NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - On April 27, nine students launched a "study-in" at the office of Rutgers University president Richard L. McCormick. The students soon found themselves in a kind of "lock in" as they were not allowed to retrieve their back packs or get food from supporters outside.
When I found out, at the end of an evening class, I went to the administration building and spoke with the students outside, expressing support. I also emailed the university president and our faculty union urging immediate negotiations with the students to end the standoff before it became a disastrous confrontation.
The students involved in the "study in" and many of their supporters were working through the channels of student government, the University Senate and other student organizations. Unlike many of the mass student demonstrations I remember from the 1960s, their demands were practical and immediate.
First they called for a tuition freeze. Earlier the administration had openly supported a state higher education report calling for the elimination of tuition caps. Rutgers was once famous for being a low tuition, quality public university.
Today it is very expensive, compelling many students to take out loans which they will be paying off for many years, thus reducing their purchasing power and their ability to advance in society.
The students also called for scholarships for the underprivileged and first generation aka students from low income working-class families. The Rutgers administration has given lip service to its support for "financial aid" for minority and low income students, but what that really means has been subject to debate.
The students also called for an end to the university's charging them a transcript fee - not a great amount of money but many schools send transcripts out for free. The fees can add up since students looking for entry to jobs or seeking admission to programs outside the university usually have to send transcripts.
The students called for the university to honor all union contracts, thus showing solidarity with Rutgers faculty and staff. In 2009, all Rutgers unions agreed to defer their negotiated salary increases until 2010-2011 in a memorandum of agreement signed by the academic vice president and union leaders. After paying the first installment in January 2010, the administration unilaterally refused to pay all subsequent salary increases.
At present, Rutgers has the dubious distinction of being the most anti-union public employer in New Jersey. These issues are currently the subject of grievances that the unions have filed with the state Public Employees Relations Commission.
Finally, the students called for the election of voting members of the Board of Governors (the overseers of the university) for themselves, staff and faculty. Currently there are token faculty and student members without the right to vote on questions of budget and tuition. Half of the members are chosen by the state and half by the Rutgers administration. Many faculty and students see this system as making the Board into a rubber stamp for anything the administration or the governor wants.
While the issues were different than in the 1960s, there was one crucial similarity; the non- response of the university administration.
The students eventually ended their study-in after the President promised to "respond" to their demands. At a University Senate meeting in which I participated, the president, who was away raising funds in California, announced that he had defended the students' right to protest, claimed that food had been available to them, and that there had been no arrests.
After the students said that they had received no food for 26 hours a comic discussion followed concerning when and how they had received some raisin bagels and apples. The president said food that supporters wanted to bring in was not from university dining services and might be dangerous in some way.
At one point I reminded the president of how Groucho Marx, in "Horsefeathers," asked, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes." Although he took it in good humor none of the issues raised by the students have yet been resolved.
Rutgers graduates on May 15 and union and student activists will be there. What is most encouraging is the growing alliance between Rutgers student activists and all of our unions - an alliance based on the understanding that we make the university what it is. Without us, the administration would be left with empty buildings and a football stadium.
Photo: Juan Rodriguez, 26, center, a junior sociology major at Rutgers University, reads literature at a student protest over tuition increases during a sit-in April 28. (Julio Cortez/AP)