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March 31 2004 12:00 AM

Professors recalls six-month student protest

On a Wednesday afternoon, between classes, 10 students met at San Diego State's student center to discuss plans for a student walkout on Monday, April 26. Calling themselves the San Diego Budget Coalition, the students, mostly Latino, are part of a larger group comprising students from UC San Diego, San Diego City College and Cal State San Marcos. This was their second meeting and they were discussing how to best “sell” participation in the rally, which will be held downtown at the Governor's San Diego office.

“Why should people go?” facilitator Jarad Sanchez pressed the group.

Christina RuizGoldberg, president of SDSU's MEChA chapter, sat to Sanchez's right. “[The message] needs to be short, concise, to the point and motivating,” she said, “getting students to see [budget cuts] will affect them.”

The group set a goal: get 50 students from SDSU to attend the rally—50 students out of a campus of 30,000. “In an ideal world we'd get 20,000,” said Sanchez. “What I see on campus is a lot of apathy. Those of us who are involved generally have a little more free time. Students affected [by the cuts] generally work,” he added.

“Until it really hits and is real, when class sections start disappearing and people can't get classes, I think you're going to see a larger number of people involved,” said SDSU sociology professor Jim Wood.

On the wall in Wood's office is a photo collage honoring him for his involvement in protesting the 1991-92 budget cuts, which Wood said were proportionately similar to what California public higher ed is facing this time around. In 1992, students at SDSU organized what became known as “the Vigil,”—two-dozen students camped out in front of the campus administration building for six months and hundreds of others organized protests to bolster those students' efforts. Wood has detailed the Vigil's history in a book on student activism.

The Vigil began with sociology undergrad Deborah Katz, who, at a rally on May 15, 1992, announced that she planned to camp outside the campus administration building for 120 days straight to protest budget cuts. That promise of 120 days stretched into six months. Among the demands of the Vigil were that the administration rehire laid-off faculty and keep its hands off nine academic departments slated to be cut. The Vigil also demanded the resignation of SDSU President Thomas Day.

The photo collage in Wood's office includes a snapshot of campus graffiti depicting the “three little pigs”-the first President George Bush, Gov. Pete Wilson and Day. There's a rendering of Day with his head in a guillotine and a series of skulls representing the nine departments slated for extinction. One photo of students walking past a wall emblazoned with “Cuts suck” made its way into U.S. News and World Report.

“SDSU became the most politically active campus in the country, resembling a campus of the 1960s instead of the more conventional 1990s,” writes Wood. Wood, in fact, argues that the Vigil was more effective than the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in that “it acted to protect the university rather than to challenge it.”

Ultimately, the Vigil achieved most of its goals: the CSU Board of Trustees rescinded faculty layoffs and saved departments slated for elimination. Day's forced resignation came a couple years later, but Wood attributes the Vigil for setting that in motion.

The 10 students who gathered last week are, historically, in good company. Hopefully, though, their peers will realize, as they do, that a preemptive challenge to Schwarzenegger's proposed cuts could likely save many of the state's students lots of worry this fall.


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