IN PRINT: UNCG students and faculty stage walkout, disrupt trustees meeting

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by Eric Ginsburg

While the administration at UNCG says its hands are tied and as massive budget cuts loom, a growing number of students and faculty publicly demand that the school refocus on education rather than athletics.

Hundreds of people at UNCG staged a walkout on Feb. 19 against budget cuts, a planned recreation center and rising education costs. The next morning, a smaller contingent interrupted a board of trustees meeting to express frustration about the same issues and what they said is a lack of community input.

The walkout, which primarily consisted of students but included a strong showing of faculty support, was the largest in a string of actions this year organized to oppose the current direction of the school.

In the face of mounting opposition, UNCG Chancellor Linda Brady sent a letter to students, faculty and staff on Feb. 19 thanking people for their feedback and outlining what she could about impending cuts.

“We are currently preparing for a reduction of approximately $12.8 million to our state-appropriated budget of 2014-2015,” she wrote. “Nearly $8 million of that reduction is due to a drop in enrollment.”

Given the inevitability of the cuts, Brady said the priority will be placed on “protecting enrollment and instruction,” adding that the school continues to remain affordable and provide quality education.

“Working together, we will emerge an even stronger university,” she wrote. “I welcome any additional thoughts and suggestions for dealing with the difficult challenges we face.”

The mood at the walkout wasn’t one of reconciliation or hopefulness. Student after student addressed the mass, often in expletive-laced condemnations of the school or the proposed $91 million recreation center.

“It seems to me that the people that run this university forgot a long time ago… who their students are,” Miranda said, referencing rising costs that hit working-class students particularly hard. “Today we’re not asking, we’re demanding.”

Interior architecture professor Hannah Mendoza, who said she is supposed to be evaluated for tenure this year, fired up the crowd with her speech.

“I’m not going to take one more step down the road to dismantling your education, my job, your future, my future and the future of North Carolina and this country,” she declared. “We will be heard! Because on this hill, where I’ve drawn this line, there will be no white flag.”

Mendoza said she suggested a walkout three years ago in response to rumblings about budget cuts. Several students and faculty members expressed frustration that facilities and supplies were lacking while the school continued to over-prioritize athletics. Mendoza said the process has been unfolding for a while, with the school removing office phones several years ago.

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep!” walkout participants chanted repeatedly, a catchphrase borrowed from massive student demonstrations in Chile.

Speakers vehemently denounced the direction of the university, deriding the recreation center as an example of misplaced priorities.

“When I applied to this university, I was not applying for a gym membership,” junior finance major Sean Mannette said, evoking the verbiage of numerous protest signs.

Numerous faculty members who showed up watched the action unfold from the peripheries of the demonstration, offering their support but expressing their frustrations less vehemently than many of the speakers.

“I’m here as a show of support to the students and the faculty and the university,” Hephzibah Roskelly, a 23-year veteran in the English department, said. “Cutting the budget guts the academic mission of the school. I feel like [UNCG] succumbed to pressures that had to do with creating a brand, so the push towards athletics — whether they wanted to or not — really came at a cost to the academics.”

Other professors in attendance, including women and gender studies professor Danielle Bouchard and religious studies professor Derek Krueger expressed similar sentiments.

English and women-and-gender studies professor Mark Rifkin tried to lay out the situation succinctly: If money is reduced for instruction, professors can’t mount the needed curriculum and are forced to cut classes, which undermines the ability to provide an education.

If not educating students, he asked, “what are we doing here? The administration has been making a series of poor decisions that endanger the university.”

Creative-writing professor Michael Parker said he attended to express solidarity with students against “devastating” cuts. It is unclear how budget cuts would impact his department, Parker said, but he had just come from a meeting discussing possible scenarios and “They were all dire.”

Parker and other professors said their students are increasingly unable to sign up for the courses they need to graduate because of reductions. Some professors said they know their students are struggling financially.

Numerous students testified to the challenge of affording education or their fear of crippling debt, including senior psychology major Ashly Hodgkins who said she works three jobs to pay for school.

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The next morning, a smaller group briefly disrupted the board of trustees meeting.

After a short speak-out and rally outside the building, dozens of students, several faculty members and a handful of supporters filed into the meeting, checking their signs at the door. About an hour into the meeting as the crowd began thinning, with no plan in place, the protesters improvised. They interrupted the meeting to demand the chance to address the board.

As Miranda and other students decried the process and priorities of the school, students and faculty on both sides of the room stood in support.

Undercover officers moved quickly to try and remove them, but the board resolved the issue by taking an impromptu break, giving police a chance to clear the room without any arrests.

The meeting was open to the public but only speakers who signed up in advance would be allowed to address the trustees, Board Chair David Sprinkle said at the beginning of the meeting. (See footage of the protest at triad-city-beat.com.)

During the break, Sprinkle said demonstrators were “very valid in what they’re saying,” and that the board is also “extremely concerned about the cuts,” but said their hands were tied, to an extent. Sprinkle stopped to listen to demonstrators speaking outside of the meeting before going inside.

While Sprinkle said he could understand concerns about the budget, particularly cuts to academics, he differed on the center, which has been the flashpoint of student and faculty outcry about the budget.

“What they don’t understand is that the money that supports the rec center can’t be used for academics,” he said.

Faculty and students opposed to the rec center said student fees for the center make the school increasingly unaffordable. Sprinkle said that’s true, but said UNCG is the cheapest in its peer group and in the middle of the pack for cost in the UNC system.

He also added that the school needs facilities such as the recreation center to attract new students, noting that enrollment is down. Opponents have said decreased enrollment diminishes the need for a new rec center in the first place, saying that the situation will only continue to worsen because they said UNCG is shooting itself in the foot.

Numerous demands were made at the walkout and the trustees meeting — free public education, no cuts to the American Sign Language program, a chance to address the board, abandoning the rec center — but all coalesced around the concern that the UNCG leadership has misguided priorities.

There are no public plans for a follow-up action, but organizers said they are considering several options and have no intention of letting up.