- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2020

Columbia University in 1968 famously witnessed a student anti-war protester fire up a cigar while occupying the president’s chair. Today’s students have another idea about how to force change: not paying.

A tuition strike is being organized at Columbia, at adjoining Barnard College and the multiple graduate schools that comprise the sprawling institution on New York City’s Upper West Side.

“We think the school should be receptive to the demands of the students,” said Emmaline Bennett, who heads the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America. “The trustees aren’t really held accountable, and we should be trying to make the school more democratic.”

The tuition strike has garnered support from more than 1,600 students, including 1,200 who are withholding payments and 400 who can’t stop payment “because they’re completely dependent on aid/loans,” she said.

The boycott, however, sounds a lot like dropping out and risking losing a prized slot at the Ivy League school.

Columbia, like other elite colleges, rejects far more applicants than it accepts.

Ms. Bennett sees little risk for most of the students threatening to withhold payments for the 2021 spring semester.

“Columbia is not going to expel 1,000 students,” she said. “That’s just a bad look. And we’re a meritocracy, those of us who gained admittance, and the school should be supporting free speech and right to protest.”

While some consider Ms. Bennett and her colleagues’ tactics too coercive, there has been broad public support for some of Young Democratic Socialists’ demands.

Most significantly, that support includes the cost of college and how it seems impervious to COVID-19. Learning may be done remotely, forfeiting the aura of campus life, but the price remains virtually the same.

Columbia’s sticker price of nearly $80,000 a year ranks No. 2 of the 100 most expensive colleges, according to data compiled by Collegecalc.org.

Even critics of the current atmosphere of left-wing intolerance on American campuses agree with Ms. Bennett’s core point.

“Parents and kids are absolutely right to be outraged at the cost of college,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which promotes campus free speech. “People are paying these exorbitant tuition fees and it’s perfectly legitimate to bring up questions about it.”

Tuition strikers would like to see at least a sliver of Columbia’s $11.2 billion endowment used to lower costs for students and improve life for students, employees and others linked to the school’s huge community.

Ms. Bennett, 23, graduated from Columbia College this year and is now enrolled at the school’s Teachers College. She said tuition has been frozen for undergraduates but raised 4% at her graduate school. She is taking classes from her home in Ohio.

There also appears to be widespread agreement that, particularly at a time when the experience has changed so completely, colleges with huge endowments need to start spending portions of their unrestricted assets on financial aid and the like.

“They have a monopoly, and these schools have a guaranteed client base that wants a piece of paper just to compete in the economy,” said Mary Clare Amselem, an analyst with the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “Today, places like Harvard get away with it. They have drastically changed the product but not the price.”

Still, the budding radicals at Young Democratic Socialists of America and a constellation of allied left-wing groups on campus want much more than lower costs.

They also want sharply reduced campus security on the New York City campus, which became a popular student demand at colleges across the country during this year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And they want the school to divest from fossil fuel companies, an idea that did not originate in these virus-altered times.

Decades ago, campus activists pushed for schools to shed stocks connected in any way with South Africa’s apartheid regime. Today, the same call is being made in the name of climate change.

Ms. Bennett said the demands are not being made only by those who will spend a brief time at the school. “There are professors, too, who support fossil fuel divestment,” she said.

Regardless of the banner the protesters may wave, the adults in the room must stand tall against sometimes half-baked demands, said Mr. Poliakoff, who sees campuses suffused with intolerance and bullying.

“Students have a right to be heard, but they don’t have the prerogative or the right to set policies,” he said. “The students can vote with their feet. If they find the decisions and policies there intolerable they should leave, as I’m sure there are many other talented and deserving people who would treasure the chance to be there.”

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