Friday, 25 November 2011

Students at the University of Washington are debating whether to support the Occupy Wall Street protests even as college students across the state are largely united behind opposition to more state budget cuts to higher education. By Katherine Long Seatt

For five weeks, the University of Washington's Student Senate has wrestled with its most politically charged issue in recent years: a resolution supporting the principles of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On one side are students who think that aligning their interests to the nascent movement can bring more attention to such concerns as rising tuition, growing student debt and bleak job prospects after graduation.

But those opposed say the Occupy movement is too unpredictable, its goals undefined or unrealistic. For a student organization to endorse its principles sets a bad precedent, they argue.

"It's a generally liberal campus ... and the fact that this has caused so much controversy shows you something about the divide this movement has caused for a lot of people," said Neil Rotta, a student senator who voted against the proposal.

Ultimately, the UW Senate approved the resolution 51-26 on Tuesday, although it won't be official student policy until it's passed by the student government's board of directors, which takes up the matter next week.

The debate within UW student government is a microcosm of the larger conversation in society about the movement, which started with a focus on income inequality and corporate influence on politics.

And it comes at a time when student activism is accelerating across the state, on university and community college campuses alike — driven largely by state and federal budget cuts and the stagnant economy.

Students "are not responsible for the recession we're in, but we're facing the worst consequences," said David Wieland, a UW student senator who sponsored the UW resolution. "If there is a worthy cause for us to get behind, it would be this one."

At the UW and a number of community colleges in the area, faculty and students have started holding weekly "teach-ins" to explore the roots of income inequality and education cutbacks, and to discuss the intersection of the two.

"It seems we are at a point where we are awakening," said Brandon Anderson, president of Bellevue College's Associated Student Government and a national board member of the U.S. Student Association. "And the movement on the ground is remarkable."

The Occupy Wall Street movement and the escalating cost of tuition were both "the spark that set things off at Green River," said Renata Bryant, a student at Auburn's Green River Community College, where earlier this month a teach-in drew more than 200 students, she said.

At the teach-in, many learned for the first time that Gov. Chris Gregoire was proposing a 15 percent cut in state money for higher education during the upcoming special legislative session, on top of double-digit cuts last session, Bryant said. That was a wake-up call: "We feel the brunt of these cuts, but we don't know exactly what to do to stop it."

Gregoire also has proposed a sales-tax increase, which would have to be approved by voters, to stave off those cuts.

At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, students also have held teach-ins and supported Occupy Olympia.

"I think they're concerned about their place in the American dream," said college president Les Purce. "It's a very unusual combination of broad, diverse issues that center on who we will be as a country."


There have been several demonstrations on the UW campus, including a march on Chase Bank in the University District, a rally in Red Square and a march by students and labor leaders to University Bridge last week, shutting the bridge down for more than an hour during rush hour. All of the events were associated with the Occupy movement.

Rotta, the UW student senator who opposed the Occupy Wall Street resolution, noted that at least for now, most of the UW actions have drawn only a few hundred participants, on a campus with more than 40,000 students.

"There isn't a big groundswell here," said anthropology professor Janelle Taylor, president of the UW chapter of American Association of University Professors, a voluntary organization that earlier this year came out with a resolution supporting Occupy Wall Street, known as OWS.

"We see what's happening at the U because of the budget cuts," Taylor said. "The things we are concerned about are connected with OWS."

Taylor thinks the Occupy movement has gained more ground in community colleges because the faculty there is unionized — it is not unionized at the UW — and because the community-college student population is more diverse.

Brian Moe, a UW student senator who has helped organize the UW's answer to Occupy Wall Street — it's called Occupy Seattle UW — thinks some students are giving the movement a wide berth because they "think it's something that it's not" — that it is attracting too many fringe political forces, such as communists and anarchists.

He is trying to get more students to attend the weekly teach-ins and says universities need to be at the forefront of the political movement.

A well-educated population is key to putting the nation back on track, he said, and "professors and students can lead these discussions."

Moe believes the movement is just getting started.

"We want to do it (teach-ins) every single week until we fill Kane Hall, and then we'll do it twice a week," he said.

But some moderate students at the UW are uncomfortable with the Occupy movement, and with the resolution that passed Tuesday. A few students suggested taking all references to Occupy Wall Street out of the resolution, which was amended to endorse Occupy's principles of an accessible education system.

"Most of the (OWS) demands are really both unclear and unfeasible," said Olivier Fontenelle, a sophomore who's active in student politics and describes himself as a moderate liberal. "I'd like ASUW (student government) to endorse real policy, not a protest movement with no real agenda."

Rebekah Traficante, a UW student who also has a job working for student government at the UW, thinks lobbying the Legislature to prevent budget cutbacks is more effective than demonstrating or occupying public parks. She lobbied the Legislature herself, while working with the nonpartisan League of Education Voters last year.

"These mass movements are turning people away," she said. "Taking over University Bridge makes people angry."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong