Students’ Union Movement Grows at American University
|October 10, 2012||Posted by Kathryn Seidewitz under News|
The Coalition of American University Students (CAUS) is capitalizing on outrage over rising tuition rates to create structures that engage students and give them a voice on the AU campus.
It is a warm, late-September Sunday and CAUS, the Coalition of American University Students, has just elected its first three student delegates: sophomores Sophie Miyoshi and Caiden Elmer, and senior Nick Papacostas. As the meeting is adjourned, people shuffle off to flyer for their next awareness-raising event, a pancake dinner.
CAUS, an AU students’ movement to form a student union, got its start with unofficial organizer meetings in early January 2012. Now, at the beginning of the new school year, CAUS is steadily drumming up support on campus.
The aim of the students’ union movement is to give students a voice on campus. CAUS seeks to capitalize on outrage over rising tuition rates–-AU is set for a 30 percent hike in five years–and create structures that will engage students. “Our [existing] student government alienates pretty much all of campus,” says senior Chris Litchfield. “We [want to give] everyone a place to speak and the ability to make a decision; decisions truly represent everyone democratically.”
The AU student government, comprised of thirty senators and four paid executives – a president, vice-president, secretary, and comptroller – has little power. Their duties tend to consist of events planning. Their funding and support comes from the administration, which has the final say on all decisions. Only fifty percent of senatorial spots are filled. Though there is no official information on voter turnout, Jon Dell Isola, one of the few freshmen in CAUS, says that participation is low.
“[Student government] doesn’t [even] have the ultimate say,” Jon explains. “There’s the reason CAUS should exist. If student government doesn’t have power, what is the point?”
CAUS is focused on local issues, but the movement has international roots. Red felt squares, pinned to the chest of CAUS supporters, have become a ubiquitous symbol on campus. Organizers appropriated the symbolic red squares from the Québec student movement, who first used them in a 2005 student strike, and again in 2012 during a student strike of historic sizes. The red squares are not the only inspiration AU student organizers draw from Québec. As the small cohort of undergrads began to organize on the AU campus, hundreds of thousands of students in Québec were simultaneously using established student unions to vote to go on strike against tuition hikes in the province.
In late September, after six months of striking and a provincial election, the Québecois tuition hikes were reversed by the government. Activists around the world rejoiced at the success. The mass mobilizations, and their victory, gave AU students hope. They saw the power of student unions from their northern neighbors and now, with CAUS, are attempting to replicate it in their own university.
“I started to think about what made the student organizing in Montréal different from the student organizing here or the student government here,” says Chris. “It was the involvement. It was the way that students were directly engaged in the decision making process. Being in on a meeting and having a vote in a meeting is very powerful.” Those votes in Québec translated into strikes and demonstrations with sheer numbers that effectively lobbied the administration by themselves.
Many CAUS organizers were also involved in Occupy AU last year, and meetings are reminiscent of Occupy DC assemblies, using near-consensus based structures with facilitators and spokes councils. CAUS assemblies – small and loosely structured held in a small corner of the university center – are a stark contrast to the orderly, large, and rigidly structured general assemblies held in Québec. CAUS place a larger emphasis on consensus. Their constitution, an 800-word document, requires a 2/3 majority for most decisions and allows for recalls of elected positions with only a 1/3 vote.
Every aspect of CAUS is designed to engage students on an egalitarian basis, as well as promote decision-making that is collective, not individual. Their statement of purpose emphasizes the importance of a student voice in the decision-making process. “As students, we are inherently invested in the decisions made by the university,” the statement reads. “As they affect not only our daily lives but also the value of our education. We also each have insight that administrators, or even our fellow students, don’t have: experiences which are incredibly valuable for bettering university policy.”
“We think students having a say in our university, and faculty having a say in our university – an actual place in the decision making process, not just a footnote – runs antithetical to the corporatization of the university,” Chris explains. “It runs antithetical to the idea that we are just here as people being shuffled off into jobs. Our goal is to give people a way to have their opinions matter. That’s going to change so much about the university.”
“Our goal isn’t to radicalize,” adds Gray Leonard, another of the handful of freshman. “But it should be encouraged. It is inherent in the structure we have. It is inherent in direct democracy and consensus voting.”
“I think it is bigger than just campus activism,” Sophia says. “When they have a voice, they’ll feel much more powerful. They’ll feel if they can change things on campus, they’ll realize what they can do off-campus.”
CAUS’s first meeting attracted forty people. A petition they’ve been passing around to freeze tuition has over 1200 signatures. For American University, a campus of over 6,000, these are admittedly small numbers. But the year has just begun and participation numbers have been steadily rising. With a massive tuition increase on the horizon, organizers are hopeful.
September’s pancake dinner brought out over 150 people to the basement of the Kay Spiritual Life Center – so many that organizers ran out of pancakes. A group of sophomores who bashfully admitted they’d turned up only for the food were impressed after the new student delegates gave their short speeches. In less than five minutes Sophie, Caiden, and Nick carefully outlined their biggest grievances: the tuition increase, problems with the code of conduct, and lack of a meaningful student voice in the decision-making process.
The sophomores liked that the organization was student-run, and, while they may not have been ready to attend long meetings, many promised to come to an October rally CAUS was planning. The biggest topic on everyone’s lips was the egregious tuition increases planned for a school that already costs more than $50,000 a year.
Summing up both the strength and the importance of the movement, Nick forcefully asked, “how can the administration run the school without us? They aren’t students. They don’t know what we need.”