You may know me. I am “the Occupy dude.” I receive your quizzical stares every day. The two questions I face most often during my occupation of Fred Hampton (a.k.a. Meyer) Library are “Is Occupy still going on?” and “Are you a Stanford student?” Despite having successfully Occupied the Future in December, there seems to be a sense of disbelief that Stanford students would actually Occupy or call themselves Occupiers (What are we, Kal?). To answer your questions: I graduated in the spring, and Occupy will continue as long as structural economic inequality is in place. And yes, we are actually protesting something. Over the past two months, we have spent our time organizing around the nationwide March 1 Day of Action to support public education and specifically, to protest Governor Jerry Brown’s continued cuts to public education in the midst of prohibitively rising tuition costs for UCs, CSUs and community colleges and to support the proposed tax on millionaires and the oil tax, both of which would go toward funding education. Although Stanford is a private university, the struggle to fund public education is an issue that bears direct relevance to this campus.
This month, all Stanford alumni received an email from President Hennessy crowing about the billions of dollars that this University just raised to prepare Stanford for the future. While public institutions face cuts that may threaten their future, Stanford’s looks secure (What’s the problem? We got ours, right?). However, this disparity is not something worth celebrating. This disparity is the educational manifestation of the regressive redistribution of wealth that has taken place over the past few decades. When coupled with rising tuition and the increasing burden of a system of debt-financed education, this disparity threatens to form a permanent gulf in the state of California over the access to higher education.
It is still a matter of debate as to whether access to higher education is indeed a human right, but what is not open for debate is whether it is a public necessity for a free and functioning society. As a private institution, Stanfordcharged itself in its founding grant with the task of “promoting the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization,” and that is a noble mission. California’s system of public institutions is the public welfare. They are the ones who are faced with the real task with educating the populace of California, not just 13,000 of its “elite.”
I sometimes hear from Occupy activists that Stanford doesn’t belong in the Occupy movement because it’s an institution of the future 1 percent. They want to know why any of us would have a problem with structural inequality when we’re the ones who benefit from it. I do not believe this, though. If we are a place of privilege, then those privileges should compel us into greater action, not guilt us into inaction. If we really are leaders in the field of education, if we really are a model educational institution, then we have a higher obligation than anyone else to defend education when it is threatened.
I know that Stanford students don’t really like to make a scene and find protests ineffective. They prefer white papers from consulting firms or campaigns for public office, but this emphasis on solutions first can sometimes approach the myopic. Instead, think about what it would mean if Stanford didn’t have a presence at a nationwide day of action for public education, if we don’t add our voice to the voice of all the other great educational institutions making themselves heard in the Bay Area and nationwide.
The Occupy movement does not claim to be saviors of public education. We are here to provide a space for discussion as much to advocate for any one specific issue. This upcoming decade, I believe, will be a crucial time in the history of this country and the world. The fate of education will go a long way toward informing that history. I would hope that even in week eight of the quarter, Stanford students are able to find time to stand up for what they believe in. You know where to find us.
Peter McDonald ’11
Occupier of Meyer Library