Student tuition strike dissolves due to organizational and structural challenges

Sandro Luis Lorenzo/The Miscellany News.

#VCStrike officially ended its Fall 2021 tuition strike three months after first launching its campaign (The Miscellany News, “Students strike, demand action from administration and Board of Trustees,” 05.20.2021). The strike, which called on students to withhold their Fall 2021 tuition payment, intended to pressure Vassar’s administration to meet various demands including a three-year freeze on tuition and room and board fees, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for student workers, and a joint administrative, faculty and student Senate. While strike leaders pointed to a lack of student involvement during the summer as the reason for the strike’s cancellation, some members of the coalition and student leaders outside of the strike expressed that the campaign was fundamentally flawed from its inception.

On Aug. 2, #VCStrike publicly announced the termination of the strike via their Instagram account @vcstrike. According to their statement, the student activists suffered from organizational difficulties. As #VCStrike organizer Melissa Hoffmann ’21 stated, “Organizing during the summer is a significant challenge.”

Within the first couple of weeks of summer break, some #VCStrike members became overwhelmed as they tried to balance organizing the strike with other personal and professional obligations. Former #VCStrike member Joe Mangan ’23 explained that he had initially stepped away from the strike for the summer to tend to a job and an internship. He also mentioned that three other members of #VCStrike also did not have the capacity to help organize during the summer due to their jobs.

In addition to demanding summer obligations, COVID-19 was also an obstacle to engaging with the student body. Mangan detailed: “We couldn’t go from dorm room to dorm room and talk to people about the strike or hold in-person events to talk to people…there’s just a lot of basic organizing tools off the table as a result of being remote organizers.”

Some members voiced that miscommunication and disagreements amongst the organization’s members also played a key role in the strike’s demise.  According to Mangan, “The strike, from the beginning, was just riddled with internal problems.” A few organizers felt uncomfortable with #VCStrike’s overall social media presence, specifically the conspiratorial rhetoric against the Vassar administration. For instance, a #VCStrike Instagram post from May claimed that student voices were disregarded by the administration in favor of the dictatorship of capital. After noticing both the internal and organizational struggles, Mangan initiated conversations about ending the strike in July and ultimately completely disassociated himself from the organization. 

Other student leaders on campus who were not associated with the strike expressed similar concerns regarding #VCStrike’s rhetoric. ALANA Center leaders Oona Maloney ’22 and Elliot Porcher ’22 both met with strike organizers via Zoom on May 20 to address these concerns. According to Porcher, “We told [the organizers] to be professional [and] relax with the social media infographics. To relax on demonizing every action that administrators would do. We told them to be polite and to be professional, online and in-person.” 

Maloney and Porcher posed additional concerns about the overall structure and preparation of the strike and its demands.

“I wanted the strike to work because it could have,” Porcher explained. “We thought that there could be potential as long as they could refine their technique and learn from people who had seen or participated in this kind of work pre-COVID.” 

Maloney concurred, explaining that while she agreed with the policy goals of the strike in theory, she disagreed with the tactics the VC Coalition used. “They were ambitious, but there was no follow through. It seemed all theory and no practice,” she said. 

During their meeting with VC Strike Coalition leaders, Maloney and Porcher outlined what they viewed as the central flaws of the campaign. “They were asking far too much for a tuition strike—most of their demands didn’t seriously involve tuition,” explained Porcher. “We opened [the meeting] by saying that the list of demands needed to be cut at least in half.”

Maloney and Porcher explained to organizers that many of the 17 demands presented by the VC Strike Coalition, such as making all buildings ADA compliant by 2026 or educating all faculty children for free in Wimpfheimer Nursery School, would be impossible to achieve on their proposed timeline with the college’s current resources.

In some cases, the demands would be impossible to achieve at all. “Abolishing Safety & Security can’t be done,” Maloney stated. “If it wasn’t safety and security it would be Poughkeepsie police,” she argued. Without Safety and Security, Vassar College Emergency Medical Services (VCEMS) wouldn’t be able to operate since EMTs are legally required to have a security presence when responding to situations.

Maloney and Porcher pointed out that the coalition was not working with existing student organizations that share similar goals with #VCStrike.“I reached out to some people from the ALANA Center and from Transitions and SJP and most if not all of the people I talked to had said they hadn’t been reached out to,” Porcher explained.

“So much organizing goes down in the ALANA Center,” Maloney explained. She added that she was especially concerned the organizers weren’t working with BSU and did not have any Black students as members of the coalition. “You’re claiming to represent the interests of the student body, but don’t even have any Black students involved in organizing,” she said of the coalition. 

While Maloney and Porcher expressed that the organizers of the campaign were receptive to their suggestions during their Zoom meeting, the changes were never implemented. “It’s a shame, but I’m not really surprised that this [cancellation] was the outcome,” stated Maloney. 

When asked about this criticism, #VCStrike organizer Mohtad Alawalla ’23 responded via email correspondence: “As a person of color, I felt bad we couldn’t make ALANA leaders feel involved enough. We did internally brainstorm about this problem, and wanted to actively center marginalized voices. Unfortunately, as we lacked organizing power (lack of time, burn out etc), we could not set up meetings/do outreach to campus leaders.”

Porcher expressed that he wants to see the organizers succeed in the future, but hopes they learn from the failure of this strike. “If they want to be taken seriously, they must listen before they act, research the problems before they write out a laundry list of demands, understand the positions and perspectives from diverse groups of students before pushing initiatives that they may have no personal stake or connection in,” Porcher explained. 

Despite the tuition strike’s cancellation, Hoffmann believed the campaign was still successful in certain regards: “The strike gave us an opportunity to publicize demands that students have had of Vassar for a while, and highlight the issues students are facing on campus, as well as Vassar’s impact in the local community and in the world.”

Alawalla also mentioned that the strike was close to being successful, adding that Vassar’s strike had 134 students supporting the cause, which is about 5.5 percent of the total student population. This was proportionally larger than successful strikes at Columbia University and UChicago, which had approximately 3.2 percent and 1.4 percent of the total student population’s support (NBC News, “Over 1,000 Columbia University students on tuition strike, demanding pandemic concessions,” 01.28.2021). 

“[W]e had enough interest on campus, just a lack of organizing fire power,” stated Alawalla. He proceeded to say, “Given how close we were to a fully actualised strike, [the administration] undoubtedly took the message that students cannot be pacified easily and should be making more concessions to the student body in coming months if it is looking to avoid similar frustrations again.” 

When asked if the strike had posed any financial concerns amongst the administration, President Elizabeth Bradley shared, “The single biggest concern for us last year was keeping Vassar open and continuing to provide an in-person academic and residential experience for our students …  Even amidst the enormity of that challenge, we listened to the concerns of the students involved in the strike, but we did not consider it a significant financial issue.”

Bradley also noted that the administration will continue open communication with students. “We remain committed to addressing students’ needs as well as possible and also to communicating regularly through VSA and all-campus messages about new initiatives,” she stated.

Although the tuition strike has dissolved, #VCStrike members hope that the spirit of the campaign will be carried on by other student activists as they continue to organize on campus. As Hoffman stated, “Winning is within reach, but it is an active process. Victory doesn’t come without trial and error.”

 

One Comment

  1. How many of the strikers pay full tuition? Their private Vassar education is subsidized by the dollars of other students and the alumni-funded endowment. How about a little more gratitude and humility and a little less entitlement?

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