Some initial thoughts on the COLA demonstrations

Two Thursdays ago, teaching assistants at UC Santa Barbara collected on the lawn in front of the Physical Sciences North building to demonstrate in favor of a cost of living adjustment (COLA). Later, I watched from the library as they marched past, shouting slogans with passion. It looked fairly peaceful. Some had brought their children. The idea was to stand in solidarity with TAs from UC Santa Cruz, against whom the university was threatening disciplinary action for carrying out a wildcat strike, withholding grades, and other failures to carry out their contractually obliged duties. The next day, 54 were fired by UCSC, and another couple dozen were informed that they would no longer be eligible for TAships in future.

By last Thursday, the tone at UCSB had changed. I listened through an open window on the 6th floor of Ellison Hall, roughly opposite to the library where I had been at roughly the same time of day a week earlier, as they marched past. Louder, more shrill, angrier. I learned later that a group of COLA demonstrators had blocked access to Cheadle Hall, UCSB’s main administrative building, that morning, physically barring some employees from going inside. That afternoon, I happened to be presenting to a lab group of graduate students (and two other postdocs like me) who gave some local context I found valuable; and perhaps even a sounding of what moderately minded graduate students are dealing with here. I recognize the dissonance between professional ambitions, personal desires, and expectations of group solidarity that I experienced as a new graduate student at UCLA, when a messy labor dispute blew up on the heels of Occupy.

I love the University of California. I aspired to be a part of it ever since I first set foot on Berkeley’s campus as a 16 year old tourist. I’m not certain that Californians, including the striking grad students who aim only to agitate, understand just how special it is; how unique it is for a public university to have its campuses consistently ranked among the top 10 or or 20 research universities in the world. The rankings can be silly, and fail to capture a lot of what makes a university excellent (and paper over what drags one down). But they quickly summarize the esteem in which UC scholars are held, the quality of our peers, and the size of the ecosystem in which we compete for influence and academic fame. (Oxford is nearly 1000 years old; Cambridge, 811 years old; Harvard, 384 years old; Yale, 319 years old; Princeton, 274 years old; Imperial College London, 169 years old; MIT, 159 years old. UC Berkeley is 152, and UCLA only turned 100 last summer.) No great university is spun up over a few years by fiat. The quality of the UC, and its ability to attract and retain top students and faulty, is the result of generations of hard work by its students, faculty, and staff, with serious investment from the people of California. But great universities can come apart at the seams, and quickly, if they are not adequately resourced. This is not a problem graduate students who made a sign like this are contributing to fixing, although the sign implies that they do seem to understand resources are controlled elsewhere, and not by those who work in Cheadle Hall.

It has only escalated since I started writing these things down over the weekend. There are things that a movement like COLA could get right in the UC, but I’m getting the sense that the demonstrators’ aggressive, bellicose tactics are alienating important allies. I have sympathy for them, having only recently been a graduate student and TA at UCLA; but I’d be mortified to stand next to some of those signs.

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