CEPA organizers ‘extend an olive branch’ to Board of Trustees, push for student debt relief

CEPA organizers Blythe White and Erick Plowden speak in front of the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees (Ethan Bakuli/Rebirth Project)

By Ethan Bakuli

On a particularly cold Thursday morning, a group of University Of Massachusetts student organizers bared frigid temperatures as they waited to enter the Old Chapel. The group, comprised of members from the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy, were in attendance for the Dec. 13 meeting of the UMass Board of Trustees, planning to push the board members to address rising tuition and mandatory fees that have priced out university students.

The Board of Trustees meeting began with a call to order by chairman Robert Manning, who quickly highlighted UMass Amherst as an “anomaly” compared to other universities in the “industry of higher education”. Nationally, he cited a declining trend in enrollment and graduation rates that could lead several private and public colleges to “go out of business” within the next five years.

“We do not have a student debt crisis…we have a graduation rate crisis,” Manning said.

Following brief statements by UMass Amherst student trustee Jiya Nair and UMass system president Marty Meehan, the floor was open to four public speakers.

CEPA organizers Blythe White and Erick Plowden shared their own stories about facing student debt. In particular, White focused on her family’s struggle to keep her and her sister in school after her father’s workplace injury. While White, a Social Thought and Political Economy major, is still enrolled at UMass, her older sister was forced to drop out of school after loans proved to burdensome.

“I did not come to UMass Amherst to face more economic hardship than if I got a full-time job,” White said.

Plowden highlighted the disconnect between students and administrators over the student debt crisis, pushing trustee members to lobby alongside students to have legislators renew investment in public higher education. While Plowden spoke in front of the board, White walked over to Manning and Meehan with an olive branch, aiming to reconcile with the trustees and collaborate with CEPA to provide students with a “debt free future”.

Eve Weinbaum, president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, echoed CEPA’s demands by asking the board support to the Massachusetts Teachers Association’ “Fund Our Future” campaign, a movement and legislation aimed to address underfunding across K-12 and higher education. Anneta Argyres, president of the UMass Professional Staff Union, spoke about the budget crisis facing UMass Boston, alongside rising parking fees for students and employees. Argyres, said that those fees would impact the  “half of UMass Boston employees [that] make less than minimum wage”, and demanded that the board immediately vote to release $12 million of central reserves toward address issues surrounding the budget deficit.

“You have the money, you have the authority to reverse this,” Argyres said to chairman Manning.

Students began to vacate the chapel after Manning refused to bring the central reserves funding demand by Argyres to a vote. In particular, Student Government Association president Timmy Sullivan was frustrated with the chairman’s misunderstanding of the student debt crisis.

“Either you’re a liar or grossly uninformed,” Sullivan said, citing that Massachusetts ranks seventh in the nation for state residents sharing the burden student debt.

After CEPA organizers left the Old Chapel, they gathered around the Goodell lawn and formed a rally. Their action, named “Fees Must Fall”, draws inspiration from the 2015-2016 South African student-led protest movement, which sought to halt the increase in tuition fees for South African college students and push for increased government spending on public higher education.

CEPA campaign coordinator Mohita Abbaraju rallies outside trustees meeting (Ethan Bakuli/Rebirth Project)

“Students attending UMass are in a crisis of debt,” began a media statement handed out by CEPA. “For the graduating class of 2017, the average level of student debt for a student in the UMass system is $30,926.25.”

As CEPA organizers James Cordero, Emma Kinney and Sazia Patel spoke in front of the crowd, talking at length about the worsening student debt crisis in light of tuition inflation and decreased state and federal funding toward public education.

“The graduation crisis exists because college is so unaffordable,” Cordero said, in reference to Manning’s comment at the beginning of the trustees’ meeting. “We have a student debt crisis for the same [reason]. To say that we don’t have a student debt crisis is simply a complete misunderstanding of the reality that we as students are facing.”

Following the demonstration, CEPA members met with state legislators at the campus to share their testimonials and continue a dialogue around the student debt crisis. In terms of future campaigns, CEPA members look toward “Public Higher Education Advocacy Day” on March 21, 2019. At that event, CEPA organizers, alongside university students, are invited to talk to state representatives and make sure that the student debt is “an issue that is constantly in their minds.”

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