In early May, more than 2,000 college students marched from N.C. State University to and through the State Legislative Building to protest a proposed reduction in state appropriations to schools in the University of North Carolina system.
The reduction could be as much as seven percent of the state appropriation to UNC (or less than 5 percent of the universities’ total budget). The systemwide reduction for the next fiscal year was proposed by UNC in response to a request from the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
Students would have none of it.
“Education is our right! Fight! Fight! Unite!” the students chanted as they marched down Hillsborough Street, which leads from NCSU to the State Capitol. Protest staple “Hey hey, ho ho” was also chanted, this time with the addendum “Budget cuts have got to go!”
At the time of the rally, legislators had announced they were seeking $125 million in spending reductions from UNC campuses, and chancellors had announced that they would be forced to reduce faculty positions.
In late May, however, the Senate made its budget recommendations, which called for only $40 million in reductions in the UNC system. The recommendations also include 5 percent tuition increase for the 2001-02 academic year, which would coincide with a 4 percent tuition increase passed by the UNC Board of Governors. Also, need-based financial aid would increase from $5 million to over $6 million in the Senate plan.
A Locke Foundation analysis of the Senate budget found that state spending would rise next year by $644 million, or nearly 5 percent. The analysis, by Locke Foundation President John Hood, found that the Senate would increase university spending by 1.1 percent and community college spending by 1.4 percent. The Senate budget also contained $233 million in tax increases, Hood found.
At the rally, the bulk of the students came from N.C. State, but students from other UNC schools, including N.C. Central University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University, and Appalachian State University, attended the rally. Some faculty members and N.C. State Chancellor Marye Anne Fox also made appearances.
The march coincided with protest rallies held on other UNC campuses.
N.C. State lent support to the students, allowing N.C. State Marching Band instruments to be used in the rally, providing sound equipment, and even sending a university bus to the rally, perhaps carrying the table, cups and the Gatorade coolers the university provided to refresh the protesters.
At the rally, an N.C. State faculty member was among those to address the crowd. “This hurts us. This hurts all of us,” she said. “My heart is already breaking.”
Students waved a myriad of signs, ranging from the hyperbolic (“Which 7% would you cut?” said a mass-produced poster in the form of human silhouette. Another poster read, “GA to students: Shut up before we cut you”) to the ridiculous (including the jargon-laced “All your budget cuts are belong to us” and the non sequitur “Stop funding Israeli occupation, start funding education”). One sign read, simply, tellingly, “Love us with money.”
The lead speaker was Andrew Payne, president of the UNC Association of Student Governments and representative of all UNC students on the UNC Board of Governors.
“It’s time to say, ‘enough!'” Payne enjoined the students. “It’s time to say the war on education must end!”
Payne argued that the state should increase funding for public universities because public universities drive the economic engine of the state in ways that “can’t be measured.”
After Payne’s speech, the students drizzled, rather than stormed, into the Legislative Building in a slow, calm procession. Organizers hushed the students so as to keep from getting kicked out of the building, to which one student responded, “This is a protest, we have to be quiet?”
On the other end of the building, the rally petered out as the students failed to gain the attention of legislators, many of whom were talking with professional lobbyists at a catered, tent-covered get-together on the North quad of the state government complex.
Protesters dispersed after rally organizers urged students to “respectfully” visit their legislators to discuss the budget cuts.
Some students at the rally were there for the spectacle of the thing, and not all were in agreement with presenters’ dire warnings. N.C. State student Jason Cotter, for one, expressed concern that the students were just “playing into the hands” of the governor and other politicians and special interests seeking a state lottery as a solution to the state’s temporary budget shortfall.
“We’re just demanding a solution without specifying one,” Cotter said.
Hood offered a similar observation. “Senate leaders and activist groups appear to be at odds, but in reality they have a common agenda — exaggerating the impact of proposed budget savings to scare the citizens of North Carolina into accepting a larger tax increase,” Hood said. Legislators are proposing to expand local sales taxes, hike alcohol taxes, or impose a temporary income tax surcharge, he noted.
The assembly of students was intermittently interrupted by well-ordered lines of young children dutifully following their teachers as they calmly tried to navigate their way to and from the legislative building through the glut of shouting college students.
Those children, easily ten years or more younger than their boisterous college counterparts, were participating in Charter School Day at the General Assembly. Charter-school proponents were at the legislature to ask lawmakers to repeal the law capping the number of charter schools at 100.
The charter school students watched the protest with interest, though they didn’t seem to grasp what it was about. At the peak of the protest, one charter-school student observed the sea of red-clad N.C. State students and told a companion, “I like N.C. State.” His friend responded, “Not me! I hate N.C. State! I like Carolina!”