Clovis News

Fresno State students getting political

Since last fall, frustrated Fresno State students have holed up overnight in the library, marched by the hundreds through campus and invited themselves to the president's house for study hall.

The demonstrations, borne of budget cuts, stirred memories of the 1960s and 1970s, when the campus simmered with anti-war and civil rights protests. While nothing now approaches that volatility, many say today's student activism -- fueled mainly by class cutbacks and soaring fees -- is the most ambitious in decades.

"It's remarkable," said Lisa Weston, an English professor and president of the faculty union. "For many, many years, students on campus have been very quiet."

Echoing that was Matt Ford, one of about 80 students who camped out at the library in November to protest its limited hours.

"People say, 'I've been teaching here for 20 years and I've never seen anything like this -- and it's about time,' " he said.

Students have publicly debated President John Welty, rallied to complain about skyrocketing fees and a lack of democratic decision-making and showed up on the president's doorstep to study on a Saturday -- when the library was closed. E-mail, social-networking sites, YouTube videos and even low-tech paper leaflets advertised everything from sit-ins to rallies.

The protests illustrate a larger trend. Students throughout the California State University and University of California systems -- sometimes aided by sympathetic professors and campus unions -- have marched, rallied and occupied buildings.

CSU's faculty union has helped publicize and even joined in some events. But Lillian Taiz, a history professor at CSU Los Angeles who heads the California Faculty Association, said students are making their own decisions.

She praised their initiative, calling it "critical for an educational experience that you learn how to stand up for yourself."

Today's students "are learning to apply what they've learned to their own experience," she said.

Statewide, the most extensively coordinated demonstrations are expected today when representatives from all levels of public education protest budget cuts. Local "Day of Action" events include early morning pickets at Fresno High and other schools, a march from Blackstone and Shaw avenues to Fresno State and a rally at the university.

At Fresno State, some say recent protests represent the most consistent wave of student activism in nearly half a century.

Back then, students opposed to the Vietnam War hung President Richard Nixon in effigy. Demonstrations erupted when word spread that several black and Chicano professors were fired. One student was convicted of arson after the university's $1 million computer center was firebombed.

Nat DiBuduo, who graduated in 1972 and now is president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno, remembers protesters breaking windows as they ran through campus, a student blockade that closed Shaw Avenue and multiple bomb scares.

Though many protests were peaceful, "there was a violent side to what was going on back then," said DiBuduo, a conservative who served in student government and tried to calm some disputes.

In contrast, this year's protests featured some raw language and pointed questions -- but little conflict beyond that. Students at the library study-in cleaned up before they left; activists brought in pizza after one rally.

Statewide, some demonstrations have been marred by violence or clashes with authorities. Last week, protesters at UC Berkeley broke into a building, torched trash cans, smashed windows and threw rocks and bottles at police. In December, a dozen students at San Francisco State University were arrested for trespass after barricading themselves inside a classroom building.

Last week, the CSU faculty union issued a statement of nonviolence reiterating the power of peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

Leaders have praised students for acting within that framework in drawing attention to the financial plight of higher education.

The 23-campus CSU was hit by a $560 million funding shortfall this year. The ripple effects of that loss -- class cuts, layoffs, employee furloughs and higher student fees, for example -- spawned the student protests.

At Fresno State, different students and organizations have sponsored demonstrations drawing anywhere from a dozen to several hundred students.

Some groups, such as Students for Quality Education, have visible leaders and members. Others are loose-knit and even anonymous -- such as the publishers of the recent e-mail newspaper "The Student" that criticized campus and CSU administrators.

Mayra Miranda, a representative of Students for Quality Education, said she was moved to protest after budget cuts eliminated several of her fall classes.

"I channeled that into becoming more active," said Miranda, who helped lead a protest march and walkout in October that drew roughly 400 students.

Weston, president of the faculty union, was surprised at that turnout.

"The number of students marching blew me away," she said. "I've never seen that many -- not even at graduation."

Welty said the campus this year has been the most politically active since he became president in 1991. Students involved in the protests generally have acted responsibly and "have not tried to disrupt the activities of the university or stop others from going to class," he added.

While Welty wondered about the effectiveness of some protests -- the library sit-in, for example -- he said students have drawn attention to CSU's financial problems.

Taiz and others say protests may have helped influence the governor's budget proposal, which would provide $60.6 million for enrollment growth and restore $305 million to CSU next year. No final decision is expected for months.

Fresno State student Mitchell Canizalez, 20, of Madera said he believes state lawmakers "are definitely taking notice because of the protests and all the activism."

Several students say protests will continue. Ford, a senior from Tulare, said many won't wait quietly while others make decisions about their education.

"Personally and morally, I just can't sit by and not do anything," he said.

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