Occupy DePaul: Students fight back with three days of protests

DePaul says 'tuition hike,' students say 'debt strike'

By Paige Wagenknecht

Published: Monday, March 5, 2012

Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012

Occupy DePaul

Bartosz Brzezinski

From right to left: Michelle Hauer, Michelle Maxwell, Kristen Gallagher and Stacey Bear rally in front of 55 E. Jackson to protest tuition hikes proposed by the Board of Trustees at DePaul University. Students were told they would be arrested if they tried entering the building.

As if straight out of the 1960s, students under the "Occupy" banner used this weekend to demonstrate their frustrations over rising tuition costs using peaceful protest.

Over the course of three days, they took their fight to both DePaul campuses to debate over the proposed tuition increases.

DAY 1: THURSDAY, MARCH 1

DePaul students met students from Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, University of Illinois Chicago, University of Chicago, Columbia College, Shimer, St. Xavier and East West University at Grant Park to participate in Occupy's nation wide National Day of Action for Education.

According to Occupy's website, the National Day of Action for Education called on "all students, teachers, workers, and parents from all levels of education—pre-K-12 through higher education in public and private institutions—and all Occupy assemblies, labor unions, and organizations of oppressed communities, to mobilize on March 1st, 2012 across the country to tell those in power: The resources exist for high-quality education for all."

Altogether the Chicago group was about 200-300 strong, according to participant and DePaul graduate student in philosophy Ashley Bohrer.

From Grant Park, they marched to the Chase Tower, 10 S. Dearborn St., because Chase Bank is the largest holder of student debt, according to Bohrer.

Before 3 p.m., 40 students marched to 55 E. Jackson Ave. and went to the 22nd floor where the university's administrative offices are located. The group asked to see University President Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., who agreed to meet with the group at 4:30 p.m.Fr. Holtschneider met with the students in a conference room. Fifteen were students at DePaul; the rest were non-DePaul students.

Fr. Holtschneider said they were a respectful group and that they wanted to talk about tuition issues at DePaul and also tuition concerns at the national level. In the meeting, the students requested that the university freezes tuition for next year, the holding of additional public forums where people could talk about these issues, and for Saturday's Board of Trustees meeting in the Lincoln Park Student Center to be canceled.

At Saturday's meeting the Board of Trustees were slated to vote on the Strategic Resource Allocation Committee's proposal. The University's Strategic Resource Allocation Committee (SRAC), a seven-member committee made up of faculty, staff and student representatives, proposed the tuition increases. SRAC debates for several months during the Fall over the university's budget, how much the university needs to account for rising costs, and how much they should raise tuition.

They turns their recommendation over to Fr. Holtschneider, who chooses to accept or deny it. If accepted, the recommendation goes to the Board of Trustees, which has the final vote. The board would vote on SRAC's recommendation for the 2012- 2013 school year during their Saturday meeting.

"The board doesn't work for me, I work for the board. I can't cancel their meetings," Fr. Holtschneider said about Occupy DePaul's request for him to postpone Saturday's meeting. Instead, Fr. Holtschneider will offer the students four dates next month to hash out the students' issues and concerns.

"If you want to have a voice in that process you really need to be involved in the Fall because that's when DePaul really debates those issues with all the information very publically given out," Fr. Holtschneider said. "DePaul does not operate in the backroom, we operate very out there and we started that eight years ago when I arrived. It's a nice process that way."

Bohrer said Fr. Holtschneider refused to disapprove SRAC's recommendation to raise tuition or give them the opportunity for an open forum before the vote. She said the meeting lasted around 30 minutes. During that time the students talked with Fr. Holtschneider, the Chicago Police were called.

At 6 p.m., the 25 non-DePaul students were threatened with arrest if they did not leave 55 E. Jackson Blvd. Bohrer said 2-3 faculty members stayed to support the group. The fifteen DePaul students remained in the conference room until approximately 8:30 p.m.

The floor was sealed off to those trying to join the protest or catch a glimpse of the action.

At 6:45 p.m., two DePaul students, freshman Michelle Hauer and junior Amanda Walsh, tried to join the group upstairs but were threatened with arrest and interdisciplinary action if they did.

"This is a place for education and they don't even care," Hauer said.

Walsh said that they asked Dean of Students Art Munin what the consequences would be if they reused to leave. Hauer and Walsh said Munin did not answer their question and motioned towards the phone, which the two girls believed to be a threat that he would call the police. Munin could not be reached for comment.

"The university argues that the tuition hikes are raised with inflation, but it actually is raised four times the rate of inflation," Hauer said.

Fr. Holtschneider said it is true that DePaul raised tuition higher than inflation in previous years, but the proposed hike for current students, 2.5 percent, is just under inflation at 3 percent. The 5 percent increase for new students, however, is above inflation.

"The university should expect backlash if they chose to hike tuition during the worst economic crisis of our lifetime," said Bohrer.

Occupy DePaul announced that night they will hold another protest and sit-in Friday night at the Lincoln Park Student Center.

DAY 2: FRIDAY, MARCH 2

The university released a statement about what happened Thursday night at 9:30 a.m. Here is part of the statement:

"The university strives to keep tuition affordable through its budgeting process, allocation of institutional resources in support of scholarships and fundraising. Raising money for scholarships is the top priority of the current fundraising campaign.

"Like many institutions, DePaul University is facing increases in the costs of serving our students. DePaul makes prudent use of tuition dollars by continually investing to enrich academic quality and provide the best educational opportunities for students as possible. These investments increase the value of a DePaul degree and ensure that the university remains competitive."

The university was also prepared for the protests the following day.

The Student Center's entrance on Sheffield Avenue was closed and students needed to show their DePaul student ID to enter from Kenmore Avenue. Several Public Safety officers, including Director of Public Safety Bob Wachowski and a few Chicago Police officers were at the scene.

At 9:45 p.m. Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in front of the Lincoln Park student center. When the protest started at 10:00 p.m., Jackson stood on the statue of Father Egan and led the group in prayer. DePaul students and non-DePaul students participated. A couple DePaul students and two from the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education stood and gave their reasons for their frustration.

"I'm pissed off because they won't let us into that building," Amanda Walsh said. "This is the second time they haven't let me into a DePaul building in two days. I pay too damn much to be told I can't go into a building that I belong too."

Then the group proceeded to enter the Student Center. They crowded the door, which prompted Wachowski to issue a warning, that if they wanted to enter they had to stop.

By 10:50 p.m. over 30 students walked to the third floor to participate in a sit-in. Ten minutes later, one student started to take orders for blankets, food and other supplies and said they planned to be there all night.

"We are going to fight this long and hard," said graduate student John Murphy.

They discussed their frustration over the tuition hikes and used social media to try and gather more to join the sit-in. One participator, who strongly voiced his or her opinion, was a professor and Ph.D. student.

"You can't work off of debt you owe because you stay enslaved to the system that enslaved you," he said. "This isn't an issue of economics, it's an issue of justice."

Student Government Association President and SRAC representative Anthony Alfano also joined and said "in solidarity, I will sit with you."

After learning they could face disciplinary and legal action if they stayed past the 1 a.m. closing time, the group discussed whether to stay the night. Around 12:00 a.m., they asked to speak with Dean of Students Art Munin about the sanctions they could face.

When asked how he feels about the tuition increase, Munin said he sympathized with the students telling them that he also has debt. Munin and the students failed to reach a resolution and the discussion was over at 12:28 a.m.

At 12:54 a.m. students took a vote on whether to stay in the student center or come back at 7:30 a.m. when it reopens. Sixteen voted to stay, including Alfano, 14 voted to leave and there were 7 abstentions.

Occupy DePaul released a statement at 1:09 a.m. on the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education's Wordpress: "Our actions this evening have occurred within the larger context of the international STUDENT DEBT CRISIS."

Later, Munin and the students did come to a compromise that they could stay on the first floor of the student center.

DAY 3: SATURDAY, MARCH 3

The Board of Trustees meeting was set to begin at 9 a.m. Saturday in the Lincoln Park student center. Occupiers said at 10:08 a.m. that the meeting had been moved to an undisclosed Loop location.

According to tweeting Occupiers, Alfano was picked up by an unmarked university car to be taken to the meeting and arrived at the location through a back door. Student Government Association (SGA) later clarified that the covert means were a safety measure. Alfano tweeted Occupy DePaul and said he was escorted to an undisclosed location.

Alfano later clarified that he learned that the meeting moved locations; he debated whether or not to attend. He thought moving the meeting without telling Occupy DePaul was wrong, but also did not want to jeopardize the students' voice in future discussions with the board. Late Sunday night Alfano and SGA released a statement on Sunday night describing their role as liaisons in the issue.

At 12:30 p.m. Occupy DePaul and Occupy Chicago planned a press conference at 12:30 p.m. outside 55 E. Jackson Blvd. in the Loop.

During the conference, Occupy DePaul students chanted phrases like: "education is right not just for the rich and white," "Education for the masses not just for the ruling class," "they say tuition hike, we say debt strike."

They retold their experiences that they had on previous nights. One protester said, "Last week I sat down with a financial aid advisor who told me upon graduation I would owe $96,000 in debt. This is absurd." Another said, "Maybe we actually know what we want for our futures. Not $30,000 in debt."

At 1:13 p.m. students attempted to enter 55 E. Jackson Blvd. Security at the scene threatened to arrest students who attempt to enter. The press conference ended two minutes later.

It was rumored earlier in the day that Occupy DePaul would occupy the student center again Saturday night, but nothing further occurred after the press conference.

No information was released as to whether or not the SRAC proposal was approved or not approved by the Board of Trustees.

Chief of Staff to Fr. Holtschneider, Jay Braatz, said that DePaul will send out a letter telling students about next year's tuition. Braatz said this year's letter will be released shortly.

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Jeremy Mikula, Bartosz Brzezinski, Jenn Schanz, Elizabeth Schuetz, Katherine Hall and Haley BeMiller contributed to this report.

UPDATE: DePaul University released the 2012-2013 tuition rates Tuesday afternoon. According to a letter from the Office of Student Financial Accounts, the Board of Trustees set the rate for continuing students at 2.5 percent.

"DePaul University's Board of Trustees has set tuition rates for the 2012-2013 academic term to help you begin your financial planning for next year. Your tuition rate may change if you switch programs or colleges, take a class outside your college or if an undergraduate takes a graduate class.

Please note that for continuing undergraduate students, the tuition increase is 2.5 percent, which is less than the rate of inflation and one of the lowest rates of increase ever for continuing students. Graduate tuition increases for continuing students vary depending on the program in which you are enrolled. The tuition rates are set annually through a representative budgeting process. Representatives from the Student Government Association, faculty, staff and administration serve on the university's budget and tuition pricing committees."

"DePaul strives to keep tuition affordable through the smartest possible use of our investments, efficient allocation of institutional resources and aggressive fundraising for scholarships. In fact, raising money for scholarships is the top priority of the current fundraising campaign.  A DePaul education provides a tremendous value, and the investments DePaul makes to enhance academic excellence elevate the value of your degree."

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