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Occupy U: Is Relocating to College Campuses the Next Step for the Occupy Movement?

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Occupy Harvard Yard, one of the campus-based occupations, is a model of how such protests can find a home on university grounds. Harvard’s encampment is relatively strict, though, verifying student IDs at the entrance.

CREDIT: Flickr / WBUR

As Occupations of public spaces in cities across the country have clashed with officials seeking to clear the encampments in recent weeks, many protesters looking for an alternate location have found what they’re looking for—in college campuses.

Campus occupations have taken different forms in different places: Student IDs are required to access Occupy Harvard’s encampment in Harvard Yard; Occupy Seattle, which moved from a downtown park to the Seattle Central Community College campus a few weeks ago, is open to all.

But campus occupations are arguably strongest at the University of California network, where the legacy of protest is particularly robust and where some protesters have faced harsh police crackdowns, including police violence at UC—Berkeley and the now well-known pepper-spraying incident at UC—Davis.

The reasons for the growth of campus protests are the same across the country; students have traditionally been a key base of support for causes ranging from the Civil Rights Movement to anti-war protests. By relocating to college campuses, occupiers hope to recharge flagging energy in a supportive environment and build new connections with sympathetic individuals and groups.

Of course, not all students support the Occupy movement, and many university administrators have been reluctant to welcome protesters. Still, many organizers see campuses as a good place to base their operations for the longer-term.

Student issues certainly reflect the Occupy movement’s broad concerns with financial distress and lack of opportunity: Spending cuts at public universities have resulted in annual tuition increases; in many states, affordable post-secondary education options are rapidly vanishing, and those that remain—like community colleges—are struggling to meet increased demand. Approximately two-thirds of the class of 2010 graduated with an average of $25,250 in outstanding student loan debt.

While college grads face a less brutal job market than those with only a GED—their respective unemployment rates are 4.4 percent  and 9.6 percent—most are facing decades of student loan repayment, leading some commenters to label the burden as a modern form of indentured servitude.

Moreover, the need to pay off student loans can steer some college graduates away from creative but risky careers into well-paying but less innovative ones. Meanwhile, students who graduate without debt are much more likely to pursue graduate and professional degrees: three-quarters of those studying for doctorates in 2004, for example, had no undergraduate debt.

On the other hand, if the Occupy movement ends up being largely campus-based, it risks losing its relevance to the broader population or fading from the public eye—though the latter is unlikely to happen as long as campus police are as boneheaded in their tactics as those at UC—Davis, where last week’s pepper-spraying incident spurred a huge global reaction, receiving national news coverage and galvanizing support for other campus occupations. (And spawning a wildly successful Internet meme, which captured Campus Progress’ attention, too.)

But Occupy can retain some of its broader relevance if participants remember that campuses aren’t simply places to study—they’re workplaces, too. Colleges employ a huge number of people across a wide range of wage- and skill-levels, and inequality between the lowest- and highest-paid has risen steadily, just as it has in the general population: Administrative salaries have crept ever upward while colleges have cut service workers’ jobs and benefits and increasingly relied on the cheap labor of adjunct lecturers and grad students instead of hiring tenure-track professors.

Reaching out to campus workers as well as students presents a promising way forward: Occupy Harvard, for example, has joined with the school’s Student Labor Action Movement to support the university’s custodians in contract negotiations.

Of course, the shift to college campuses isn’t happening everywhere—plenty of protesters are still occupying city parks and plazas. But keep an eye on the places where such a transition is underway—whether campus occupations succeed could mean a lot to the future of the movement. 

Alyssa Battistoni is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @alybatt.

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