protesting arithmetic

Last month I attended an opening of the Civility Project at UC Davis, which included a documentary theater piece called (un)civil (dis)obedience.  Students re-enacted their peers’ responses to hate crimes committed around the UC system the year before.  It was well written and well performed, in part because it was so clearly personal.

Afterward, the performers stayed for a Q&A with the audience.  We heard that in gathering the material, interviewers learned that the hate crimes now shared emotional space with the recent hike in UC fees.  They were surprised to discover that the fee outrage went beyond the predictable response of people asked to pay more for the same thing.  The student interviewers I met noticed a deeper connection.

This turned out to be prescient, of course.  Last week the fee unrest — subsequently a sit-in — ended with the notorious pepper-spraying incident that was caught on video, went viral, and now threatens the university’s top leadership.

We’re seeing sit-ins and protests in the CSU, where I work.  Like education itself, setting tuition rates seems to go all the way to students’ sense of themselves.

Admission to a university hinges on a summary of your academic life to date.  “We’ve looked at who you are, and we think you’re worth investing in.”  It can feel more like a marriage proposal than a business proposition.  When the Davis students learned their fees were going up, some said they felt lied to.  Those passages were some of the best parts of the performance.

California students protest fee hikes regularly, in undulations matched to the state’s political and economic tides.  The shouting and picketing can puzzle spectators like me.  (We are a fiscal mess, without public resources to redirect.  What exactly are people protesting?  Arithmetic?)

Last week I was in Washington when back at my office a crowd interrupted a meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees.  There were several injuries and an estimated $30,000 in property damage.  It was a big deal but off-key.  For one, these weren’t just students.  For another, it wasn’t just about education; many held signs criticizing banks, making the action feel trumped up, or at least misdirected.  Compared to the sit-in at UC Davis, this action was a harder incident to report on, or react to.

But days later we’re still going to work past boarded up doors and broken glass.  It’s a reminder that money can be personal, measuring not just the worth of education, but also the depth of our commitment to each other.  Yeah, it’s simple arithmetic, but arithmetic that expresses our values.

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