IRVINE, Calif. – If campus activism still brings to mind peace signs, a sea of White faces, and liberal strongholds like Berkeley, meet Jesse Cheng.
Cheng is a third-year Asian-American studies major at the University of California, Irvine, a campus less than five decades old in the middle of Orange County, a place of strip malls and subdivisions that gave birth to the ultraconservative John Birch Society.
Comfortable talking with both administrators and anarchists, Cheng is a presence at protests but avoids getting arrested. He doesn’t want to put his graduation at risk or upset his mother, who worked hard to get him here and worries for his safety because she witnessed what happened to dissidents in her native China.
Cheng is part of a growing movement of minority students rallying around a new cause—fighting a budget crisis that’s undermining access to higher education at a time when students of color have become a stronger demographic force.
“For a lot of students of color, this is our dream and our hope—to get to college,” said Cheng, who is about to start a one-year term representing students from all 10 University of California campuses on the system’s board of regents. “We never thought we’d make it, and we’re here. And we’re not going to give it up so easily.”
While talk about a rebirth of student activism surfaces every few years whenever sweatshop labor or some other cause draws a decent crowd, some observers believe that organizing around threats to higher education has the potential to grow into something big, maybe even a national movement.
But a visit to a developing activist hotspot like UC-Irvine—where tensions have run high this year over everything from student tuition hikes to gender-neutral bathrooms and Middle East politics—illustrates the challenges involved.
The increased diversity of students, many of them the first in their families to attend college, is both a strength and a liability. Splits have emerged over tactics and agendas, making coalition-building more challenging than ever.
“It’s a very diverse group, a lot of students of color, which makes it more difficult to organize,” said Alejandra Ocasio, a fourth-year student from San Diego active in a Hispanic campus student association. “We all have our own interests. It can be difficult to reconcile those things.”
At 27,000-student UC-Irvine, the scene includes a Pakistani-American working behind the scenes on budget issues as her own financial aid disappears, a Filipino-American struggling to shake fellow Asian students from political apathy, and a gay African-American activist who thinks the focus on student fees obscures larger problems like the evils of capitalism.
The fact that students of color are at the forefront of campus protests marks a significant shift, said Dr. Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York who has studied student activism.
“In the past, minorities have tended to provide leadership for the minority protests,” Levine said. “Now they’ve moved to center stage. They’re leading the protests.”
On a recent morning, Cheng led a quick tour of activism at UC-Irvine.
Here, he explained, is the designated “free-speech zone” in front of the administration building.
About 1,000 people, a big crowd for a campus often maligned as apathetic, crowded onto the steps and filled an area between two flagpoles on March 4, a national day of college student demonstrations against tuition hikes and program cuts.
“Everyone was silent,” Cheng recalled. “It felt more like a lecture. I mean, it was a great moment—a teaching moment. But it wasn’t a punch-you-in-the-face kind of deal.”
Therein lies one challenge to organizing a movement around budget issues: a massive fee increase like the one UC students are facing this year is painful and personal. But it’s not as visceral as, say, the Vietnam War, which was a matter of life and death for students of the ‘60s and ‘70s facing the draft.
“Our crisis is different—and our demographics are very different,” Cheng said.
The March 4 Day of Action for Public Education began as a California-only event, a sequel to fall demonstrations against the state Board of Regents’ decision to boost UC undergraduate fees, the equivalent of tuition this fall by 32 percent for in-state students. The $2,500 fee hike brings UC education fees to about $10,300, plus about another $1,000 for campus-based charges.
Despite no real organization, the protest spread nationwide. Most demonstrations were peaceful, although protesters threw punches and ice chunks in Milwaukee and shut down a major freeway in Oakland, Calif., during rush-hour traffic.
It’s no accident that California, with its ethnic diversity and severe budget problems, is the epicenter of revived activism, said Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism who teaches at the City University of New York.
The momentum building over budget problems, Johnston said, “speaks to the demographic transformation of the student body. In the 1960s, the average student was coming from a family of means, someone who was White, male, with a history of academic achievement in the family. In 2010, none of those things are as likely.”
Johnston said the combination of students of lesser means taking on greater loans and American public higher education buckling under diminished state support and recession is a recipe for greater student engagement.
In California, Cheng is joined in the cause by first-generation minority college students such as Victor Sanchez, who attends the University of California, Santa Cruz and leads the University of California Student Association.
“It’s more than just fighting for what’s morally right,” said Sanchez, who has a Mexican father and Costa Rican mother and describes fighting for access to honors programs and Advanced Placement courses in high school. “It’s righting the wrongs of our own experiences, the stuff we’ve gone through, for our brothers and sisters and generations after.”
Like much contemporary student activism, Sanchez and Cheng combine direct action and lobbying.
Their pragmatism leads them to meet with administrators to press causes such as preserving the Cal Grant program for low-income students and boosting financial aid for their undocumented peers.
But Sanchez also sees value in standing apart when the moment is right—like when he was kicked out of the state Capitol after staging a “study-in.” The point was to call attention to diminishing state support that has led to fee increases, staff furloughs and program cuts at a system considered the jewel of American public higher education.
“For me, it’s most effective to have one foot in and one foot out,” Sanchez said. “What’s the point of addressing the powers that be if you don’t meet with them? We have to be a thorn in their sides and strong enough to advocate without losing our position.”
At UC-Irvine, capturing students’ attention is another challenge shaped by cultural currents.
Many Asian and Asian American students, who are by far the largest racial group on campus at 47 percent of the student body, come from more moderate to conservative families and shy from political action, said Justine Calma, who became involved in campus activism by co-chairing a Filipino student organization.
“Who isn’t opposed to a 32-percent fee increase?” Calma said one recent afternoon at the university’s Cross-Cultural Center, or “The Cross,” a gathering spot for minority student activists. “It’s not really a contentious issue. To see just a few of us come out … I fight for every handful.”
UC-Irvine’s year of tumult is catalogued in messages scrawled in chalk on campus sidewalks and stairwells. “Free Gaza,” reads one. “Funeral for Education” says another. Then there is the more benign, “Good luck on your midterms.”
The university has long been a hotbed of Muslim-Jewish tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the latest flare-up, 11 students, afterward known as the “Irvine 11,” were arrested in February for repeatedly interrupting a talk by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.
Next came the “Irvine 17,” a group staging a sit-in with a list of a dozen demands ranging from gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender students to disarming police officers of Tasers. Restoring budget cuts was on the list, too.
A group that included members of the Radical Student Union, a group of self-described anarchists and Marxists, occupied the library to protest reduced hours. Then, on May 4, students dressed in black staged a mock “Funeral for Education” complete with a wooden coffin.
Some longtime activists, minority students among them, are wary of focusing too narrowly on the higher-education budget crisis.
Ryan Davis, a gay African-American student and one of the Irvine 17, said rising student fees are just a symptom of the larger problem of a “racist, hetero-normative, capitalist structure we want to take down by any means necessary.”
To Davis, that flawed structure allows for curriculum that glosses over minority contributions, campus workers not extended job protections, and student bodies that don’t reflect the state’s diversity well enough.
“We’re just trying to make sure that’s highlighted, and we’re not just washing over that in all the rhetoric over fee hikes,” said Davis, of San Diego.
Yet Davis said he doesn’t see student activists who work with administrators and elected officials on the budget crisis as enemies. And work-within-the-system students like Sarah Bana say they need students like Davis.
“If Ryan doesn’t yell at people and tell them what is wrong, I can’t say, ‘Here is one little way you can fix it,’” said Bana, executive vice president of Associated Students of UC-Irvine, the undergraduate student government.
A Pakistani-American whose father is a wholesale jeweler in downtown Los Angeles, Bana said the budget crisis drew her into activism. She receives both Pell and Cal grants for low-income students. Over the last three years her financial aid was cut in half. An extra roommate recently moved into her apartment to save another $100 a month in rent.
Manuel Gomez, UC-Irvine’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said the efforts of student leaders such as Cheng and Bana have already made a difference. He pointed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent promise to veto any state budget that does not include more money for higher education as a gesture that might not have happened without student protests.
“There’s traction here, real traction,” Gomez said. “This affects children. It affects children’s futures. … My question is, ‘Is the vision compelling enough to sustain itself beyond reducing fees?’ It has to go beyond anger.”
With the mass actions from two months ago fading from memory, attention now shifts to a high-stakes California budget revision this month. Higher education’s share hangs in the balance.
The next student regent for the UC system, the friend to radicals and administrators alike, has three simple goals moving forward: to get students into college, make them feel safe there and get them out with a degree.
“I definitely think this is the birth of something,” Cheng said. “I’m not sure what that something is yet.”