11/23/2011 01:27 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

California's Public Colleges and Universities Fertile Ground for Protest

The declaration yesterday by University of California President Mark Yudof that he wants to devise "a system-wide response" to the Occupy Wall Street protests underscores their potential to take root on college campuses, and the challenges they would present to college administrators if they spread across the state.

Yudof's response has implications for how similar protests will be handled at California's other major university systems, the 22-campus California State University system and the 112-campus community college system.

The larger issue is that all three of California's public higher education systems present fertile ground for more protests along the lines of those that have drawn national attention at UC Berkeley and UC Davis.

The protests are likely to be driven by a potent combination of anger at fee increases that many students feel directly, the heavy burden of student loans many have accumulated, along with the bleak employment landscape they face when they graduate.

In many instances, students are likely to receive a good deal of support from faculty members who themselves have experienced the impact of budget cuts and, in the case of those with tenure, can speak out on behalf of student grievances without fear of losing their jobs.

Adding to the mix is the Legislative Analyst's Office report issued last week outlining the state's mounting budget deficit, which makes it highly likely there will be even more reductions in the budgets of all three systems of higher education in the months ahead.

Those looming cutbacks have the potential to further fuel campus anger at precisely the time that the Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading to locations across the state and country.

Even at this early stage, college campuses have become key flashpoints of protest.

While the use of pepper spray at point-blank range at UC Davis has drawn the most attention--and condemnation--pepper spray was also used in a protest at the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach last week. Demonstrators, who were far more aggressive than those at Davis, were protesting fee hikes and shattered a glass door leading to the meeting room.

A logistical problem is that most universities and college campuses cannot be sealed off, and keeping out roving Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and their portable tents will be especially challenging.

Traditionally, California's community colleges have been the sites of the least amount of activism, because many students attend part-time, are older, are working, and have families they must pay attention to. But this time the response may be more fervent because of the frustrations they feel in response to cancelled or oversubscribed classes, along with higher fees.

Yudof's strong statement with its not so hidden unhappiness with how protests have been handled on some UC campuses reflects the tensions between the ideal of allowing "free speech" in the context of peaceful protest and the real prospect of semi-permanent encampments emerging on their campuses.

Whether he and other university leaders will be able to achieve a balance between the two will be a matter of intense interest at not only UC campuses, but also at CSU campuses and the community colleges as well.

In his statement, Yudof went out of his way to say his intention was not to "micromanage" campus police forces or campus chancellors. "They are the leaders of our campuses and have my full trust and confidence," he said.

At the same time, he said, the "University of a single university with 10 campuses, and the incidents in recent days cry out for a system-wide response...I intend to do everything in my power as president of this university to protect the rights of our students, faculty, and staff to engage in non-violent protest."

Developing a unified response to campus protests will be far more challenging at CSU, with nearly two dozen campuses, and the community colleges, with over one hundred. That will be especially the case at community colleges because each has its own locally elected board of trustees, in addition to a statewide Board of Governors. In contrast, UC and CSU each has a single governing board appointed by the governor.

These events are playing out against the historical backdrop of the events of 1964 of which Yudof is no doubt well aware. One of Yudof's predecessors, then UC President Clark Kerr, barred on-campus recruiting and solicitation of funds for off-campus groups on the Berkeley campus. These actions triggered the Free Speech Movement, which in turn helped usher in the transformative student protest movement of the 1960s. The events that roiled the Berkeley campus for years eventually led to Kerr's firing in 1967 by the Board of Regents, at the urging of then-governor Ronald Reagan.

Yudof's affirmation yesterday of "free speech" as being in the "DNA of the university" was a direct reference to the legacy of those turbulent days.

What sets this era of protest apart is that those in charge of higher education in California are themselves vehement critics of the budget cuts which students are now protesting. Kerr, the architect of the three tiered public higher education system in California, presided over a period of massive investment and growth in higher education. By contrast, today's university leaders are trying to manage a precipitous disinvestment in public education at all levels in the state.