They predicted rain, but the sun shone through hazy skies last Wednesday at the School of the Arts protest at Columbia University. I had never been to a protest before. I was angry—I am angry—at President Lee Bollinger for his utter lack of support of the School of the Arts despite his pledge at his inauguration to make us a priority, but, due to my general fear of all types of social events, the idea of a protest made me nervous.
What does a person do at a protest? What if I have to beat a drum and my lack of rhythm throws everyone off? If no one shows up? If we run out of chants? I tend to be more of a letter-writing type.
It turns out I did beat a drum. I didn’t have a noisemaker, and I didn’t have a sign, so like every other person in my position, I grabbed an empty blue water cooler jug from the Writing Division office and carted it out to the sundial in the middle of the cobblestone Campus Walk. It was 1pm. All four divisions of the School of the Arts, Visual Arts, Writing, Theater and Film, gathered and grew. Andy Mannle, a fellow writing student, donned a full-body black and white cow suit. The cow, a symbol for the School of the Arts, was named Cash Cow since the School of the Arts rakes in millions of dollars annually for the university, yet has to apply to the university to use even 50% of that amount.
Paper and markers and masking tape were distributed, and each of us taped signs to our bodies declaring our Columbia-induced debt. My sign said $86,000. I tended to complain a lot about money issues, but for the first time, I saw this number reflected all around me. Many other students had the same amount of debt. Some of them had more. Last year’s graduating class alone walked away with $9.6 million in debt.
Chi Wright, the central organizer of the protest, took the mic. Amplifiers stood on either side of him. The chanting began.
“What do we want?” Chi yelled.
“More tuition!” three people yelled.
“When do we want it?”
More tuition? The main item we were protesting was tuition cost, which is expected to rise to nearly $40,000 annually in the next three years, making Columbia the most expensive Arts program in the world. The whole point of the protest was to make tuition more affordable for students. I must have misheard. But Chi changed his chant before I could get it right.
“Arts elite…” Chi began.
“Cannot eat!” a handful of students replied. No one beat their water drum. Signs were slung carelessly over one shoulder. I prayed things would pick up soon.
Across campus, a lively graduate worker strike was taking place. Mostly consisting of graduate instructors, the students had been on strike all week because they were meeting opposition to unionizing. Despite the graduate assistants’ generous endorsement of our protest, I supported them but had a hard time feeling very sorry for them. Many were Ph.D. students, and while many Ph.D. students have the opportunity to teach in the University Writing Program at Columbia, the same appointments are rare in the School of the Arts—the Director of the Undergraduate Writing Program is authorized to give only 7 teaching positions to M.F.A. Writing students. Over 90 students applied this year. While every student who receives a teaching appointment is qualified, many students feel that getting a teaching appointment is like winning the Lottery. Not only do you receive complete tuition remission, you get a stipend of $18,000 a year just for teaching one class. With tuition at nearly $32,000, it’s like being paid $50,000 just to teach one class.
The fact that the vast majority of Ph.D. students receives this shower of money and experience while only a small percentage of M.F.A. students receives the same makes no sense to me. An M.F.A. is a terminal degree, just like a Ph.D. Like Ph.D. students, many M.F.A. students go on to teach. M.F.A. students produce quality work that is as valuable to the intellectual community as that of the Ph.D. students, and it is often more accessible. While the university squeezes more research out of Ph.D. students, it also uses the high publication rate of M.F.A. Writing Division students to attract more prospective students (a.k.a. more cash) and pad its reputation for being one of the greatest writing schools. At the very least, an M.F.A. student deserves the same respect and consideration as a Ph.D. student. This is absolutely not the case. What’s worse, the School of the Arts put forth a request for 25%-75% need-based fellowships—not full tuition remission like many Ph.D. students receive—and even that was rejected.
The graduate assistants were making more noise than us. Our group was growing larger but wasn’t as big as I had hoped. Chi was still yelling away on the microphone.
“What do we want?”
Lowr tuition, not more tuition.
When do we want it? “NOW!” the same handful of students yelled.
I couldn’t handle it anymore. I wedged my drum tightly under my arm and began banging away. The blue plastic vibrated against my body.
“What do we want?” Chi screamed.
“Lowr tuition,” I yelled.
“When do we want it?”
“Yell, yell, yell,” I yelled at my fellow students, who I must say were very fashionably dressed, as always, despite their sudden status as mutes.
I was beginning to panic when, miraculously, the din of the graduate assistants across campus rose. They dramatically marched towards us toting their “Union Now” signs. They slithered down the steps of Low Library, a solid, imposing, noisy mass. The graduate assistants, those magnificent bastards, most of whom had won Columbia’s version of the Lottery, were coming over to join us, to support us. They cared about us. They were organized and large and angry. They had whistles. We didn’t have whistles. Plus, I noticed, looking around, many more School of the Arts students had trickled in. Most of our faculty was present. Richard Locke, the director of the nonfiction writing concentration, had his fingers pressed to his ears and looked generally very uncomfortable. But he was here. Our group was growing. The protest was taking a turn for the better. I banged on my drum, no longer caring about my lack of rhythm.
Chi read an angry letter to the President. Cash Cow got up and gave a rousing speech, which included mooing. Chi resumed the stage and asked for students to share their personal experiences. A couple of seconds of awkward silence passed. Then a girl I didn’t know took the stage. She was an international student in the School of the Arts. International students can’t file for federal aid and they have a very difficult time getting cosigners for the enormous private loans they must take out. She had put her mother’s house up for collateral to attend the School of the Arts. Sasha, another international student from my division, spoke of nearly deciding to drop out because the exchange rate in her country, Trinidad, makes her debt six times more costly.
I looked at Low Library, that imposing building with the dome I had only known from the movie Spiderman before I came to Columbia. President Bollinger’s office was in that building. I looked around at my classmates. We all had stories. Nearly all of us had made huge sacrifices to be at Columbia, and, as artists, we had a bleak financial future to look forward to. Throughout school, both as an undergraduate and at Columbia, I’ve worked anywhere from two to four jobs to support myself. I am getting tired, but when I leave this school in May, I will still have a mountain of debt to face. How could President Bollinger not respond to us? I half-expected the doors of Low to burst open, for Bollinger to rush down the steps, through the crowd, up to the microphone. “I hear you,” I wanted him to say, “and I will do something to help you.”
President Bollinger, of course, did not rush down the steps to embrace us. And I, a person who generally shies away from the center of things, walked onto the stage and faced my classmates. They cheered for me. I leaned towards the microphone. In a shrill, wobbily voice, I told President Bollinger that I was pregnant, that my Columbia debt would have an impact on my new family, that rich people aren’t the only people who deserve to study the arts. I wasn’t very profound, and Bollinger didn’t burst through any doors. But I’d like to think that he heard me.
The protest lasted until 3pm. By then I was sweaty and dehydrated. My throat hurt from chanting. I had lost my Vitamin Water. Since we had not been alLowd to hold our protest on the steps of Low, Chi suggested we spend our last ten minutes there. “Let’s make some noise!” he said, the way any good protest leader might. I grabbed my drum. We walked as one to the steps of Low and filled one quarter of the façade. “We are not your cash cow,” we chanted, to a conga beat. And as we stood in the sun, sweaty, smiling, determined, I found myself banging my drum on beat, discovering the rhythm. A man lit up a cigarette in between chants and blew smoke into my face. I held my breath, looked for pockets of clean air, and kept screaming. This was something I believed in.