On January 22, students at Columbia University in New York began the largest tuition strike in nearly 50 years. With the tuition deadline behind them, students say they plan on withholding payment until the university’s administration agrees to both reduce the cost of attendance and increase financial aid by 10%.
Since this summer, members of the Columbia University-Barnard College chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) have been gearing up to address “the injustice of exorbitant tuition rates” and “a flagrant disregard for initiatives democratically supported within the community.” Organizers say that at least 1,100 students are now actively withholding tuition, and a petition in support of the strike has so far collected more than 4,300 student signatures.
Organizers with YDSA, the campus-oriented youth contingent of Democratic Socialists of America, have formed a coalition between student groups across campus, the graduate student workers’ union, and members of the surrounding West Harlem community to compile a list of demands that go beyond tuition and debt to address racism, public safety, fossil fuel divestment and gentrification.
Students say they’ve already won a number of concessions. Over the past few weeks, the administration announced it would freeze tuition, suspend fees on late payments, increase spring financial aid and provide a limited amount of summer grants to students.
While students believe these changes are a direct result of the tuition strike, a university spokesperson told In These Times over email, “The decisions to freeze tuition and provide enhanced financial aid occurred several months ago and are part of the University’s ongoing effort to address the financial hardship of students and their families that began at the onset of the pandemic.”
Given these changes, students who are withholding tuition were surprised when they learned of multiple cases in which $150 late fees appeared in students’ accounts last weekend, though they have not been able to confirm whether they are expected to pay this fee.
The administration has not been in direct communication with student organizers. However, during a tuition strike press conference on January 17, university officials were seen passing out printed statements that read, in part, “This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students. Their voices are heard by Columbia’s leadership, and their views on strengthening the University are welcomed.”
On Friday a university press release announced that the Board of Trustees had finally formalized its commitment to divest from publicly traded oil and gas companies. Student organizers celebrated the announcement as a partial concession, as one of their demands was for the university to respect a 2016 student referendum to fully divest from fossil fuels.
“A lot of the work really should be credited to [our coalition partners] the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion and other organizations that have done the heavy work,” says Matthew Gamero, a sophomore studying political science, and a member of the Columbia-Barnard YDSA organizing committee. “The strike has definitely given a push for these demands.”
Though students celebrated this victory, fossil fuel divestment, as defined by the administration, stipulates that non-investment applies only to “publicly traded oil and gas companies” and “private funds that primarily invest in oil and gas companies.” The policy also mentions that the administration “may make exceptions” to “oil and gas companies that are making significant strides toward net-zero emissions.”
On January 20, two days before the fossil fuel divestment announcement was made, the Board of Trustees also quietly announced it was lifting its 2006 to 2020 policy of divestment and non-investment in “companies operating in Sudan.” Prior to the policy being instituted, the university had investments in 18 firms operating in Sudan within the oil and gas industry.
The university declined to comment when asked if the decision to lift the divestment policy on Sudan, where petroleum is a key export, was in any way related to the decision to divest from fossil fuels.
Gamero, who has been reaching out to community organizations to get them involved in the strike, says there is a lack of transparency between the university and the wider community. “It is just as much our movement, as much as theirs,” he says.
This outward-facing tension manifests most apparently in the ongoing expansion of campus into the surrounding West Harlem community, which is historically Black and being gentrified rapidly.
According to a recent article in The Nation, “Columbia is the seventh-largest property owner in all of New York City in terms of buildings alone” and “second only to New York City itself” when “non-address real-estate holdings” are included.
This expansion has been made possible through the use and threat of eminent domain, which allows the government to seize private property for public use. The New York state government has, in the past, used eminent domain to acquire surrounding property for a private university which they say serves a “public purpose.”
Gamero says the expansion projects have contributed to gentrification and have also resulted in a dramatic increase in police presence. In an attempt to win redress for these grievances, tuition strikers have incorporated a long list of demands from one of their coalition partners, Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD), which presented these demands to Columbia President Lee Bollinger over the summer.
“Beyond systemically failing Black folx on campus, Columbia has also destroyed much of the once majority Black neighborhood of West Harlem,” MAD’s letter reads. “President Lee C. Bollinger and Columbia University displaced thousands of Black and Latinx West Harlem residents to construct the Manhattanville campus.”
MAD’s demands include providing employment and affordable housing to the residents affected by campus expansion, ending “predatory redevelopment efforts,” creating a community trust fund to support West Harlem residents, improving the academic environment for Black students on campus, and severing all ties the university has with the New York Police Department.
The ongoing tuition strike hearkens back to the Columbia protests of 1968, which resulted in an occupation of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall to protest the university’s construction of a segregated gymnasium in neighboring Morningside Park.
“The tuition strike at Columbia is about building a more democratic higher education system,” says Labiba Chowdhury, a student at City College of New York and co-chair of YDSA’s national organization. “It’s about making sure that working-class people have access to affordable education.”
While organizers have directed many of their demands to the local conditions on or near campus, Chowdhury says the tuition strike very much fits into a larger fight for College for All.
“We’re trying to work on building out a ‘labor for student debt cancellation’ coalition,” she says. “Even if union members don’t have student debt themselves, they have family that wants to go to college. It impacts everyone in one way or another.”
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Indigo Olivier is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic and a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman investigative reporting fellow. Her writing on politics, labor and higher education has appeared in the Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin, among other outlets.