The fight for access is not over

Robert Bruininks revealed the true character of his administration with the closing of General College.

Nathan Paulsen

For disclosure, I was involved in organizing the General College Truth Movement sit-in.

Last spring, President Bruininks proposed the dismantling of General College amid widespread opposition to his plan. A short time later, after most students left campus for summer break, the Board of Regents voted in favor of his “strategic positioning” program, thus officially shutting the doors on an institution that had educated working Minnesotans for more than 70 years.

Bruininks’ contention that “we worked together as a community” to implement the strategic positioning agenda which closed General College is a clear attempt to cover up the deep racial and class divisions that exist on campus. Far from working together as a community, the administration relied on undemocratic processes and police force to carry out its unpopular policy.

Instead of engaging Minnesotans in a public debate about the future of our University, which almost certainly would have undermined the goal of eliminating General College, administration officials appointed an unrepresentative committee and vested it with the authority to make recommendations that would fundamentally alter racial and class diversity at the University. In 2004, 26 percent of newly enrolled General College students came from families with a household income below $30,000, compared with only 9.5 percent of the rest of the University. Approximately half are students of color and nearly a third graduated from urban public schools in the Twin Cities area. The strategic positioning task force that would play a critical role in deciding the fate of General College was composed almost entirely of white men from the sciences. It did not bother to consult with the dean of General College, much less the general public. The “public meetings” that were conducted were little more than a formality to provide the task force’s recommendations with a cloak of legitimacy. Students were denied a voice on the committee and did not have decision-making power. To suggest, as Bruininks has, that this process somehow articulated the University community’s “shared vision” is disingenuous at best.

Having effectively frozen students out of the decision-making process, Bruininks resorted to the use of police force and intimidation to repress campus opposition. As it became increasingly apparent that Bruininks was intent on closing the General College, despite concerns that such a measure would discriminate against people of color and low-income Minnesotans, the General College Truth Movement decided to organize a sit-in at Morrill Hall. Protesters demanded that General College remain open and that the strategic positioning proposal be postponed until November to allow universitywide participation. Unlike previous sit-ins, administrators responded by immediately threatening arrests and locking-down Morrill Hall, thus circumventing its status as a public building and preventing other students from joining the sit-in. Within minutes, in excess of a dozen police vehicles arrived at the premises. At 6 p.m., the administration chose to have sit-in participants arrested and forcibly removed them from the building through underground tunnels, presumably to avoid media scrutiny.

Hennepin County attorneys have been unusually harsh in their prosecution of those involved in the action. Today five students are on trial after refusing to accept plea bargain terms that are well out of step with the norm in Minneapolis civil disobedience cases. Over the summer months, additional charges were filed against a student demonstrator outside the building who was pepper-sprayed without reason by a police officer on the scene. Phyllis Walker, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800, is also facing misdemeanor charges after giving a firsthand account of the police brutality to local news media. Given the administration’s initial decision to make arrests, combined with its continued interest in these cases and the unorthodox manner in which they’ve proceeded, suspicions that Bruininks is making an example of sit-in participants and their supporters is well-justified. These prosecutions are an ongoing outrage that should not be tolerated anywhere, much less a land-grant University.

Clearly, Bruininks’ administration has no desire to seriously consider students’ perspective while formulating University policy. Nor does the administration have the interests of Minnesota’s working class at heart when envisioning the University’s future. If students are going to take democratic control of this University, and thus have a say in matters that affect our lives and community, we will have to wrest power away from the arrogant bureaucrats whose salaries are currently being made serving elite interests.

This project will require students to build a broad movement and expend considerable time and energy organizing fellow classmates and co-workers. Although the task might seem daunting, we would do well to recall the old adage that all good things start somewhere. Getting involved in the fight for access to the University is as good a place as any to begin. To learn more about the struggle to keep the University economically and racially diverse, attend GCTM’s upcoming public discussion at 5 p.m. Friday in 150 Blegen Hall.

Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]