Columbia’s YDSA held a rally and press conference supporting their tuition strike on January 17. 

Last Sunday at 1 pm, the Columbia-Barnard chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) held a rally on campus supporting the tuition strike they are leading at Columbia—the largest of its kind in American history. According to the organizers, more than 4,000 students are expected to participate in the strike.

The tuition strike, which will go into effect on Sunday, January 24, is in protest of the University’s allocation of financial resources. By withholding their tuition payments, students hope to pressure Columbia’s administration into reducing the cost of attendance by at least 10%, increasing financial aid by at least 10%, replacing the “student responsibility” contribution to tuition with grants, and presenting full transparency in their investment reports. 

An hour before the rally, a press conference was held on Morningside Drive, directly in front of President Bollinger’s residence. Cameras captured the speeches of several candidates for City Council seats, including mayoral candidate Dianne Morales, New York City Council member Ben Kallos, and City Council District Seven candidate Maria Ordoñez (CC ’21). Students, politicians, and community members stood together, chanting slogans such as “education is not for sale” and holding signs with phrases like “the trustees have lost our trust” and “fund education not gentrification.” Christian Flores (CC ’22), one of the leaders of the tuition strike, noted that peer institutions Princeton and Georgetown have announced tuition reductions, linked the rising tuition costs to Columbia’s developments in Harlem, and emphasized that college is supposed to be a path toward upward socioeconomic mobility.

Other speakers included alumni of the University who had been involved in student justice campaigns during their undergraduate days, demonstrating their personal attachment to familiar movements like the tuition strike. Many speakers spoke of what Morales termed the “ivy imperialism” of the University’s expansion in Harlem, and how they have been personally affected by it. City Council candidate Arthur Schwartz recalled protests in the ‘70s against the University’s attempt to raise tuition from $1,000 to $5,000. Many others noted that they continued to struggle with student debt many years after they had graduated, making it clear that the issue was personal to them. 

A group of students then marched from the press conference to meet other protesters gathered in front of the Alma Mater statue. Observing social distancing, students stood six feet apart on the steps of Low Library, chanting “this is what solidarity looks like!” and “education is not for sale!”

The speakers at the rally included both undergraduate students Ordoñez and Will Morris (CC ’21) as well as graduate students Ludda Ludwig (GSAS) and Steve Lazickas (SIPA ‘21).

All of the speakers emphasized the need for collective student action to pressure the University into taking real action, rather than, as Lazickas phrased it, “2,000-word emails that say nothing.” They noted that the University will not take action to change without significant pressure from students and workers, whom Ludwig called the “moral compass of the University.” 

The organizers also connected the demands of the tuition strike to other issues they would like the Columbia administration to address, such as divestment from the fossil fuel industry, divestment from companies that profit from certain actions of the Israeli government towards Palestine, and the Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers’ demands for recognition of all student workers and protections for international students. They also emphasized the issue of the expansion of the Manhattanville campus being prioritized over financial relief for students. For instance, the strikers repeatedly mentioned the injustice of conditions that jeopardized students’ living conditions, even forcing some to rely on food pantries for meals. 

At the rally, some Columbia administrators passed out statements from Columbia on the tuition strike, defending the University’s actions. One administrator approached a Bwog Staff Writer and offered a copy of the statement, which is provided at the end of the article. This administrator claimed that “barely anyone” lived in the Manhattanville campus before Columbia developed it, and that the University itself did not use eminent domain to acquire the land. This statement is technically true, as New York State used eminent domain to seize the land, not the University itself. Columbia University was then transferred the property rights for further development. The University has already made some concessions to the demands that YDSA has laid out. Columbia has dropped late fees for the spring semester, promised to increase spring financial aid, and agreed to give grants to students in the School of General Studies to take summer classes, which they were previously ineligible for. However, the organizers made it clear that the strike will continue until their other demands are met.

Bwog has reached out to Columbia Communications, which has yet to provide a statement, but this article will be updated if they chose to do so.

The Columbia University Response to the YDSA Student Rally Statement:

We are focused on protecting the health and safety of our community, educating our students using the most creative and flexible formats available, and continuing the scientific and other research needed to overcome society’s urgent challenges. Now the nation is confronting not only an overwhelming public health crisis, but also a reckoning with long unresolved structural racism, and a test for American democracy with few parallels in our history. This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students. Their voices are heard by Columbia’s leadership, and their views on strengthening the University are welcomed.

Alma via Bwog Archives