As tuition reaches untenable levels, American University students are uniting and fighting back
Last evening at 11:00 pm a group of forty students banging pots and pans marched from American University’s campus to AU President Neil Kerwin’s house demanding a two-year freeze on the increase of tuition. The march was in direct violation of DC law which prohibits “unreasonably loud noise” after 10pm. While on the way to Kerwin’s house fliers were slipped under the doors of everyone in his neighborhood explaining what was going on and making it clear that their neighbor was responsible for the disruption. Despite intimidation from two campus police vehicles which were on hand, students reached the president’s house and chanted “Kerwin, come out!” for about five minutes. President Kerwin in fact did come out and was furious. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” asked Kerwin. The students responded by saying they were here to demand a two-year tuition freeze. On this point the president was adamant, “it’s not going to happen, it’s never going to happen.” One student then asked a question to the president, ““Who are you accountable to?” With no hesitation the president responded “the board of trustees”. As many AU students know, the Board of Trustees is staffed mainly by high ranking corporate executives, most notably the COO of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn. In response to this AU students immediately broke into a chant of “who’s running our school? Goldman Sachs. What do we do? Stand up fight back!” Kerwin informed the students on hand that he had called the police at which time the marchers decided to walk back to campus.
The students who marched yesterday were members of the Coalition of American University Students (CAUS), the new student union that has formed on campus. Inspired by the student strike in Montreal, CAUS and its supporters wear red patches to identify themselves. The CAUS is right now demanding that the university freeze tuition for a two-year period. AU students already pay a staggering $50,000 a year in tuition and room and board fees and graduate with one of the highest rates of student loan debt in the country. University administrators revealed last semester that they had plans to increase the tuition by as much as 30% over the next five years. The student body was never asked if it consented to the tuition increase, let alone told about it. The only reason anyone at the school knows about the proposed tuition increase is because the CAUS went around for days on the Quad talking to students about it.
Further infuriating the student body is how the administration accepts no culpability for their students’ financial problems. While students struggle to make ends meet, their President Neil Kerwin earns $800,000 a year. In the 2007-2008 academic year he earned $1.4 million. He has a $12,000 desk sitting in his office and a personal driver paid for by the university. The average AU student who takes out loans graduates with $36,000 in debt. Earlier in the semester the AU administration released a fact sheet in response to complaints from students that the tuition was too high and that scholarships were frequently cut forcing students to take out loans. The fact sheet actually accused students of being the ones responsible for their debt, saying that they should be more careful before they take out loans. When it was posted on Facebook it was met with rage from hundreds of students who could not believe their university was blaming them for their financial situation.
The CAUS has also created the Safe Walks program which provides student escorts for students walking home late at night who are concerned about the possibility of being sexually assaulted. Earlier in the semester eight students were sexually assaulted in separate occasions just outside of campus (ironically right in front of homeland security). The well armed and endowed campus police, called Public Safety, informed the CAUS that Public Safety did not have the jurisdiction to escort students off campus, and furthermore that the Safe Walks program was not an authorized campus event and would not be accorded the accompanying privileges. Additionally, CAUS members were integral in the campaign to rehire a fired cafeteria worker who was fired for his support of unionization efforts. After a call-in day of action, the university capitulated and rehired the fired worker.
The CAUS’s actions this semester have been escalating steadily along with a slow but steady increase in its membership. Operating on the consensus model, the CAUS truly tries to represent the interests of all of its students. All major decisions are made at a weekly student assembly.
As our numbers grow, so does our imagination. We have already received requests from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maryland to send delegates to try and start student unions at their own campuses. The question is whether this is the start of something big, or whether in a few months time we will fizzle out and become irrelevant.