In December, Bwog spoke with CU Tuition Strike about their demands and aspirations. After deciding not to strike in January, organizers maintain their hopes for change.

Planning For A Strike

Tensions continue to rise between pro-Palestine student groups and the Columbia University administration. Amongst continued protests, the Barnard-Columbia Abolition Collective (BCAC), Student-Worker Solidarity (SWS), and Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America Divestment (YDSA) announced their joint organization of a Spring 2024 University-wide tuition strike this past December. Organizers hoped to pressure the University to come to the negotiating table to discuss their central demands, which include cutting ties with pro-Israel trustees, divestment from companies supporting Israel, and the cancellation of the University’s new Global Center in Tel Aviv.

Since mid-October, protests have mounted across campus as a response to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. When Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and BC/CU Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) were suspended in November for violation of University policies, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a coalition of over 80 student organizations, reactivated after seven years of inactivity. Since then, CUAD has organized campus protests that have captured the attention of the wider student body, administration, and national media. 

During their December 12 Town Hall, YDSA student organizers of the Tuition Strike elaborated on the purpose of striking and the reasoning behind withholding tuition, as opposed to other methods of protest. At the meeting, organizers claimed that Columbia is more financially reliant on students’ tuition payments relative to its peer institutions due to its smaller endowment. Therefore, they reasoned that if a significant portion of the student body decided to withhold their tuition payments, an effective financial roadblock would be imposed on the University. “They’re not going to listen to what we’re asking for until we force their hand, and the way to do that is by targeting their money,” said Hannah, one of CU Tuition Strike’s core organizers who preferred to go by her first name.

According to the Columbia YDSA, organizers planned to officially announce the strike and present their demands to the University administration if at least 1,000 students, around 10% of the tuition paying student body, pledged to strike by January 26, the spring tuition payment deadline. The organizers framed the tuition strike as a “low risk, high reward” action, as the administration is unable to tell whether a student is withholding tuition as a part of a strike or for other personal reasons. 

Furthermore, CU Tuition Strike organizers described Columbia’s punitive measures against those who delay their tuition payments. The University imposes a $150 flat fee and a fine of 1.5% of the total tuition bill for each month the payment is delayed, measures which organizers anticipated offsetting due to the support of a mutual fund. CU Tuition Strike did not ask Barnard students to strike due to higher consequences imposed by the College, such as the loss of housing or disenrollment.

At the December 12 town hall, organizers explained that if the benchmark of 1,000 pledges to strike was not met, they would hold a secondary vote among the pledging students to decide whether or not to proceed with the strike. As of December 26, exactly one month before the Spring tuition deadline, the YDSA and BCAC announced that 347 students had pledged to strike and 1,201 individuals had pledged to withhold donations after graduation. 

Reflections on the 2021 Tuition Strike

Hannah told Bwog that organizers of the Spring 2024 strike had been in conversation with organizers of the Spring 2021 tuition strike, in which the Columbia-Barnard YSDA chapter was a central actor. The previous strike’s aim was to pressure the University to lower tuition and increase financial aid, each by 10%, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent virtual classes. At the time, YDSA also outlined a range of other demands, including divestment from fossil fuels and channeling University resources to aid communities in West Harlem. Although the University did not meet all of the strike’s demands, it reportedly froze tuition, increased financial aid, and suspended late fees. In January 2021, Columbia announced it would cease investment in publicly traded oil and gas corporations.

Reflecting on conversations with the 2021 tuition strike organizers, Hannah told Bwog that it’s “better to have a more concise, smaller list of demands.” Although the tuition freeze occurred, the previous strike “had demands from SWC [Student Workers of Columbia] and… the West African Diaspora at the time,” Hannah said. “It also had a bunch of demands about tuition reduction and financial aid.” Ultimately, CU Tuition Strike organizers told Bwog that they felt “optimistic that the strike will achieve more of the demands than [the Spring 2021 tuition strike] did.”

In the Spring 2021 tuition strike, YDSA called for a “divestment from companies involved in human rights violations in Palestine,” which became a central demand for the Spring 2024 one. Strike organizers have historically called for University-wide referendums on the issue of whether Columbia should divest from companies profiting from their ties to Israel. In 2020, a referendum was held and passed amongst the students of Columbia College, recommending that the University divest from ties to Israel. However, the recommendation was ultimately not accepted by University administration. 

In a statement released soon after, then-President Lee Bollinger wrote, “The University should not change its investment policies on the basis of particular views about a complex policy issue, especially when there is no consensus across the University community about that issue.” He concluded his statement saying that, “altering our endowment in order to advance the interests of one side is not among the paths we will take.” 

CU Tuition Strike’s most recent list of demands read, “If a majority of students vote in favor of divestment, Columbia will immediately divest from all companies profiting from or otherwise supporting Israeli apartheid.” 

The Central Demands

Organizers of the 2024 strike advocated for two critical changes in the referendum process this time around. First, they called for the 2024 referendum to be binding. Whatever the student body votes will be what happens. We can’t have presidents unilaterally overturning the entire student body,” remarked Hannah. 

CU Tuition Strike organizers also suggested a structural adjustment in which all colleges and graduate schools within the University can vote in the referendum. Currently, there is no mechanism for a University-wide referendum to be held. Hannah stated that reforming the referendum process is to “ensure democratic decision-making, allowing the student body from all across the University to have a say in what our University is doing with its money and by extension, the money that we’re putting into it.” 

The strike organizers also advocated for an “immediate release of financial information and data related to Columbia’s investments for the last 10 years,” according to the published list of demands. They subsequently called for Columbia to increase its transparency regarding the relationship between the University’s Public Safety department and the NYPD. This demand follows heavy police presence at many pro-Palestine protests on campus since October. In a statement on November 20, Sarah Gillman, Senior Vice President for Strategic Finance and Operations at Barnard College, said the heavy police presence and restricted public access to campus during recent protests has been a “cautionary step [that] acknowledges the reality that our campus is in the City of New York, and [that] people may come to our campus without necessarily sharing our values to maintain safety, free expression, and a sense of community.”

Nonetheless, student leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with the University’s decision to partner with the NYPD to police campus demonstrations. The list of demands does not call for a concrete action for the University to take regarding its relationship with NYPD. Rather, it calls for heightened transparency. “The most jarring thing about our research is how little we actually know,” stated Hannah. “There’s no transparent public information about what [the University’s] relationship with the NYPD is… we didn’t really have enough information to make a coherent demand.” She further mentioned that CU Tuition Strike organizers want more transparency from the University regarding “what their [Columbia Public Safety] budget looks like, what their policies are, and what their relationship with the Police Department is.”

Within the demands of the strike, Hannah and her co-organizers called for immediate cessation of NYPD’s presence on campus. “Every time NYPD or Public Safety has rushed over it’s only been an escalating action,” she said. She attested that individuals trained in de-escalation techniques are present during protests, a process she stated organizers have found fruitful. Part of the demand from student groups, Hannah claimed, is for the NYPD and Public Safety to “essentially play no role” during campus demonstrations.

The Future of the Strike 

On January 22, the organizers published an official Instagram statement saying that they would not move forward with the strike based on the results of a vote between those who pledged. Although students are no longer asked to strike, organizers say that they will “continue to collect pledges to withhold future donations to the University” and “plan further around the demands of the tuition strike,” according to their statement. 

CU Tuition Strike organizers told Bwog that about 500 people filled out the strike form at the time of the vote, 300 of which planned to strike. The remaining 200 had already paid tuition, were unable to strike, or were unresponsive. As of Thursday, 1,282 individuals have pledged to withhold donations to the University. 

“Burnout is something I’ve definitely had to deal with,” Hannah told Bwog in December, referring to past organizing efforts. “But I think [because of] the urgency of this issue, the universality of it, people are not willing to burn out.” 

As students and faculty continue to hold protests on campus, the sentiments that led to the organization of the tuition strike remain present on campus. Hannah believes the enthusiasm for the cause is “something that people are not going to forget.”

Campus via Bwog Archives