Protest groups present petitions to administration, call on students to walk out

By The Columbia Chronicle

By Sam Charles, managing editor, and Kaley Fowler, assistant metro editor

Several on- and off-campus protest groups once again convened at Columbia to voice their disapproval of the direction in which the college is moving. But this time, their focus wasn’t strictly on Columbia but also on other downtown institutions.

Members of P-Fac, Columbia’s part- time faculty union; US of CC, Columbia’s staff union; Occupy Columbia; and the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education came together March 1 outside the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave., to once more voice their distaste and present the administration with written proof that they are not isolated in their belief that the college could be run more sensibly.

The protest was held on the same day Occupy Education, another faction of the Occupy movement, designated “National Day of Action for Education.” Activists across the country protested against tuition increases, student debt and privatization of higher education.

More than 50 demonstrators were eventually granted entrance to the Ferguson Lecture Hall inside the Alexandroff Campus Center, where they presented petitions to the administration demanding that tuition costs be frozen. As of press time, the petition had 1,209 signatures, 291 short of its goal of 1,500.

Paul Chiaravalle, associate vice president and chief of staff to President Warrick L. Carter, was present to collect the petition on behalf of the administration. “These [petitions] will be seen by the president, I can assure you that,” Chiaravalle told the demonstrators.

Nancy Traver, P-Fac media chair and adjunct faculty member in the Journalism Department, also presented Chiaravalle with a petition from the union regarding a possible health insurance option for adjunct faculty. Traver further pointed out to Chiaravalle that the union has not had a bargaining session with the college for a new contract in more than four months.

The protest started at noon and moved to East-West University, 816 S. Michigan Ave., in an effort to show solidarity between institutions in the city.

“Hey hey, ho ho, union busting’s got to go!” the group chanted.

After five minutes of marching outside East-West, the group returned to the corner of Harrison Street and Michigan Avenue where several members took turns voicing their individual grievances with Columbia.

“Columbia does not have to raise tuition, Columbia does not have to cut programs,” said Ryan Nanni, senior film and video major and member of Occupy Columbia. “In fact, I have proof of this. There are colleges around the country [that] are cutting tuition.”

As previously reported by The Chronicle on Jan. 30, Columbia administrators have met with the groups in two town hall meetings after being prompted to do so by demonstrators who on Dec. 7, 2011 occupied the hallway of Carter’s office on the fifth floor of the Alexandroff Campus Center.

After the group left Columbia’s campus March 1, Diane Doyne, associate vice president of Public Relations, Marketing and Advertising, released an emailed statement reiterating the college’s compliance with the protesters’ requests.

“As an institution of higher education, Columbia College supports and encourages personal expression and open discourse,” the statement read. “To that end, we have fully participated in two town hall meetings since December with students, faculty and staff to discuss the issues they raised today.”

As of press time, there was no word on any future plans by Occupy Columbia and the groups associated with it.

“All of our student debt is skyrocketing administrators’ salaries and is lining the pockets of bankers on Wall Street,” said Ben Schacht, a graduate student instructor at Northwestern University. “If education is a social good, it should be socially provided for, which means it should be free and should be publicly financed.”

The group then travelled north to the corner of Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue.

As the marchers progressed down Michigan Avenue, they were flanked by more than a dozen police officers on bicycles and in squad cars, as well as a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild.

According to the guild’s website, “The Legal Observer program is part of a comprehensive system of legal support designed to enable people to express their political views as fully as possible without unconstitutional disruption or interference by the police and with the fewest possible consequences from the criminal justice system.”

Members of Columbia’s Office of Safety and Security were also monitoring the protesters.

“I’m a supporter of
the First Amendment
right of free speech,”
said Robert Koverman,
 associate vice president of Safety and Security. “I certainly am a supporter of people, if they have grievances, having the ability to air them.”

Following the protest was a march to Chase Headquarters, 10 S. Dearborn St., where the demonstrators called for a stop to the bank’s lending processes.

According to CACHE, Chase is one of the biggest private lenders profiting from student loans and distributed a cumulative $11.1 billion in Federal Family Education Loan Program loans in 2009.

Outside the bank, Schacht called on audience members to come forth to receive “Chase University diplomas,” on which participants wrote their loan amount as they stepped up to “graduate” from debt.

“If you want to spend your entire working life paying me, Chase Bank, for your education, then you’ll pay [your debt] off,” Schacht shouted. “And you’ll line my pockets at the same time.”

Several local schools hosted events of their own in addition to participating in the rally. Roosevelt students lined up along Michigan Avenue, encouraging vehicles to “honk if you can’t pay off student loans.”
“Education itself has become a commodity,” said Joseph Roeges, a sociology and mathematics double major at Roosevelt University. “In general we’ve seen a lot of situations where teachers’ benefits are being cut, classes are being cut and yet we’re paying more for tuition.”

Columbia students will face a tuition increase of 5.2 percent for the 2012-2013 school year, as reported by The Chronicle on Feb. 20.

The way education is prioritized plays a large role in the rising amount of student debt, according to Victor Sanchez, president of the United States Student Association, an organization that describes itself as working to make students’ concerns heard at the local, state and national levels.

“Without a doubt, we have private corporations, as well as the Department of Education, that are benefitting and profiting from student loan debt,” Sanchez said.

Ashley Bohrer, spokeswoman for CACHE, said student debt is the only type not dis- chargeable in bankruptcy, meaning that no matter what happens to the student, his or her debt must still be repaid.

“We need to reorient the conversation to be one around student loan debt forgiveness as a means of stimulating the economy,” Sanchez said. “[Students] are graduating with mortgage-sized loans. When you’ve got a ball and chain that weighs $25,000 a year, it’s a very tough position to start off your life.”

Student debt throughout the country is growing at a rate of $90 billion annually and is slated to surpass the $1 trillion mark this spring, according to the ralliers.

Haley Chitty, director of communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said a fear of such debt should not deter students from pursuing college degrees.

Chitty said that student loans, like other investments, are often risky for both students and parents but added that the educational benefits of a college degree outweigh the risks.

“College is one of the best investments a student can make in their career,” Chitty said. “The average lifetime earnings of someone who has a college degree is much greater than the average loan debt [they] take out. In a broad sense, [taking out student loans] is a pretty safe investment.”