Protest consolidates University dissent

Don’t underestimate the power of an old-fashioned protest.

Jenna H. Beyer

IâÄôm not what you would call an âÄúactivist.âÄù I donâÄôt frequently attend protests or demonstrations, and though I care deeply about certain issues and the community surrounding me, I rarely stray outside of voting and the occasional spirited discussion (and the writing of columns) when it comes to expressing my opinions. ThereâÄôs not really a good reason why I donâÄôt participate in activism. Part of my reluctance is surely laziness, part is self doubt and part is my desire not to get arrested. It seems to me, as a child of the âÄô90s, that something from the protests of the 1960s has been lost âÄî a kind of egalitarian hope, a feeling that all the shouting is capable of really making a difference. The large institutions we live within today, including the University of Minnesota, seem untouchable to the message of the everyman. When it comes down to it, why do bigwigs have to listen to littlewigs? I donâÄôt mean to put down hardworking activists and organizers. But day to day, I generally feel like the decision-making structures around me are not within the reach or even earshot of old-fashioned, sign-and-chant protests. While IâÄôve never felt intimidated by the size of the campus itself, I have felt powerless in a lot of situations where my voice was drowned in the power of a massive institution and its bureaucratic hoops. My own graduation has loomed in the distance for years, like a road sign IâÄôd been able to ignore until it came into clear view, informing me of where I was heading: Loanville, U.S.A. Population: Millions of jobless. In this place, I will have to regularly read (and therefore open) the loan statements that arrive in my mailbox every month. Terrifyingly, I will have to consolidate the thousands of dollars I have borrowed and consider the giant number that represents the concrete cost of my education. Perhaps scariest of all, I will go back to a normal lifestyle constrained directly by the amount of money I make. No more paying for living expenses with loan money. No more putting off the inevitable. College loans are an American pastime. Like baseball, itâÄôs a passion that begins in childhood (or young adulthood) when higher education is discussed and an acceptance of the reality of student loans sets in. But I donâÄôt think this is really how itâÄôs all supposed to work. Forgive me for sounding âÄúsocialistâÄù for a second, but higher education is a right. ItâÄôs not a privilege available only to those whose parents can foot the bill or co-sign a loan, or to those who are âÄúluckyâÄù enough to qualify for full government assistance because of family income brackets. Many other countries have national university programs that provide higher education free of charge. Ideological differences aside, education can be more affordable, if not free. Last Thursday, I observed a protest organized by numerous student groups. The point was to send a clear message to the top administrators of our University: Students pay too much to go to school here, and top administrators get paid too much to work here. The rally, which went from Morrill Hall to Coffman Union, was part of a nationwide network of simultaneous protests called the National Day of Action. Speakers at the event ranged from clerical workers to the president of the UniversityâÄôs Black Student Union to a political science professor. The message was clear: If the administrators at the top of the UniversityâÄôs payroll would take a modest pay cut, they could prevent tuition hikes and cuts to programs and salaries of University employees who often live paycheck to paycheck. After following the passionate crowd for a while, I found it hard to argue with their logic. Why scrimp dollars from the bottom and jeopardize the well-being of many when you can easily find what you need at the top without endangering anyone? Why pay our head basketball coach and president so much money when we could use that money to enrich our programs and make them more available to everyone? At first, the protest felt a little awkward, if only because the chants werenâÄôt immediately well-organized. But as the protesters marched on with the mantra âÄúchop from the top,âÄù a certain awareness came over me; I was not alone in my frustration. With all the time we humans spend being relatively quiet and restrained, it was incredibly rejuvenating to see such a bold display of resistance and solidarity. A 2007 study by Brigham Young and Cornell universities found that for every paragraph written about a protest in The New York Times, stock prices for the targeted company fell one-tenth of a percent. Not surprisingly, itâÄôs all about media appearances. Whether ThursdayâÄôs demonstration has a documentable effect on University budget decisions has yet to be seen. Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter confirmed last week that the University is discussing a mandated three furlough days for all employees and six days for deans and other top administrators. Though furloughs represent a temporary salary cut of roughly 2.5 percent for top administrators, they are at least a step in the right direction. In the end, it seemed as if the protestâÄôs more simple purpose was fulfilled. People came, they listened, they screamed and clapped and, for a moment, they were all together in the same boat, trying their best to steer it out of some rocky straits. With any luck, the tide has only begun to rise. Jenna H. Beyer welcomes comments at [email protected]