Marching on Sacramento, Berkeley students make the case for higher ed to legislators

Editor’s note: The NewsCenter’s Cathy Cockrell and Melani King filed updates throughout the day.

2 P.M., EN ROUTE BACK TO BERKELEY — As the van rolled west on highway 80 past agricultural fields and shopping malls, some students settled into homework, for classes they had missed during the outing to Sacramento, while others debriefed a bit about the day.

It turned out that one in the party, Arturo Fernandez, had spent the morning lobbying inside the capitol, rather than outside agitating on its steps — which explained his neat long-sleeved blue shirt, black vest, and Cal-booster blue-and-gold striped tie. “I came prepared,” he explained — with a “spiel” for his representatives and appropriate attire.

Fernandez, a math and statistics double major, is familiar with the drill in Sacramento, comfortable just dropping into his legislators’ offices and requesting to meet: he lobbied on behalf of his local school district as many as five times when he was in high school, he said. This time, Fernandez visited the office of both his Assembly and Senate representative, pressing his concerns, with staff, about the future of UC and the rest of public higher education in California. “They were glad to see me,” he reported.

Chris Polster

Chris Polster, UC Santa Cruz alum (Melani King)

Seated across the aisle with his 30-pound backpack (for his flight back to Colorado in the evening), UC alum Chris Polster said he would like to have seen more of his peers out lobbying and protesting. “Many alumni have hopes of sending their kids to UC or CSU — or want that opportunity to be available to them,” he noted.

“Education is a reflection of a civilized society. What does it say about this state when we’re cutting education?” Polster asked. “As an alum watching from afar, I’m very troubled to see what’s going on.” To make his views known to California legislators, he said, “I don’t rule out returning. I’m upset.”

1 P.M., SACRAMENTO — On the steps of the capitol, students — hundreds of them — selected from a mass of handmade signs, as they gathered for a spirited rally and march through the streets of downtown Sacramento.

Dressed for meetings with legislators, the students became a sea of black pinstripe suits, ties, and high heels as they moved through the streets, chanting militant slogans. Among the dozens of messages: “Our education is our country’s future” and “UC, what happened to the Master Plan?”

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“It feels good. I don’t get to dress up and speak to state legislators usually. I’ve never been to the capital before today,” said Jesús Sanchez, a junior transfer student at Berkeley. Sanchez is majoring in sociology and minoring in public policy, and hopes to go on to a career in public service. But that will become impossible, he said, if he graduates with an unreasonable amount of debt.

Sanchez spent the morning meeting with aides to Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward), both of them UC alums, he said. Meanwhile, inside the capitol building, John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), a UC Berkeley alum, was being sworn in as the new Assembly speaker. A legislator told the crowd that during the ceremony inside the building, “we could hear you loud and clear.”

Lobbying dress code was one subject of conversation before and during the march: Cuffs up or down? One Berkeley student wished she’d worn dress shoes, instead of pale green tennis shoes. “At least you’re not in sweats,” another student said, as consolation. One of the day’s lobbyists wore herringbone dress slacks — borrowed, apparently, given the safety-pins at the hem.

The rally wound noisily through the streets, and ended up on the steps of the capitol again, where student speakers from various UC campuses offered testimonials on how they’re making it as students, along with analysis of why the state is disinvesting in higher ed and what needs to happen to change that.

“We are telling the state to do better than to spend money on prisons instead of education,” said Sophia, a UCLA junior. “State government has failed us, by dysfunctionally running the state funds into the hole.”

Another student pointed out that the UC campuses contribute millions of dollars to local economies. “There is something fundamentally wrong with the State of California,” he said. “Its priorities are completely out of whack.”

“UC has the clout to be a major player in shifting the climate in California. We demand real leadership at the Office of the President and in Sacramento,” another speaker said.

“I have loans up to my neck,” a middle income student told the crowd. She urged those talking to legislators to “personalize that story. Make sure they know ‘I am a person, not a statistic.'”

Chart indicating funding for UC and CSU from state general fund.

Blue line indicates funding for UC and CSU from state general fund, black for Corrections. (Source: CPED Fiscal Profiles 2008, displays 1 & 21; Department of Finance budget documents)

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11 A.M., ENROUTE TO SACRAMENTO — As the van left Berkeley, students introduced themselves and talked about why they had come. For first-year student Julia Gettle, lobbying day is a legitimate way to express her grievances, at a time when public higher education seems to be losing support. “I didn’t used to be interested in state politics at all,” she said.

Chris Polster, a 2001 graduate of UC Santa Cruz, came all the way from Colorado to participate. Polster, who once applied to be a UC student regent, lamented the short-sightedness of disinvesting in higher education, which he said is the economic engine for the California Dream.

Sasha Degtyar said she vowed in September that if the protests went to Sacramento — which she regarded as the legitimate target of protest — then she would participate. When she heard about student lobby day, it was “put your money where your mouth is” for her.

In the  lively, substantive conversation that followed, students covered the waterfront — from California’s debilitating structural problems to the history of UC to students’ confusion about the various days of protest and action over the future of higher education. Cell phone calls confirmed that a number of no-shows, when they reserved places on the bus, had thought they were signing up for March 4.

Gettle, who comes from several generations of UC graduates, said that UC alumni are frustrated and confused by the news they’ve heard about student protests, for instance when they hear of walkouts from the classroom. “That’s troubling to me,” she said. Gettle worries that provocative protests — such as the attack on the chancellor’s house and last week’s acts of vandalism — “only hurt our image.”

Students also talked about the decrease in civility. Today, it seems, people don’t see those who disagree as people, “they just see them as the opposition,” said Sasha. “People have given up on how to convince other people.”

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Students heading out to Sacramento.

UC Berkeley students Jenny Uphoff and Arturo Fernandez shortly before heading out to Sacramento (Jeffery Kahn photos)

9 a.m., BERKELEY — A group of  UC Berkeley students is heading this morning to Sacramento, where they plan to join a small army of their peers in urging state legislators to reinvest in public higher education.

“We’ll finally be protesting to people who can actually do something,” said freshman Sasha Degtyar, who said she opposed actions that disrupt classes. “I don’t see the point of stopping students from going to class if we’re protesting on behalf of higher education.”

The blue-and-gold van contingent will hook up with students already on the scene for Student Lobby Day, an advocacy blitz organized by the University of California Students Association (UCSA). They’ll debark in time for a mid-day rally featuring student leaders who, joined by top UC administrators, are meeting today with Gov. Schwarzenegger and other members of the state government’s so-called “Big 9.” Other classmates are spending the morning in cramped legislative offices, pressing their case with lawmakers from across the state.

Students have three key messages for Sacramento today, says Danielle Haber, ASUC vice president for external affairs and a UCSA officer and board member: prioritize higher education, conserve Cal Grants (including competitive Cal Grants), and return to the core values of the California Master Plan for Higher Education.

UCSA’s annual lobbying event begins each year with a two-day crash course in lobbying how-to’s, held in Sacramento over the weekend. This year’s iteration comes at a time of crisis for UC, whose state funding was slashed by $813 million last year. Student participation in lobbying efforts has swelled in response to the emergency.