A tale of two student uprisings - Salish Current

Protesters outside Western Washington University’s Old Main building on May 17 hear speeches from spokespeople for both the Popular University for Gaza encampment and the Western Academic Workers United strike. (Peyton Perdue photo © 2024)

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Commentary: The larger issue of disinvestment in educating students is yet to be dealt with

Western Washington University recently completed agreements with two student groups: Western Academic Workers United (WAWU), the newly formed union that represents undergraduate and graduate student employees, and the WWU Divest Apartheid Coalition. These agreements reveal some bad news, some good news and a giant missed opportunity.

On March 14, WAWU organized an “Expand the Pie” rally. WWU receives fewer dollars per student from the state than any other public university or college. The 300 students, faculty, and staff who filled Red Square and the two state legislators who spoke at the rally called attention to this deficit and demanded that the legislature increase Western’s base budget. 

Absent were Western’s upper administrators, whose primary responsibility is to make sure that the university is appropriately funded. And there was no mention of the rally in any of Western’s publications or news outlets. Instead, the headline in Western Today was that Moody’s, the bond rating agency, had upgraded Western’s outlook, making it easier for the university to add to its $150 million debt.

Demonstrators march outside Western Washington University’s Performance Art Center on May 17, in support of the WAWU strike and divestment at Western. (Peyton Perdue photo © 2024) 

In the wake of 50 years of state disinvestment, this need to put pleasing creditors ahead of educating students has become typical of American public universities. As public support has declined, universities have become bankers’ playgrounds (with billions of dollars of both student and institutional debt) and the academic mission has taken a backseat to a managerial approach that emphasizes austerity in academics and metastasizing administrative bloat (in the last five years, Western’s spending on instruction has grown by 4%, while spending on central administration has grown by 12%). Universities are increasingly in the hands of administrators and outside consultants who know very little and care even less about what happens in classrooms and laboratories. 

At the same time that Western’s administration was ignoring the rally for better university funding and trumpeting the Moody’s announcement that Western’s “total cash and investments continue to grow,” the university paid a Seattle management attorney taxpayer and tuition dollars to tell mostly low-income student workers at the bargaining table that the jobs they need for food and rent are mostly about “experience” and beer money. This outside lawyer’s eight months of intransigence and delay was so counterproductive that the students were forced to organize Western’s first ever employee strike. A day and a half of the university shut down by well-organized picket lines led the administration to quickly settle a contract that should have been settled months before. 

On May 14, the WWU Divest Apartheid Coalition set up a Popular University for Gaza encampment on the lawn in front of the administration building. In the wake of the war in Gaza, similar encampments have appeared on campuses across the country, with demands for a ceasefire, divestment, and transparency. Unlike on many other campuses, the two weeks of the Western encampment were untouched by any violence or injury. The students were thoughtful, organized and disciplined. Western President Sabah Randhawa and the WWU administration, despite a variety of pressures from donors and other outside groups, did not overreact. There was very little damage, nobody got hurt and nobody called the cops. 

The negotiations with the coalition were also handled better than the negotiations with WAWU. Instead of hiring a mercenary mouthpiece, Randhawa met directly with the coalition students. The discussions were sometimes frustrating for both sides, but they were concluded over a period of a few days and they resulted in an agreement of genuine substance. The Memorandum of Understanding creates a framework for a future in which Western’s investments will be reviewed for more than just profit.

Organizers of a Popular University for Gaza encampment discussed their demands with Western’s president over a stretch of days before reaching an accord. The protest remained peaceful, unlike many similar protests at universities elsewhere in the country. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current photo © 2024)

But it doesn’t go far enough. 

The coalition could have presented Western with a list of a hundred companies they found objectionable and whatever consultant handles the WWU portfolio could have sold all those shares the next day. But then they would have just turned around and invested in a bunch of other companies, many of them just as bad. There will always be another war, another genocide, and the New York Stock Exchange has precious few companies that actually do no harm. 

As long as Western is underfunded and dependent on private money, academic freedom will always have moneyed guardrails and the administration (any administration) will always bend to the concerns of donors, demagogues and weapons manufacturers. The MOU with the coalition should have included a provision for them to pack up their tents and take them to the capitol lawn in Olympia with a vow not to leave until the state fully funds Western and all of Washington’s other public universities and colleges.

Western’s administration should recognize its common interests with WAWU and the coalition. By continuing to treat organized students as a nuisance or the enemy, Western is not just showing tremendous disrespect, it is missing a genuine opportunity to help make a public university public again.  

By Bill Lyne

Also read in Salish Current: “Campus protests over Gaza part of a proud tradition,” May 15, 2024

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