School Daze At UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton

While CSUF students find an administration that applaud their protests, UCI coeds deal with heavier-handed officials

The second floor of Langsdorf Hall at Cal State Fullerton is usually as unassuming and bland as you'd expect a university administration building to be: offices, walls adorned with school calendars, vending machines. So it was jarring last week to see the place transform into one giant dorm room.

Sleeping bags, laptops, books, board games, guitars and packages of Top Ramen were the new decorations, alongside posters that read, "Welcome to Hotel Public Education" and, "This is OUR university." Dozens of pajama-clad students nested for three nights in an act of solidarity and defiance broadcast across California, a campus-wide sleepover staged after university president Milton Gordon refused to sign a symbolic declaration that defended public education in the wake of draconian statewide budget cuts.

"It's really about being fed up," says Cameron Mahdad, a 19-year-old business student who helped organize the event via fliers, Facebook and alerting the press. "Things aren't okay right now. Students, faculty and staff are hurting and can't take this anymore. We need the support of our leader."

After rounds of conference-room negotiations, demonstrators and Cal State Fullerton officials finally agreed upon a revised declaration, which Gordon publicly signed against a backdrop of cheering, fist-pumping students.

"Civic engagement is flourishing at Cal State Fullerton, exemplified by the many students who have kept vigil in Langsdorf Hall in their passionate defense of public education," Gordon stated at the podium.

"We're sleeping in our own beds tonight!" the students shouted triumphantly.

Tuition hikes, slashed resources and hefty pay raises for top administrators have stirred up a mixture of anger and anxiety in California's vaunted higher-education system, inspiring student-led protests with numbers and vigor not seen since the 1960s. But this surge in activism hasn't found the same administrative open arms everywhere. The photo-op-ready outcome of Cal State Fullerton's sleep-in stands in stark contrast to the protest aftermath repeatedly witnessed the past couple of years at Orange County's other public university, UC Irvine. There, students and staff say officials have gone too far in shutting down demonstrations and, in turn, squelching dissent.

"They're really cracking down," says Dan Tsang, a UCI data librarian, former Weekly contributor and host of the progressive KUCI-FM 88.9 radio show Subversity. He has reported on student activism at UCI for more than two decades, and, he says, university officials have never been as heavy-handed with protests as they are today.

"They're scared, I think," Tsang says. "There has been an escalation of tactics, a law-and-order mentality. It conflicts with UCI's professed commitment to the First Amendment."

Like Cal State Fullerton, UCI is primarily a commuter school and not traditionally known for a culture of rebellion. But several recent incidents have rocked its image as an apathetic suburban campus.

Nearly 40 UCI students faced detainment or criminal charges for protesting last year. In addition to the so-called Irvine 11 (the eight UCI students and three UC Riverside coeds who face criminal charges in Orange County Superior Court for disrupting a campus speech in early 2010 by Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States), there are the nine students detained last November for "chalking"—writing political messages on the ground in chalk. And then there are the students who, on Feb. 24, 2010, entered UCI's administration building to protest an assortment of issues, including fee hikes, the subcontracting of custodial workers, the use of Tasers by campus police and racism throughout the UC system. Seventeen were arrested, placed on academic probation for a year, ordered to serve 30 hours of community service, and assigned a five-page reflection letter and 10-page paper on the First Amendment. As with the Irvine 11, OC DA Tony Rackaukas pressed criminal charges against the "Irvine 17" for disorderly conduct.

University spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon says it's the responsibility of campus police "to protect the safety of people and property.

"There is no concerted effort to intimidate or crack down on peaceful protests," she says. Lawhon referred to the free-speech section in UCI's student conduct handbook, which states, in part, "The university has a special obligation to protect free inquiry and free expression," yet also warns students that such expressions may not "interfere with the right of the university to conduct its affairs in an orderly manner and to maintain its property."

"It's right there in black and white," Lawhon says. "Students have the right to make their feelings and passions known."

Tell that to John Bruning, who graduated this past fall with a master's in sociology. On Nov. 24, 2009, during a protest over fee increases, riot-gear-clad police pepper-sprayed his forehead, arm and ear when he grabbed the door handles to the administration building as fellow students tried to make their way in during normal office hours. They arrested him for attempted vandalism and resisting arrest. He and another student were also arrested in conjunction with the Irvine 17's actions, as he allegedly pushed a Dumpster against the doors of one of the exits to the administration building.

UCI's administrative strategy of dealing with protests is "more fitting for an authoritarian state than a democratic society that values the free exchange of ideas," Bruning says. Campus police have dressed in plainclothes and attended demonstrations. An anonymous student member of the school's Community Service Officer program told the student newspaper, New University, that officials scoured Facebook for information about a tuition protest that had yet to happen. Through a public-records request, students found the campus-scheduling staff often notifies the Dean of Students when activist groups request permits to use the "free speech" area. Bruning says these groups are routinely denied permits for amplified sound.

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