UC Irvine hasn’t always been characterized as a politically active campus. Unlike UC Berkeley, which for many years was known as a hotbed of political demonstrations and activists’ antics, UCI seemed the sleepier and less radical campus in the University of California system.
That all seemed to change in the 2009-10 academic year.
In the nine months that spanned that school year, UCI’s student body faced budget cuts, fee increases, racial tensions and student arrests, spurring students to hold up signs, grab microphones and make their opinions known.
On Sept. 24, 2009, students celebrated their first day of classes by shouting “Lay Off Yudof!” The state had directed the UC system to cut $800 million from its budget, resulting in fee hikes and furloughs. At the time, UC President Mark Yudof’s annual salary was reported to be $591,084.
On Feb. 8, 2010, 11 students were arrested at UCI for allegedly disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, which eventually resulted in the suspension of a campus group, the Muslim Student Union.
A couple of weeks later, racist incidents targeting African American, Jewish and LGBT students were reported at the UC San Diego and UC Davis campuses.
Those incidents sparked a group of UCI students to come up with a list of 15 demands for Chancellor Michael Drake, which they presented in the form of a sit-in at his office in Aldrich Hall.
The list included requests for increased funding for ethnic and queer studies as well as a restructuring of the financial aid system. Police broke up the demonstration and arrested 17 students.
Last week, as the class of 2014 was marking the first week of the new school year, UCI students were talking about whether the previous year marked a turning point in campus activism.
To UC Student Regent Jesse Cheng, UCI is going back to its origins.
“In the beginning of UCI, we were a really active class,” he said, referring to the campus’s early years in the 1960s. “When the first-ever fee increases went around, there were 5000 students outside of Aldrich Hall, and the chancellor protested with them. I feel like people forget that.”
Although Cheng, a fifth-year student, believes UCI has always been innately active, he does think that 2009-10 was a unique academic year, with a number of tense events culminating in a short amount of time.
“I would never have foreseen 700 to 1,000 students outside the flagpoles, protesting,” he said. “A reporter came up to me and said, ‘What the hell is happening at your campus?’ It was the day they took over the chancellor’s office. He was there to do a story on fee increases.”
The “take over” was the sit-in organized by the Black Student Union and others in reaction to the racist incidents reported out of UC San Diego and UC Davis.
What did he expect for the coming year?
“I’ve learned not to predict student activism from year to year, but I’d bet to see a lot of student activism,” Cheng said.
Another student, Andres Gonzalez, executive vice president of external affairs, agreed that, if anything, activism would be on the rise considering that fees that fees will increase by another 15% this academic year (to complete a total increase of 32%).
“Now students are really feeling the pain,” he said.
Unlike Cheng, Gonzalez doesn’t see UCI the same way he did when he walked on Ring Road for the first time.
“Without a doubt there has been a change in culture,” he said. “When I first came in I could not imagine what happened with the (March 4) rally outside. It was unprecedented.”
Gonzalez, a political science and business economy major who has written numerous papers on the budget cuts, thinks students may start to show more frustration this year when they realize that their financial burden will only get worse.
“Now I’m paying for my own schooling this year and I realized how much more I have to pay this year,” he said. “For example, I had to opt out of the healthcare here and instead go on my mom’s plan.”
He mentioned that opting out of university healthcare (USHIP) usually means savings, but unfortunately for him, that didn’t even cover half of the increase in fees.
Regarding racial tensions at UCI, Gonzalez points out that the university gained something positive from the protests: perspective.
African American students make up 2% of the student body, the second lowest concentration of blacks on a UC campus behind UC San Diego. Due to the uproar over the racial tensions at other campuses and here at home, UCI decided it needed to make more of an effort to reach out to potential freshmen that are underrepresented there.
SOAR, the Student Outreach Academic Retention Center, will open in the coming year and will be a student-run department on campus focused on recruiting minority students in lower income areas that may not know about the academic and financial opportunities available to them. The center will not only focus on outreach but will also serve as a resource center for admitted students.
“We have the funding now. We just have to carefully implement a plan so they can not only come here, but stay here,” Gonzalez said.
Sitara Nayudu is president of the Associated Students at UCI. This incoming year will be her first in the leadership position. Nayudu points out that although the campus’s diversity may have pushed students apart, it has also spurred important discussions at UCI, which make it an exciting campus.
“Every year there are students standing up for what they believe in,” she said. “I think the best thing about going to a UC is the diversity.”