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Discourses With: An Organizer of Columbia’s Insurgent Tuition Strike

'Our mission is to get students thinking about power in a way that they haven't before.'

Students at Columbia University's graduation in 2015.
Jack Crosbie

Columbia University has an endowment of over $11 billion. It’s hard to exactly quantify that number, which is fed by the tuition of the approximately 31,000 undergraduate and graduate students in dozens of schools and programs. (Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.) But as the pandemic raced through college dorms and shut down in-person classes, the quality of education that Columbia provided changed, while the costs of a sinking global economy trickled down to its students. Now, thousands of them are fed up. In late November, Columbia’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America started collecting pledges for a tuition strike. The plan is to withhold tuition for the Spring 2021 semester until the university meets a wide-ranging list of demands, including a 10 percent decrease to the total cost of attendance and a 10 percent increase in financial aid. Thus far, over 2,700 students have taken the pledge.

Becca Roskill, the secretary of Columbia’s YDSA chapter, chatted with Discourse Blog on the phone earlier this week about the movement so far.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How early on into the pandemic did you realize that the system of learning Columbia was offering, and the entire structure of college, really wasn’t going to work anymore?

I think this became particularly obvious when classes went online in March. Immediately, this kind of charade of tuition somehow being correlated to the quality of education that we’re receiving was entirely exposed, because all of a sudden we were sitting on our laptops attending Zoom classes. And this was when professors were even less prepared than they are now to offer Zoom classes, or accommodate online education in any capacity. People were going home to spaces that may or may not have had wifi, spaces that may not have had a quiet place that they could teach or learn from. No one’s experience with online education has been perfect, but especially early on, it was very clear that this wasn’t gonna work.

We understood that faculty and other instructors were doing their best to make classes as good as they could be, but it didn’t make sense that the university was going on with business as usual. We know that Columbia is not paying costs to run any of the facilities on campus. We know that Columbia immediately issued a salary freeze to faculty, we can expect that it laid off a lot of its precarious workforce as well. The first to take that hit were faculty and workers.

Yeah, even from the straight capitalist argument that they’re probably thinking of, the product and experience that they’re offering students clearly isn’t the same as it was before all this, and yet they’re still expecting students to pay the same.

Exactly. I think it was one of those moments that anyone could understand that something was wrong. We hope that we can connect that contradiction to the broader problems in our educational system.

For us, that comes down to the fact that students, workers, and faculty don’t have any leverage within the way that the university is run. Or not that we don’t have leverage, but we don’t have power in the room where it happens.

What have you heard back from the university so far? Like, looking at your list of demands, these are pretty comprehensive, but also not necessarily hugely burdening to the university, considering the size of Columbia’s endowment.

We’ve heard no response from the university. [Ed. note: asked about the movement, a Columbia spokesperson told the Columbia Spectator on Wednesday that the university has “been focused on preserving the health and safety of our community, providing the education sought by our students, and continuing the scientific and other research needed to overcome society’s urgent challenges.”] This is very typical of student organizing at Columbia. For example, students in the Columbia University apartheid divest movement worked for years just to get a referendum on the student government ballot so that students could vote on whether they would support divestment from Israeli companies that are conducting human rights abuses in Palestine. When this finally got on the ballot earlier in this semester, Columbia just ignored the supermajority that supported the initiative. It takes months and months of organizing, just to try to get a meeting where administrators will sit down with you.

So we were kinda thinking, “How could we get a different response?” And the answer was when we get to that table, we need to have a real threat behind us, and be able to speak back to their empty rhetoric. We know they’re just going to say “sorry, can’t do it.” But we need to respond to that with, okay, well, we pay a major source of revenue and we’re not going to anymore.

Just to set the stakes for people, what are you putting on the line if you go through with a tuition strike?

I think this has been one of the more difficult parts of organizing. Our demands have a lot of support, but it’s difficult to get any individual to commit to a high-risk collective action. It’s difficult to get students at Columbia of all people to think about collective power in this way.

If I, Becca Roskill, decide not to pay tuition, I’m going to get a late fee, and then I’m going to get locked out of registration, and then I’m not going to get my transcripts. But if 20 or 30 percent of the student body doesn’t pay tuition, then Columbia, which is not only a corporation, but also an educational institution that has to worry about its reputation and maintaining this image of upholding liberal values and principles that are conducive to higher education, then they are not going to retaliate with $150 late fees to 20 percent of their student body at a certain point. We hope that then they’ll come to the table with us.

What do you want in the short term? What are you looking for in the next couple of weeks?

Right now, our mission is to get students thinking about power in a way that they haven’t before, and then to get us a seat at the table that holds more say than any student’s seat has had before. The question then becomes who’s doing that negotiating, and how are they representing the now 2,500 students that are behind this movement? How do we make democratic decisions when it comes to bargaining? This is a lot to focus on all at once and to try to accomplish in a few months, but it’s been really exciting to build out the level of structural democracy that we have in our movement.

What are you hearing from your peers as to their main motivations for joining the tuition strike movement? It’s a pretty radical step.

Like all local organizing, we’re basing our movement in bringing about material wins for the people that are taking part in the movement and students at Columbia. Even though Columbia is thought of as this elite institution, not all students at Columbia are privileged or in a situation where they’re not facing major burdens that are inflicted by the cost of attendance. We’re hearing from students who are taking out new loans just to pay their tuition, students who have requested to change their financial aid situation amidst the pandemic. People’s financial situations are looking a lot grimmer than they were whenever financial aid applications were due for this year.

Specifically in the pandemic, there seems to be this mismatch between quality of education and price of education. Our responsibility as organizers is connect that to, well, there’s always been a mismatch between quality of education and cost of attendance.

What are your hopes for a better system in the future?

We need to be thinking, as students of an elite institution, what can we do to expose how wealthy private universities like Columbia are failing the people who create real value when it comes to education, and how they’re undermining affordable, higher education at a national scale, at a time when college degrees are more and more so becoming a necessity to land a job.

Our hope is that this is a sort of breaking point, where students are realizing that everyone needs to be invested in changing our system of education, whether it’s because you’re facing eviction tomorrow or because you’re juggling paying for your next meal or paying Columbia for your master’s degree.