Boston college students fight for tuition freezes across the city

September 12, 2012
Liz Pelly
news photo

"A lot of students were energized from the Occupy movement," says BU student Ian Chinich about the recent surge of student-power activism. 

On a gray Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, the first meeting of Boston's new student power movement is assembled in a Harvard auditorium: about 50 students from more than eight Boston-area schools, working out goals, structures, and values. With this radical new group, some of Boston's hardest-working student activists are planning to fight increasing tuitions, change the infrastructure of student unions, and get their interests met through collective action. Their short-term goal is citywide tuition freezes at public and private schools; long-term goals include reducing power of administrations and fostering a sense of self-determination among students and workers.

If any students in Boston can kick off a citywide movement toward tuition freezes, it's these: for today's meeting, there are reps from BU Anti-Authoritarians, Brandeis Students for a Democratic Society, and Tufts Occupiers, plus activists from UMass Boston, Bunker Hill Community College, Boston College, Emerson, Northeastern, and more. Last fall, they were the faces from Students Occupy Boston — a working group with its own general assemblies and a designated tent at Dewey — and the ones who marched and screamed through downtown Boston by the hundreds last Columbus Day.

"A lot of students were energized from the Occupy movement and saw how things could be changed," said Ian Chinich, a BU PhD student, on the day before the meeting, when I met him at BU's Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism. "There's now an idea that it's possible to be self-empowered. And I think that has been a huge influence here."

Chinich is one of Boston's busiest anarchist activists, and a driving force behind the Student Anarchist Federation — another group that grew out of Occupy. He studies political science — "Or as Howard Zinn called it, 'the department of political silence,' " he says — and also works 40 hours a week at Panera Bread to counterbalance his $100,000 in student debt. He was one of several Boston students and many post-Occupiers who attended the Student Power Convergence in Columbus, Ohio, this summer, alongside over 300 students from other US cities plus Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Quebec. ("Student movements start at gatherings like the National Student Power Convergence," said author Naomi Klein in a video of solidarity sent to the convergence.)

"It's not just about tuition," Chinich says of the new Boston student coalition. "We want to democratize the schools. We want student input, student power. We want control over policies. It's about autonomy, and working together with faculty and campuses workers."


To help set the infrastructure for this new movement, experienced student organizers from Quebec have come to today's meeting to give a presentation and answer questions. Since the beginning of the year, over 200,000 students in Quebec have been on strike, set off by a government proposal to raise annual tuition. These students are currently winning: last week in Montreal, the Liberal government scrapped its proposed hike.

In comparison to the tuition and debt increases Quebec's students were facing — the government proposed increasing tuition from $2,168 to $3,793 over the course of 5 years — American (and specifically, Massachusetts) student debt is astronomically higher. According to the Project on Student Debt, the average Massachusetts student leaves college with $25,541 in debt. That number fluctuates from school to school — the average debt for a UMass Boston student is $22,387; for a Boston University student, $31,809.

The Canadian students tell the Boston activists about the functions of their inter-university coalition, CLASSE. Collectively, they say, students can act as a political force. They share stories of mass mobilizations and administration building shutdowns, and highlight the value of holding general assemblies, organizing departmentally, and coordinating across campuses.

Juxtaposed with Quebec, American students are less critical of the education industry. Why?

"America's approach to education is much different than a lot of the world," says Nicole Sullivan, a 23-year-old student, who pays for her own education at Bunker Hill Community College and was actively involved with Occupy Boston last fall. "If you go to other places, Europe or Canada or South America, education is a right. . . . Here, education is seen as a privilege that can be taken away if you mess up or don't work hard enough. There's this mindset that going into debt is how you earn an education."

But in order to live in America, a post-secondary education is necessary, Sullivan says. "Whether that's a privilege or a right, it's a necessity. For us to get our basic needs met — housing, food, healthcare — we need to go into debt. It's bullshit."

Quebecois students are coming from a different context, said Chinich.

"In Quebec, there's a history of students having fought every attempt at raising tuition," he said. "If students have a history of fighting back and winning, they'll remember it."


Similarly, in Chile, the country's history of student protests throughout the past decade has provided a foundation for the massive uprising that began last year — with hundreds of thousands of students striking, marching in the streets, and occupying school buildings, demanding education reform.

"In May, it was just occupation after occupation after occupation of different schools," says a 23-year-old Chilean student named Gabriel Ascui Gac, who has recently been part of student protests in Chile. "Then a lot of marches [and] manifestations. "

Gac was first involved in student protesting in 2001 when, as a 13-year-old, he joined high-school students fighting school bus fare hikes. Since then, he has seen little assemblies of students meet over the years, but in 2011, the movement exploded, making "deeper demands for free education, demands for a new type of student government, a new view of how the state universities and private universities should relate," said Gac.

Chile's recent political and cultural history has led to a more radicalized and socially critical youth population.

"We have historical wounds from the dictatorship that make it a special social context," said Gac.

Romina Akemi, a Chilean-raised PhD student at UC Irvine, agrees. Akemi lived in Boston last fall and was active with Students Occupy Boston and Tufts Occupiers.

"There's a real lack of historical memory [in America]," says Akemi, pointing out that American students are not familiar with the US student protests of the '60s the way Chilean students are with student protests of the early '00s. "In Chile, not that long ago, there was a pretty vibrant student movement."

Chinich believes the Occupy movement could provide just the bit of historical memory that the current generation of radicalized students need to start fighting back on campuses this year. "People remember Occupy," he says. "People have become radicalized. You hear people talking in terms of anti-capitalism, like it's a normal thing, in ways you didn't hear 10 years ago. I'm excited. I'm not saying it's not going to be hard. It's just gotten so bad that people don't see a future for themselves if they don't change the system."