As racial and economic disparities both within and outside of the Columbia community continue to be exacerbated by the worsening public health crisis, the tuition strike has gained considerable traction, even capturing the attention of national news outlets. The demands being made of the University are comprehensive, such as a 10 percent reduction in the cost of attendance, more satisfactorily meeting its obligations to the West Harlem community, and more widespread recognition of student workers. These demands have found widespread support in the University with nearly 2,000 students already pledging support, myself included.
However, for the sake of the very things that this movement seeks to accomplish, we must acknowledge that a call to withhold tuition or potential future donations isn’t a strike, and that calling it so obfuscates the inherent privilege that we have as Columbia students.
To see why this is true, we only have to compare the tuition “strike” to a very recent example of an actual strike: the 2018 graduate student workers strike. Although there were many factors leading up to the strike, the central issue was the University’s exploitation of “academic purity” and its refusal to recognize graduate students as workers, despite asking them to perform teaching duties and other ancillary academic tasks. Two aspects of this situation make it a strike. First, the manifestation of collective power is a denial of labor. Second, the movement sought to hold Columbia, in its role as an employer, to fair standards of labor.
In the case of the tuition “strike,” however, neither of these conditions hold true. Firstly, the withholding of tuition isn’t an exercise of our collective ability to deny labor to a larger institution—it’s an exercise of our power as consumers. What is really happening is a boycott, not a strike, and calling this movement a tuition strike obscures the inherent privilege that we all have as Columbia students. Ultimately, we are consumers of a university education, not its laborers. When we consider the fact that actual strikers risk the loss of a job that puts food on the table, provides insurance, secures retirement, and supports entire families, no matter how much of our livelihood is tied to Columbia, the situation is not the same. While our education can be challenging to replace, professions are often impossible to replace, and losing them can be immediately fatal. Outside of the demands for greater recognition by students who do, in fact, possess an employer-employee relationship with Columbia, the core spirit of the tuition strike is for greater democratic representation within the University’s decision making. Thus, we are not demanding that Columbia re-evaluates its notion of labor, but instead the very meaning of what it means to be a student and the power that comes with it.
We need to be cognizant of the distinction between a boycott and a strike because this has far greater implications on national issues that the tuition strike aims to remedy than just University-specific ones. Fundamentally, university students occupy a somewhat paradoxical place in American society. We have been subject to generations of pressure to go to university and are assured, for nebulous reasons, that taking on massive quantities of debt is the right thing to do in order to secure a livelihood. Yet, we still have the privilege to choose to go to university in the first place. We need to recognize this contradiction and address it because unless we confront our own privilege along with our grievances, we cannot expect to find sympathetic allies to goals like subsidizing student debt and expanding low-cost public universities.
The tuition strike has been vital in raising awareness about issues that we should very much be concerned about as Columbia students. It has furthermore emphasized that we as students can exercise power in our choice to sustain the financial lifeblood of the University. However, continuing to frame this movement incorrectly through the tenuous lens of a “strike” and not recognizing the opportunity to upend the traditional power relationships of the University will only reduce the potency of the discussion and inspiration that will be generated—all the more important considering that the power of the people rests first and foremost in being heard.
Philip Jang is a senior in Columbia College studying mathematics-statistics with a concentration in economics.
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