COVID-19 has affected our lives in ways that we never imagined yet there is a disproportionate response of where support should be given. Corporations like the University of California (UC) face a massive decision: further disadvantage groups most affected by the pandemic such as students and workers, or open their bulging endowment-purse strings to prevent all austerity measures and maintain the integrity of education at UC. According to research done by the union AFSCME 3299, the UC has upwards of $10 billion it can use in the short term to cover all COVID-19 related costs and to maintain a safe environment for its students and workers.
Yet, the UC never fails to disappoint us in the lack of care and concern they have for its community. From the UC spending $68 million, (double the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant amount UCSB received) on the Mauna Kea telescope project to leaving UCSB students living in IV to become indebted to the outrageous rents that landlords refused to waive, it seems the UC’s best interests are not its students and community. The CARES allocated $14 billion for institutions of higher education to combat the effects created by COVID-19; $12.6 billion was given to universities and colleges of which UCSB received $25,204,196. Yet the UC continues to stray away from its core values of integrity and accountability as it continues to fund and oversee a project which at its core is unethical in the midst of a pandemic and community need. The message is clear: the University of California is a system that does not respond to community needs regardless of its plentiful resources. We must come together as students and workers to ensure that we have access to a safe and quality education and that workers have a stable source of income.
Like any corporation during this pandemic, the UC constantly pushes the narrative of workers as heroes and has shown their performative gratitude that is predictably not translated behind the scenes. AFSCME 3299 is a union representing 27,000 service and patient care workers across each UC campus and hospital. These frontline workers or heroes, as the UC likes to call them, have been denied personal protective equipment (PPE) and will be the first to face massive layoffs. Already 300 workers have been laid off this past week due to “budget cuts,” most of them being people of color working in dining services. In addition, UC has threatened to cut $500,000 from undocumented student resource centers. This is a troubling warning considering the proposed 3,000 member layoffs, tuition hikes, increased class sizes, and cuts to student resources. This tale of artificial scarcity has unions like AFSCME 3299 questioning the $40 billion that this enterprise hoards. According to the union’s recent research presentation, the UC has over $5 billion in excess capital liquidity reserves, an additional $5.2 billion in unrestricted endowment funds, and they have already liquidated $2 billion in excess capital reserves.
The UC has over $10 billion readily available to support the campus community and still audaciously begs for the same corporate grant reliefs. AFSCME 3299 uses this information to say that while it fights for increased state funding for students and workers, the UC must make use of their endowment and reserves to avoid any and all austerity measures. These numbers simply do not add up to the narrative that the UC is taking a devastating hit under this pandemic nor does it warrant their begging for the same billionaire corporation tax breaks from the federal government. Yet this narrative has been intentionally used to justify not reducing the expensive tuition, campus costs, and fees in the shift to spring, summer, and fall online instructions. At the same time, they are still able to seamlessly invest $68 million into the Mauna Kea thirty-meter telescope project desecrating indigenous land.
UCSB currently lies on stolen Chumash land and unabashedly aims to extract more under the guise and leadership of the campus’ beloved Daddy Yang. Chancellor Yang is the chair of the thirty-meter telescope project in Mauna Kea, Hawaii with additional UC board members such as Michael Bolte, an astronomy professor at UC Santa Cruz, and Nathan Bolstrom, the chief financial officer of UCOP. This project proposes a thirty-meter telescope on the sacred mountain top of Mauna Kea for astronomy research. At the regents meeting in January, student organizers confronted Chancellor Yang on his involvement with the project but were met with cowardice and silence as Yang ran away unable to confront Mauna Kea community members gathered outside.
It is a shame that the UC continues to prioritize this project, while its students are facing economic hardships and the indigenous community at Mauna Kea faces genocide and the desecration of their land. As students at UCSB, we hold a great responsibility to pressure Chancellor Yang to renounce his position in the project because we will not support the continued violence against indigenous communities. Until then, students and workers will continue to face the direct effects of the UC’s neglect in their lives and in their ability to secure basic needs such as housing.
The needs of the campus community and Isla Vista community facing housing insecurity have been met with indifference while the UC has worked with leasing companies to actively gentrify the area. During this pandemic, it is evident that the needs of landlords in Isla Vista were prioritized over the needs of students. As students were urged to move out of campus housing, UC administration prioritized communication with landlords affirming that students moving out of campus dorms would have nowhere to go so they would be forced to rent their properties. This exposes the UC’s unwillingness to put forth the health and security of its students, while simultaneously empowering the slumlords of IV to abuse our community.
Many students, especially Black, indigenous, POC students, were trapped in IV facing high rent rates, a loss of income, or the possibility of returning home to unsafe situations. In an email addressed to students on March 23, just three days after landlords already forwarded UC communications, Chancellor Yang asked students to keep “our” community safe by going home. Not only did UCSB promise landlords in IV an excess supply of tenants by saying, “What you CAN do is try to find a replacement from the students who are moving out of the dorms but do not have anywhere to go until this situation settles down,” but they did so before even announcing remote instruction for the Spring quarter. Clearly students are not a part of Chancellor Yang’s essential community when only tiny portions of the $10 billion in accessible reserves could have been used to give lower-income students the agency needed to decide their Spring housing situation.
Ultimately, the UC has used this facade to justify the lay off of workers, increase in tuition, increase in class sizes, and cut funding for resource centers. It is shameless of them to expect that we wouldn’t do our research on how deep their pockets are. AFSCME 3299’s research shows that they have more than enough money readily available to avoid all of these austerity measures, but we are also aware that our well-being is not their priority.
Therefore, it is our duty to push the UC to meet the demands of the Union Coalition which include child care, pay continuation, deprivatizing student housing, and student debt forgiveness as well as to push for our own needs for reduced tuition, improving class sizes, access to counseling, and expanding resource centers. The first test of our strength comes now as the UC has declared its intention to lay off 3,000 workers systemwide. Now is not the time to minimize our demands, but much rather the moment we define the UC experience for the next several years.
Written by Ana Fabian Giron and Gabriella Silva Hernandez (United Student Labor Action Coalition organizers)