Why Universities should care about the Occupy Movement

This evening, a group of faculty from the University of San Diego College of Arts and Sciences started a one-night Occupy USD demonstration. Some of my colleagues pitched tents and will be there all night, while others (like me) stopped by in solidarity and spent some time talking and listening to one another. Joined by students and some administrators, we spent some quality time talking about our reasons for being there and reflecting on questions posed by Dr. Mary Doak, “why are we participating, and why should universities care about the Occupy movements?

I was deeply touched by the personal and professional reasons my colleagues shared. Some noted their deep spiritual connection to social justice –through their belief in Catholic Social Thought and its commitment to working with the disadvantaged communities and the poor. Others talked about universities being a place where we teach the social realities of the world –in it’s beauty and ugliness. My colleagues reiterated their belief that knowledge is power and as faculty we have an obligation –particularly in the liberal arts tradition to work on providing our students with that knowledge. Dr, Gerard Mannion reminded us that “seminar” derives from the Latin word “seminarium” –to plot seeds. He reminded us that as faculty, students, and administrators we plant the seeds of knowledge –and that this is the foundation of change. Others reminded us that universities teach us the importance of democracy and democratic change –and when corporations can buy elections this disempowers everyone. My colleague, Dr. Lori Watson reminded us that this is a moment where one of the major things we need to lobby for is Campaign Finance Reform.

When answering these questions, I reflected on both my academic and personal reasons for supporting the Occupy Movements. Academically –I study immigration, work and labor. Over the past 3 years, this country has witnessed some of the most vicious legislative attacks on workers and immigrants in the history of the United States. Corporations are actively lobbying to strip workers of collective bargaining power, health benefit, and a living wage. They lobby to keep immigrants in poverty and fail to regulate businesses that continue to perpetuate workplace abuses. While we watch middle class lives erode before our eyes, corporations and the men and women who run them, report increased profits. We are living in a time where corporations pay less taxes then the average citizen, and the educational systems are crumbling before our eyes.

I told the group gathered that I was the first person in my family to graduate college. As a working class kid, if it wasn’t for Financial Aid, Pell Grants, loans (that I’m still paying off) and university scholarships, I wouldn’t be where I am today. In the past, we used to be able to count on the community college system to help alleviate some of the financial burden of four year colleges –but just this fall the State of California turned away approximately 400,000 students from community colleges. What this means is that students who most need financial support for their education will struggle to earn their degrees. What scares me most is that if I was attending college now, my indebtedness (as well as my family’s) would be astronomically higher. In truth, I would not be a college professor because the cost would be too high. We know education is the path to stability and upward mobility for working families. We also know that inequality and poverty persist for generations. We still see the legacies of inequality caused by slavery. We still see the ramifications of Executive order 9066 that stole property and livelihood away from the Japanese during World War II, and now we live in an era where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can compel government agencies to use eminent domain laws to steal property from working people if corporations can prove “economic benefit. “ It is not fair that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

As I told those gathered –I feel that students deserve the right to the same education I received 15 years ago at the University of California. Education, especially public education, should not be a privilege for the rich. We’re living in a time of increased tuition and decreasing financial aid. We need to stop bailing out corporations and investing in future generations by promoting education.

So why should universities care about Occupy Wall Street –it’s simple. Social change only happens when we commit ourselves to teaching truth, and motivating action, and empowering the citizenry. The goals of OWS are not that different from the goals of higher education. It’s time to speak truth to power.

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