Pennsylvania Student Power Network stands up to PASSHE administration in Harrisburg

Photo credit: Sean Kitchen, Raging Chicken Press

On Tuesday morning, PASSHE students, faculty and their allies rallied at the Dixon University Center in Harrisburg. Their mission: “take back” the state system from administrators who don’t understand the concerns of educators and the economic struggles students face, from trying to survive working low-wage campus jobs to graduating with massive student loan debt.

Almost half of about 15 people who rallied were not PASSHE faculty or students. Christina Chang was there representing Workers United, a subdivision of SEIU that represents many of the subcontracted low-wage food service employees who work within the state system. Lindsey Mauldin, a statewide field director for Planned Parenthood, wanted to show that organization’s solidarity with PASSHE students and faculty. “There cannot be reproductive justice without economic justice,” she said to the crowd.

Their demands

The students and one faculty member who came out to demonstrate on the gray and rainy day represented three PASSHE schools: West Chester, Kutztown and Shippensburg. None of these three schools have yet been given notice of retrenchment this year, but five other schools have.

In addition to the threat of retrenchment is the possibility that administrators will choose to merge some of the 14 PASSHE universities, closing those with the most sharply declining enrollment. This has already been done in Georgia, which in recent years has turned 14 state schools into just seven.

The students expressed a set of three firm demands for the administration: a living wage for all student and campus workers of $15/hour, a freeze on tuition and fees, and no retrenchment of PASSHE faculty. Their intention was to rally and then march to Chancellor Frank Brogan’s office, handing over a laminated statement of their demands.

Where was Brogan?

The PASSHE chancellor, said PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall, was down at the Capitol lobbying legislators to give the state system a bigger funding increase next year. It still has not been restored to pre-recession levels, Marshall lamented. Of the roughly $90 million cut when the recession hit in 2008, only about $30 million has been restored, and Wolf proposes to add only $9 million more to the state system’s allocation for next year.

When the students and their allies crowded into the lobby of one of the University Center’s buildings for a direct confrontation with Marshall, he defended their claims of injustice and administrative selfishness by passing the responsibility to the state and federal government. Most of those poverty-wage student campus jobs, he said, are paid for by allocations from the federal government. And the hikes in tuition and fees are due to rising costs and cuts in state funding.

The students and their supporters weren’t buying this.

Speaking up

Nahje Royster, a sophomore at West Chester, served as one of the main speakers. She focused on the demand to raise the wage for student workers, describing the agony of seeing friends with campus jobs struggle with the stress of trying to feed themselves and pay rent on a tiny budget, with academic responsibilities heaped on top. “You need $15 an hour just to have enough money to live,” she said, adding, “I don’t think this is something we should have to stand up and debate, but here we are.”

Royster talked about what she understands as the university system’s essential theft of students’ freedom. Students, she explained, are trapped in a system in which even if they work full-time they can’t make enough to live on, yet they are forced to pay skyrocketing tuition and fees, expensive textbooks, and high housing and meal-plan costs. Royster urged Marshall to empathize with the struggling students, who with their tuition, she pointed out, pay the comfortable salaries of administrators like him.

Standing with their classmates

Both Casey Tobias, a junior at West Chester, and Jeremy Griffin, a junior at Kutztown, said that they don’t have campus jobs but feel for friends that do.

Griffin, who said his main concern was the need for a tuition freeze before costs become even less affordable, said with irritation that his friends who work for Kutztown are getting paid nothing.

“It’s candy-bar money, that’s what I call it,” he joked.

Tobias said, “Personally I’m not a student worker, but as someone in a position of privilege, it’s important for me to stand with student workers. (How they are paid) doesn’t ethically, morally add up. They can say we don’t have enough funding, and I believe that’s true. But I don’t think the way to solve it is low wages and retrenchment.”


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