 30 percent,’ she said. If the UC administration does, she explained, ‘I don’t know how I’ll support myself.”

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