Striking for More Than Spare Change
Updated: May 14, 2021
Columbia YDSA leads a historic tuition strike for students, workers, and community members alike.
By Eliza Rudalevige and Billie Forester
In April of 1968, over a thousand protestors occupied Hamilton Hall, rallying against Columbia’s unfettered expansion into West Harlem and its institutional ties to a weapons research think tank. The demonstration led to one of the largest mass arrests in this country’s history, with almost 700 people taken into custody according to a Columbia Spectator report from the same month. Almost exactly fifty years later, hundreds of Columbia-affiliated teaching and research assistants went on strike to protest the University’s refusal to negotiate a fair contract. After a two-year wait for the Columbia administration to sit down at the table, the Graduate Workers of Columbia union voted last spring to authorize that strike. On Feb. 25 of this year, the GWC announced their intention to make good on this promise and begin to strike on March 15.
Now over 4,000 undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni alike have once again put their feet down on the grand, albeit dirty, steps of Low Library. Well, not literally. With a campus nearly emptied by Covid-19 safety measures, and Lerner Hall, the sundial, the feet of Alma Mater no longer serve as gathering places for dissatisfied student groups or petition-toting activists. Instead, the organizers of the largest tuition strike in history have had to adapt their activism to a virtual landscape, to serve a decentralized community.
Columbia’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America stands at the helm, leading a coalition of community groups and organizers against the University. Though they call their movement a “tuition strike,” their demands far surpass reducing tuition by ten percent and freezing the student contribution. They have also committed to tackling long-standing issues with university policy, including the gentrification of Harlem, investments in fossil fuels, the use of endowment funds to finance human rights abuses against Palestinians, and inadequate support for students drowning in the stress of pandemic life. Indeed, the list may seem too broad to be realistic. But organizer Willem Morris, CC ’21, told us that the movement is united around socialist values and takes concrete steps to eliminate rampant inequalities: “The tuition strike fights for affordable housing and anti-racism, which are two essential parts of a socialist future, as well as fights against climate change and fights for justice in Palestine.”
Becca Roskill, SEAS ’22, echoed Morris’s sentiments and added that she has noticed her peers’ increased willingness to take action against the University. Roskill, recently elected co-chair of the organization, credited this to the tuition strike itself. The movement, she argued, serves as a mode of expression for a diverse group of students’ frustrations. Roskill emphasized that YDSA and its coalition partners are focused on channeling this energy into a cohesive, long-term movement that endures far beyond the spring semester. “Whatever brought [students] to this movement, helping them understand why these demands are related, why fighting for all of them is important—I think that’s important work that YDSA will continue to do beyond the tuition strike,” she told us. What brings this group together, the plumb line of the movement, is a bid for real change. “We’re demanding a really profound shift in Columbia’s institutional priorities,” Roskill continued. “We don't want the University to function with profit in mind, but with the wellbeing of its students, and the community, and workers on campus in mind.”
YDSA organizers are also working towards a future in which Columbia is a more connected and conscientious neighbor. The second demand made by the tuition strike coalition reads: “Columbia must fulfill its responsibilities to the people of West Harlem by committing to provide employment, education & affordable housing, and to end expansion,” quoting the first item on the Mobilized African Diaspora’s list of demands issued last August. As demonstrated by the show of support at the strike press rally on Jan. 17, these demands have gained backing not only from students, but from local politicians as well, including candidates for New York City council, mayor, and district attorney, and two state senators.
The Covid-19 Catalyst
The tuition strike’s voracity and volume have made it a national story, but there’s a common thread among the headlines with which the student organizers take issue. “Columbia students go on tuition strike, saying online classes aren’t worth full price,” shouts the New York Times. “Columbia University students are holding a tuition strike, refusing to pay for remote learning during the pandemic,” reads a CBS News headline. “Over 1,000 Columbia University students on tuition strike, demanding pandemic concessions,” says NBC.
When the media portrays this protest as simply a reaction to the hardships of the past year, journalists effectively perform the same tactics of divergence and disengagement as the Columbia administration. While strike organizers do believe Covid necessitated the rapid evolution of their organizing strategies, they trace the issues facing students far beyond the immediate stressors of the pandemic. Only one recent op-ed published in the Guardian seems to get it right: “Coming across the strike you may have been led to believe that some students at Columbia, who have been engaged in distanced learning since mid-March, feel they are being overcharged for virtual classes and decided to do something about it. That would be a glaring oversight.”
While the current price of tuition does not reflect the education students are actually receiving this semester, YDSA organizers emphasize that universities have been inflating tuition since long before the era of Zoom classes. Roskill pointed out that “the pandemic helped students understand that tuition rates have never been tied to the quality of education that we are receiving.”
Roskill’s co-chair Townsend Nelson, CC ’21, explained that Covid did not cause high student debt, the disconnect between Morningside Heights and Harlem, or the alienation of students from their own education, but merely exposed the depth of these problems. He added that while many have recognized these problems for years, “Covid has thrown into stark relief just how corrupt the entire collegiate racket is at this point.” From his experience, the pandemic “has radicalized a lot of people.” The past year has unearthed the flaws in our educational institutions so completely that it has made them almost impossible to ignore. But somehow, the University has managed to do just that, insisting on maintaining their policy of stonewalling outraged students and feigning ignorance, despite the fact that it was these very attitudes that necessitated such drastic protest strategies in the first place.
Fighting Finance with Finance
A tuition strike is a radical tactic, and one that requires steadfast commitment. But the YDSA organizers say that this is a commitment students are willing to make. According to Roskill, organizers have noticed “a huge uptick in how activated students are to take on personal action.” With 4,500 Columbia-affiliated signatories, and an estimated one to two thousand of those supporters withholding tuition, the financial pressure of the strike is formidable.
Both Morris and Emmaline Bennett, TC ’21, an organizer and former YDSA co-chair, point to the historic inaction of the University as a reason for such an escalation tactic. “When institutions such as Columbia consistently ignore other democratic forms of action, such as votes of the student council, petitions, and rallies, students must take more direct action in order to make a change,” said Morris, noting that more traditional modes of protest, like petitions and student government referendums, have been rejected by the administration. For example, last September, CCSC voted in favor of a referendum calling on the University to divest from companies with ties to Israel, only to be shut down by a statement from President Bollinger expressing his personal opposition to the referendum. He claimed that the issue was not important enough to be specifically addressed over “so many other, comparably deeply entrenched conflicts around the world.”
Still, organizers maintain that students should have far more control over how the University spends and invests their money than they do now. “It’s not only that we don’t have any say in how much tuition costs, but we don’t have any say in where Columbia’s eleven-billion-dollar endowment is invested, or whenever it decides to spend six billion building a new campus in Manhattanville, or whether it spends millions of dollars in legal fees fighting the grad worker’s union instead of meeting their demands,” Bennett added. “It’s all a question of what kind of malfeasance the University has, and where it chooses to allocate that wealth, and who has the power to decide.”
The administration and YDSA organizers continue to paint very different pictures of what the endowment looks like. While University sources stand by the claim that Columbia’s money is tied up in discrete funds that can only be accessed per the wishes of each donor, YDSA representatives say that, although this may be true for about half of the endowment, the other half is unrestricted, and a billion dollars is set aside for unforeseen expenses. The University’s 2020 financial statement adheres much more closely to YDSA’s story—Columbia’s net assets without donor restrictions are roughly seven billion dollars—raising the question of why the administration insists on sustaining such a misleading narrative.
The pandemic has forced student activists to radically reimagine protest, and YDSA has demonstrated successful strategies for groups adapting their advocacy work to a digital campus. The shift to an online model of schooling has certainly required a radical restructuring of traditional methods of protest, and with in-person meetings rendered nearly impossible, YDSA, like all of us, has taken to the cybersphere. Whether through our Twitter feeds, our inboxes, or even via direct message, YDSA has not only gotten their message on our screens, but has also created space to listen. YDSA kicked off the academic year with a series of virtual town hall meetings, in which the inspiration for the tuition strike originated. Nelson explained that these town hall meetings made it clear that tuition was a dominant and unifying aspect of problems brought forward by students.
Operating online has also enabled Columbia YDSA and its coalition partners to work with activists across the country; as Roskill puts it, “the remote setting collapses space.” Strike organizers have spoken with students at over 120 schools and are working closely with students at Howard University, NYU, and CUNY to plan tuition strikes for the fall semester. Not only has YDSA extended its reach to other schools, it also works in conjunction with the surrounding community. This is a natural alliance for YDSA leadership, who emphasize that the demands on their list have been issues that have plagued the extended neighborhood for a long time.“This is an issue that affects the entire locality, and Columbia plays a really pivotal role,” said Roskill, “For community organizers, Columbia is the primary opponent that they’re organizing against, and has been for over a century.”
Despite some advantages of an online modality, YDSA organizers are eager to get back on the ground and coordinate more in-person actions. Social media and Zoom meetings are an important part of a modern protest, they say, but they are no more than that—a part of something bigger. Not to mention, a virtual movement is not without difficulties. Nelson lamented the obstacles to cultivating camaraderie during physical isolation, saying it is “so much harder to get people involved, committed, and feeling like they’re a part of this collective enterprise when we’re all completely virtually atomized.” To remedy the detriments of social dispersion, Nelson and his fellow organizers adapted their PR strategy by “prioritizing one-on-one outreach,” emphasizing the importance of making personal connections with potential supporters and participating students. One primary one-on-one outreach tactic—phone calls—has fortunately remained unchanged.
Morris, who also acts as the social media coordinator for the organization, has spent hundreds of hours on Twitter scoping out potential interested parties. He looks first for mentions of Columbia or Barnard in users’ Twitter bios, then for interactions with tweets that are critical of the school’s treatment of students during the pandemic, then for followers of accounts with similar messages to YDSA: the Sunrise Movement, Mobilized African Diaspora, and Columbia Grad Union, to name a few. He then directly messages these users with information about the strike and related events. This bold approach seems to have paid off: Where the Columbia YDSA Twitter had around 200 followers before the commencement of the strike, it now boasts over 2,000.
Controlling The Narrative
While President Bollinger and his colleagues have the ability to send an email to the entire University population in a single click, strike leaders have had to rely on different channels of communication. Morris told us that, normally, there are power dynamics between the administration and organizers that determine whose voice is loudest, but that operating so openly on public platforms has allowed YDSA to reclaim control of their movement’s image: “With mass communication comes power, and being able to have our different routes of communication is essential, because we are able to shape the narrative around the tuition strike and correct misinformation from different news outlets and also misinformation directly from the Columbia administration.” One YDSA email rebutting points made by President Bollinger netted almost 500 new signatories overnight, said Bennett.
One such instance of misinformation is the myth of University retaliation, fear of which holds some students back from participating. Another complicating factor is that many students rely on their parents for financial support, and that these parents may not appreciate the strike’s messaging or tactics. Laura Bane, CC ’22, a key strike organizer, acknowledged these challenges but also offered reassurance. So far, nobody has been prevented from taking classes, and although the administration has levied late fees against tuition strikers, YDSA has raised sufficient funds to cover those fees. They have also found a way to work around technological obstacles, including temporarily being banned from operating on the University server. CUIT ultimately blamed the deactivation of organizer emails on standard automated spam detection, an explanation YDSA leaders have largely accepted, due to the sheer volume of emails they send and receive.
“With any movement that is worth participating in, there is going to be difficulty. I think that what has helped a lot of our strikers in discussions with parents, because this is an unconventional idea … is that the University is, for lack of a better term, afraid of us,” Bane said. “It would make very bad press for Columbia to punish those students, expel those students, speak too strongly against what we are pushing for, because so much of what we are pushing for is in accordance with popular opinion.” She hopes that students and parents will not give in to Columbia’s scare tactics, which she considers mostly empty threats. While the University may want students to believe that they are disposable, their lack of retaliation says otherwise.
The University Strikes Back
The University has displayed its usual reticence in dealing with strikers and reporters. Indeed, their response to the tuition strike encapsulates precisely the behavior that moved students to protest in the first place: failure to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns voiced by the students this University is meant to serve. Columbia will not escape the hot water in which they currently steep so long as they continue to release substanceless fluff—if they say anything at all—in the face of bold and pointed student activism. When contacted for comment, a Columbia spokesperson offered us the same statement published in national and campus publications, rather than sit for an extended interview:
“This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students. Their voices are heard by Columbia's leadership, and their views on strengthening the University are welcomed.”
Meanwhile, student leaders revealed to us that they have not received any direct communication from the administration. Even if Columbia is willing to hear student voices, they make no promises of listening.
Although the tuition strike has seen few of its demands concretely met, the movement is far from over. If YDSA leadership has not yet managed to make the Columbia administration accede to its vision for a new University, its success in community organizing can still be measured by the metric of student engagement. As Bane told us proudly, “Regardless of what happens, there is success simply in the fact that we, as students, have managed to mobilize a movement that has placed public pressure through peaceful protest on a group of administrators that hold more wealth and power than any of us could imagine that we could ever individually hold.” And peacefully protest they will, online or in the streets, with wallets or with signs, until that wealth and power finds itself more evenly distributed.