With the University of California regents scheduled to start debate Wednesday on proposed tuition hikes that could total 25 percent over five years, hundreds of UC Davis students protested Tuesday in what has become a familiar ritual on public campuses around the state in recent years.
The demonstration marked the third anniversary of the notorious UC Davis pepper spraying incident, which occurred on Nov. 18, 2011, during a protest on the campus quad by students upset about the increasing expense of a UC education.
“Three years later, it’s kind of demoralizing. Here we are again,” said Armando Figueroa, president of Associated Students, University of California, Davis.
He said representatives of the campus leadership group had been meeting with officials to discuss the proposed tuition increases and would continue to do so.
To start their rally Tuesday, protesters gathered at the spot of the pepper-spraying and heard from student leaders. A few tents had been set up, like those that campus police were trying to remove in 2011 when they shot pepper spray directly into the faces of students who had sat on the ground, arms linked, to block the officers’ path.
Tuesday’s mood was raucous, with speakers shouting profanity-laced tirades, but there wasn’t a uniformed cop or a canister of pepper spray in sight. The group marched on the university’s main administration building, Mrak Hall, and took over its lobby and stairwell for a half hour without interference.
“No justice! No peace! No tuition increase!” about 300 students chanted on their march across campus.
Many carried signs, including one that read: “Education is a right, not a debt sentence.”
Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi and a few of her chief deputies greeted protesters on the steps of the administration building and listened to concerns, even as some chanted for her to resign and yelled, “Chop from the top.”
Katehi said she understood the students’ frustrations. Her own career was made possible by a free college education in her native Greece, she said.
Shrinking state funding for the UC system is the main reason students have to pay more, she said. The proposed hikes should be a “platform” for discussion about whether the state should contribute more in tax revenue.
The low-cost education that prior generations enjoyed may not be realistic, but “we can find a way to stabilize the situation,” she said.
Tuition and fees for UC Davis undergraduates are about $14,000, and total yearly costs are about $34,000, according to the university’s website. Twenty years ago, tuition and fees for undergraduates totaled about $4,000.
The current plan put forward by UC President Janet Napolitano calls for raising tuition by up to 5 percent annually over the next five years at the university’s 10 campuses. Napolitano has argued the increases will bring stability to a system plagued by spikes and dips in state funding.
A report released this month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that tuition for in-state students has more than tripled in the past 20 years in the UC and California State University systems – largely to make up for cuts in state funding. Spending in the university systems has remained relatively steady during the same period, the report said.
“Recent tuition increases have been driven by dramatic reductions in state subsidies to UC and CSU,” the report said. “In the past, General Fund contributions covered the majority of educational costs. Today, students (with help from government and private grants) pay most of these costs through tuition and associated fees.”
The regents will weigh the proposed tuition hike during their three-day board meeting in San Francisco.
UC officials said the additional revenue from tuition is needed to address about $7.2 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health benefits. They contend the state pays into pensions for other public employees, including those at California State University, and should pay for UC employees, too.
“Frankly, if the state were to pay that, we would not be proposing a tuition increase,” UC’s chief financial officer, Nathan Brostrom, told The Sacramento Bee.
The state stopped contributing to UC’s pension plan in 1990 – a time when state revenue was falling and the university’s pension plan was more than adequately funded. UC regents also decided to stop making payments and excused employees from contributing.
The result was that by 2010, after two stock market crashes, the pension fund was badly underfunded.
The notion that students would be paying for retiree benefits rankled protesters Tuesday.
John Rundin, who teaches Latin at UC Davis, told those gathered in the quad not to believe anyone who says, “To keep your tuition low, I have to have my pension cut. These are political decisions.”
Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191. Bee staff writer Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.