An Open Letter to the Campus Community:
The “official” responses to the two recent occupations have emphasized monetary impact, and I believe it’s important to point a few things out about this, both in terms of facts and in terms of rhetoric.
Both in the case of the Graduate Student Commons and Humanities 2, spokespeople for the administration and the bodies governing normal control of the spaces have touted enormous figures for the damage that these occupations and actions have allegedly caused. Many people have probably heard the GSC figures by now: $40,000 for carpet cleaning; $26,000 for furniture; $5,000 to paint over graffiti that was not in fact spray-painted by members of that occupation. Now, in the wake of the brief Humanities 2 occupation, EVC Kliger has stated that the cost of moving the outdoor furniture that was used to make barricades, and painting over graffiti which was once again done by persons outside the occupation, will run the combined costs of the two occupations into the tens of thousands.
Factually, this is simply crazy. When the GSC governing board began to get called on their numbers – at going rates, $40,000 is enough to steam-clean two and a half football fields – they apparently claimed that this number was a “misprint.” While the action was not directed against the GSC or GSA and while many of us sympathize with the strain put upon them by the university, this claim of a misprint is in bad faith. I personally attended a meeting with GSC board members while the occupation was still going on, as a delegate authorized to bring messages to and from the group inside the occupation. When I walked into the room for that meeting, these figures were already up on a whiteboard: $40,000 floors (at the time, I was told that was for the total replacement of a hardwood floor, not for carpets); $26,000 for replacement of all furniture; $5,000 to paint over graffiti. These numbers had been decided upon well before that space was vacated, and were subsequently attached to whatever real conditions obtained when the occupation ended. Likewise, EVC Kliger’s estimate of damages at Cowell, Humanities 2, and Baytree is outlandish. Walk, if you haven’t recently, over to Kresge College and pause outside the door to classroom 321. There is a spot of graffiti on the wall that has been painted over; you can tell because the paint doesn’t quite match. Now: how on earth is that a job that cost thousands of dollars? It took a brush and a dollar or two worth of exterior paint, and custodial staff members certainly don’t get thousand-dollar bonuses for doing it. The figures being attached to these actions are patently absurd.
More dangerous is the rhetorical impact of such claims. They numb and condition us to the idea that things simply cost more at the university. During the GSC occupation one of the board members told me that the reason their utility bills are so high is that, while they are allowed to think of themselves as an independently owned and operated space, they are forced to purchase utilities and services on the university’s pricing plan. The figure that was quoted for monthly internet access was about five and a half times what a high-speed connection costs from Comcast. Many of us on campus pay into this: graduate students whose fees go to the GSC; anyone who eats at Joe’s Pizza and Subs downstairs, a business which pays rent to the GSC in proportion to its profits. In other words, a percentage of your sandwich just went to pay for extravagantly expensive internet access, not to mention carpet cleaning. This is not an attack on Joe’s, a business which the GSC occupation in no way intended to harm, or to the GSC, which was not targeted – but a call to be alert to the kinds of costs that the university routinely applies to its tenants, organizations, and students.
The logic of this kind of money-focused response to student activism is sinister, as we see in EVC Kliger’s statements about the Humanities 2 occupation. “See?” it says. “It costs so much money already to do anything on this campus, and now you’re costing us even more.” This works to normalize the sense of inevitability of the coming fee hikes. “We didn’t have any money to begin with, and now we have to pay $5,000 to paint over some tagging. Our hands are tied.”
I fear that if and when the regents do vote in the fee increase (November 17 at UCLA), it will be accepted as a necessary measure to offset the costs that we, as students, force upon the university. The implication of these numbers, of this hand-wringing over wear and tear, is that the university would run cheaply and efficiently if only students weren’t here doing what students do. And, increasingly, doing what students feel they need to do in order to make their presence and concerns felt and heard. In the humanities and social sciences we teach the history of campus activism, of the impacts that other generations of students, safely confined to the past, have been able to make. But current activism, on our own campus and in our own time, is simply a monetary concern to the administration, nothing more. This is a cynical, and I fear effective, tactic to distract students from the real issues at hand and to divide a student body by painting those who take action as costing others money. It is important to resist this logic. It is equally important to remember that the impending fee increase will not provide additional funds for things like painting the campus, let alone hiring faculty to offset rising class sizes, obviating the “need” for furloughs, or mitigating other consequences of the disastrous budget cuts. An open letter has circulated from Bob Meister, professor of Politics, pointing out that the additional money from the fee hike will be destined for a holding account whose purpose is to protect the state’s credit rating. It will not buy a $40,000 hardwood floor. It will also not pay a lecturer, a custodial staff member, or a librarian.
We also teach critical thinking. I would ask everyone to think very, very hard about the kinds of leaps and assumptions that the administration is asking us to make.
PhD Candidate and Associate In Creative Writing
Departments of Literature and American Studies
University of California, Santa Cruz