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UCSC Struggles over Grades amid Strike 

UCSC Struggles over Grades amid Strike 

By Eugenio Negro

SANTA CRUZ, Thursday 20 February 2020

“Cops off campus! COLA in my bank account!”

Members of the picket line at the university’s main entrance at the intersection of Coolidge (Bay) and High streets reported that the crowd had thinned out this week. There hadn’t been much more police action since after Wednesday 12 February, when UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer ordered police, which ended up being an inter-county coalition effort, to violently suppress picketers who shut down the intersection.

Not only members of the picket line, but students down to their first undergraduate year, had information about how UCSC administration’s struggle with the striking Teaching Assistants and Graduate Instructors has come down to students’ grades. Administration has threatened to begin firing strikers after Friday 21 February if they do not post grades by the end of the day.

Previous reporting by KQED and the City on a Hill Press can give background about the strike and the violence used to intimidate its supporters. City on a Hill Press was on strike Thursday according to a thorough statement of solidarity with the strikers published in last week’s 13 February issue. In essence, lack of progress since October between teaching grad students represented by UAW and administration, on a $1412/month cost-of-living increase, motivated a campus-wide movement to shut down classes beginning 10 February that followed a warning that they would withhold publishing grades. Administration responded with violence and intimidation.

This writer ran into the “arrestees’ corner” at the southwest corner of Coolidge and High, where we encountered Rachelle Lamb, whose problems with the police have been documented by the City on a Hill Press, and grad instructor James Sirigotis, who was photographed by KQED with his head scratched open. Lamb, a fourth-year undergrad, has been banned from campus, including her on-campus residence, since last week and just got a letter Tuesday “modifying my suspension” –she can sleep at her residence now. She says she was arrested delivering water to the picket line, forced from her vehicle by police and detained without charge.

Sirigotis, a fifth-year PhD candidate, was also one of the sixteen occupiers of the intersection arrested on Wednesday 12 February. He was charged with “obstructing traffic movement” and “failure to disperse.” As KQED’s photograph shows, Sirigotis had his forehead scraped, and he also said that police pulled out the hair on the crown of his head, in what he called “pain compliance tactics,” which is a euphemism for police brutality. He says he was “processed” at the UCSC facility down by Natural Bridges and that among the present was a detention vehicle from Alameda County Sheriff divided into holding cells.

Sirigotis said that there is no clear consensus on whether to publish grades Friday. City on a Hill’s Elena Neale quotes grad-student representative Tony Boardman as saying administration had by 13 February only proposed “to pause the strike in return for a pause in retaliation.” Sirigotis says UCSC Faculty Senate had passed a “resolution” condemning the use of force by police, and that the university has in the past two weeks spent $300,000 per day on police. Another fourth-year undergrad said she’d seen a clump of police vehicles at the Stevenson cove for security at a chancellor meeting Wednesday the 19th. She also heard that a single SWAT-team call last week had cost the university $500,000. No official information is available.

A student called Will said that the UAW 2865 representation has been around to talk to the strikers, but clarified that this indeed is a “wildcat strike” not endorsed or organized by the union. It remains unclear how much productive action administration and labor have taken this week, nor whether anyone is moving to hold the police responsible for excessive force.

James Sirigotis added that the Faculty Senate meeting last week had “the largest turnout, you know, for a long time,” and that it also produced a 75% vote in favor of faculty hiring their own TAs.

One group of strikers said that they’d seen KQED’s report and that they were satisfied with it. But up on the hill, everyone had different pieces of a new story about how the faculty is dealing with the striking TAs.

About twenty students surveyed overwhelmingly reported many classes cancelled in the past two weeks, except for evening classes, many of them intended to be replaced by non-mandatory online sessions posted last-minute. Many, undergrads as well as graduate students, reported feeling solidarity with the strikers in this single for-profit public university system. Others continued attending classes where they say attendance was often much smaller.

Students also reported that different departments are making different moves and demands regarding the TA strike. Several students said that there had been little change in their course attendance over the week, neither amongst students nor TAs. A group of seniors and grad students on Science Hill said that they’d noted almost no absent TAs in the “STEM departments.” One student suggested physics, and fourth-year Taranis Hunter  said that business, computer science and economics, “at least,” were requiring their TAs to come to work during the strike.

History senior Henry Bordeaux said that his history TA is publishing grades. Two more undergrads, first and third year in game design, said that the history department was ready to give out P grades to all. This could cause serious problems with students who already have a lot of P grades, since there is a certain ratio to P versus grade scale in order to take a diploma. They added that the P grade message had come through official email, similar to another message asking undergrads to report cancelled sections, which has been called an act of attempted surveillance. A first-year grad student said that her department had taken another such “community survey” with regard to the strike, and that two science departments were essentially telling TAs not to strike. 

The unnamed first-year master student said that a science department had also said it would give letter grades out for the TAs; this must be questioned as it is illegal at the elementary and secondary levels for administration or anyone but the teacher in question to touch grades whatever.

The STEM departments’ apparent policy could have a deciding effect Friday given that the greatest enrollment proportion of UCSC’s 16,900+ students is in business, computer science, biology and economics, according to US News, a source often used by high schools. Some sources say that the most popular undergraduate major in the country is psychology, and this writer’s experience tends to support that claim.

Down the hill, one has to wonder whether shirts that read “Psych on strike,” for example, have come out of consensus. It appears that the sciences and mathematics departments have a very different agenda leading up to administration’s Friday deadline to post grades. Considering the presence of Silicon Valley on campus, this is not surprising. Picketers told us that other UC campuses are watching each other, and that to call a potential bluff by administration Friday could motivate other UC campuses’ movements to demand similar contractual improvements for labor. An example of this self-awareness is visible in Neale’s article for City on a Hill Press, in which picketers hold a sign demanding wage parity with UC Riverside grad students. Strange, then, that most students up the hill did not consider their grades to be in danger, even if strikers do call administration’s bluff and expose themselves to firing. On the other hand, many students Thursday described a visible disconnect between student body and administration.

The fact that UCSC has so many TAs is partly its own doing, trying according to the Regents’ plan for the last twenty-odd years to destroy the professor track, bust unions, and replace section hours’ former professors with adjuncts and, where possible, teaching assistants and graduate instructors. Now the university’s underpaid underclass workforce has got too big, has to work under an enormous cost of living, and is costing more than planned. For students it’s more unneeded anxiety levied on them by a system that profits from their debt. The strikers left on Thursday characterize their struggle as one for basic human rights.