“The perfect way to call out the administration’s dishonesty”

 Reflections on the Columbia Tuition Strike (Part II)

These reflections were written to debrief a partially successful tuition strike campaign organized by the Columbia-Barnard YDSA chapter during the 2020-2021 academic year. Organized in exceptional circumstances, and attaining a level of support never before seen in a tuition strike, our campaign was largely groundbreaking. As a result, we had to figure out a lot of things along the way.  It is our hope in writing these reflections that those who wish to carry out tuition strikes on their campuses will avoid some of the many pitfalls we encountered.

I initially joined the tuition strike to help advocate for lower tuition costs at Columbia. My school announced a hike in tuition after stating that we would be fully online due to COVID-19. This act in itself was outrageous, but what was even more outrageous was the administration’s attempt to phrase it as if they merely maintained the previous year’s tuition rate. This was a bold-faced lie. The strike seemed to me like the perfect way to call the administration out on its brazen dishonesty.

I wasn’t really involved in organizing the strike until September, so I missed the beginning discussions that other organizers had. Despite this, it was clear to me that a strong, core group of organizers had come together throughout the summer of 2020 to carry out a novel form of student organizing. Even though not all of them wouldn’t carry on with the strike throughout its entire run, the input of each of these members was vital to planning and enacting the campaign. 

I think one of our strongest boons was having a reliable, diverse, and committed group of core organizers. Although not all of us had participated in a campus campaign like this one before, every core member of our strike brought their own unique talents and connections to the table. And if they lacked strength in one area, everyone was committed to expanding their boundaries by sharing new organizing skills. One success from our campaign that I believe has been overlooked is the personal growth that has occurred among our organizers in addition to advancing the socialist movement at Columbia.

Our strike managed to win several concessions from the university. We were able to pressure the university into partially divesting from fossil fuels, increasing financial aid for students, and dismantling Barnard College’s public safety department in favor of a community safety team. 

However, despite these wins, I can’t help but feel a great degree of disappointment personally and maybe from those that participated as well that all the effort we put in was not as fruitful as we anticipated. Many of our members put in countless hours to ensure that our organizing was a success. To some, it was essentially a full-time job. In hindsight, a clear and major weakness of our organizing strategy was the failure to establish sustainable organizing workloads, ones that meshed with our lives outside of YDSA.

Speaking of YDSA, our chapter essentially became the Columbia Tuition Strike Club as many of our chapter duties fell to the wayside due to the immense focus the strike required. While our chapter has certainly grown due to the strike, the importance of maintaining non-strike related meetings and poli-ed events cannot be overstated for promoting long-term campus organizing and socialist education. 

These meetings could also have helped explain topics related to and help connect our varied demands. We could have held meetings on gentrification, climate change, police abolition, College for All, and possibly even a meeting to connect the topics. I believe that this would have helped defend against a very vocal critique of our strike which was that our demands were superficially too disconnected from one another. 

Additionally, because we adopted the demands of our coalition partners, we sometimes floundered in explaining the details of a few of our demands. By forming stronger connections with our coalition partners, we would’ve been able to better defend our demands and possibly have more organizer capacity.  

More personally, the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 was a disastrously stressful period of time in my life. With so many crises occurring at the same time, it was tempting to give in to the despair such omnipresent problems entailed as well as the bewilderment caused by seemingly powerful institutions’ inability to help those in need. Organizing this strike helped me regain my faith in collective action during a moment in history where it seemed that even the most powerful and well organized were unable to bring about any change. Even though our strike wasn’t entirely successful, the fact that we garnered the support of thousands of students and other community members is evidence that people are more than willing to band together to fight for structural change that is sorely needed. 

Upon reflection, it is clear to me that I wasn’t the only one struggling with such issues. Cynicism, burnout, and despair are constants in the latest stage of capitalism, and if organizers aren’t careful such sentiments will crush any campaign long before the capitalist class does. Solidarity is king in this regard. By fostering it among organizers we can not only overcome the existential dread saturating society but also the capitalist structures halting progress. Although COVID-19 limited opportunities for connecting with fellow members, our chapter was able to instill some sense of camaraderie through, to varying degrees of success, Zoom socials and one-on-one conversations. Being engaged in this strike not only helped me through the pandemic, but it also developed within me a stronger commitment to the socialist movement.

Despite the many horrors ofCOVID-19, it has actually done much work for the socialist cause. The clear disregard for the public in favor of bolstering the market has shined a spotlight on the antagonism between the capitalist class and the working class. Columbia is no different due to its treatment of students, staff, and faculty. It was widely publicized early on in the pandemic that Columbia quickly displaced students from Columbia-owned housing and tried to force faculty to continue holding classes in person. I am hesitant to write this point as it may discourage future tuition strikes, but many of our wins may not have been in response to the strike but rather to repair Columbia’s public image in response to its many missteps during this time. This point is tangentially related to conversations we had both during and after the strike regarding what the ultimate goal of our strike should have been: to damage Columbia’s finances or tarnish its public image. I stand by the assertion that it would have been wiser of us to focus on hurting Columbia’s reputation due to its outlandish $11 billion dollar endowment. If Columbia’s financial situation were different, withholding our tuition money would have been a more effective tactic. Regardless of its efficacy for winning our demands, I fully believe that a tuition strike can be a viable organizing strategy for students and introducing students to the socialist cause. 

Even though our strike was not fully successful, the amount of students we were able to recruit has shown that people are tired of being abused by this oppressive system. Considering that the pandemic has highlighted to the public the atrocities caused by capitalism, socialism is more appealing than ever. From the workshop floor to the ivory tower, more and more people are disregarding the negative stigma surrounding socialism in favor of bonding together to fight for better working and living conditions. I think that university campuses are pivotal for progressing the socialist movement as they can be an effective breeding ground for leftist thought and lifelong activism. Yet, there is currently no united counter-force against the logic of neoliberalism that is devouring college campuses as well as the lives of students, faculty, and staff. 

Students know that they deserve a better academy, one that builds up the communities they are enmeshed in. If administrators won’t bring it about, then we must. Maybe the only way to bring about the new academy is through the mass organizing of students on a national scale. The perfect mission for YDSA.

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