Conn. studentsBy ERWIN FREED

The University of Connecticut has been facing a series of so-called budget crises over the last 20 years. After the state and the school mishandled their collective coronavirus responses, the university is left with at least a $47 million budget deficit. The reality of the budget shortfalls is decades of some of the largest financial, pharmaceutical, and defense companies in the world using Connecticut as a low-tax, high-corporate subsidy haven. At the same time that workers and students are having their livelihoods put on the cutting block, the UConn Police Department maintains a $15 million budget, and school administrators are taking in millions in salaries and “fringe” benefits.

Dining Services starves workers

As soon as the scope of the coming pandemic became clear, UConn Dining Services acted quickly to lay off the vast majority of its union and student workforce. Large numbers of members of UNITE HERE Local 2527t lost their health care, and despite a number of petitions and job actions were given very little in the form of severance. Thanks to the efforts of union leaders and the shop steward, the few workers who remain on the job receive hazard pay. It is currently unclear what will happen in the fall semester if the university does not reopen or closes early.

Student dining-service workers were completely laid off as well. Unlike most of the rest of service industry workers, they were disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits due to their status as students. This has left hundreds, if not thousands, of dining service workers with insufficient funds to pay for basic expenses. Neither the state nor UConn Dining services are willing to pay these workers, despite their qualifying for unemployment benefits by any possible standard or the fact that the general dining service budget is based on meal plans bought at the beginning of the semester. A social media campaign called Everybody Eats But UConn and a number of petitions have been launched.

Students, professionals, and educators on the line

In the years leading up to the current situation of pandemic and recession, the University of Connecticut was already bleeding students and workers dry. On the one hand, the proportion of the school’s budget paid by tuition rather than by the state has increased almost 20 percent in the last 15 years. On the other, student services and workers’ wages and benefits have been on a downward slide.

More and more educational staff are forced off the tenure track, and the school rates with many state universities in having over 60% of its education being done by non-tenured-track and adjunct professors as well as by graduate-student employees. Union workers in facilities and other departments had their wages frozen for three years following the 2017 SEBAC agreement, with wage increases only resuming in 2020 and at a rate well below that of inflation. These freezes affected tens of thousands of public sector workers in Connecticut. UConn AAUP Executive Director Michael Bailey said in a Connecticut Mirror interview that union members “have received no raises in six of the last 11 years.”

Many adjunct professors, like student cafeteria workers, do not qualify for state or federal unemployment benefits. As the UConn-AAUP website explains, “People employed by educational institutions are not eligible for unemployment during the summer or during winter break if they have ‘reasonable/probable’ expectation of being rehired for similar roles the following semester.” However, adjunct professors often do not hear about their employment opportunities until mere weeks before the next semester starts. In times of pandemic, where every aspect of university life is in question, there is virtually no way to have “reasonable” expectations of future employment.

The state’s and UConn administration’s decision to resume in-person classes in the fall semester despite having no real plan to do so safely are a direct continuation of the corporate university’s complete disregard for student health. A movement on campus around funding mental health services grew up at the beginning of 2020 following the suicides of two students of color on the Storrs campus last winter. Mental health services are incredibly underfunded, with students and workers complaining for years about understaffing, long waiting lists, and insufficient services. These problems have been compounded since August 2018, when the University of Connecticut’s Humphrey Clinic for Individual, Couple and Family Therapy closed, reducing an already small pool of resources.

A former mental health employee told Socialist Resurgence that “students are forced to fill the roles of mental health professionals, because the institution and the state don’t value the health of the community enough to invest in it.” Untrained student workers, many of whom are themselves survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence, are then put at unnecessary risk of becoming retraumatized and exacerbating their own mental health issues.

The bottomless budget of UCPD

The UConn Police Department in Storrs formed in 1972 as part of the national turn towards expanding police and prisons. Since then they have had an explosion in equipment and budgetary funding. Their current budget is over $15 million, and the average officer takes home over $100,000 annually.

In the face of being the only department able to secure regular funding, the police department has become the effective first responder for mental-health and inter-personal emergencies. Instead of receiving help from trained counselors or other professionals, students and community members are treated like criminals for having mental-health crises or experiencing violence.

As the global upsurge against police brutality and white supremacy has encouraged people to be open about their experiences with institutional violence, a number of social media forums in which UConn community members detail their interactions with the police department in various contexts have come into existence. Stories include students being aggressively dragged out of their rooms and questioned as criminals for having mental-health emergencies, survivors being told they are overreacting to sexual violence and racial profiling.

Despite the ballooning budget of the UCPD, UConn has sky-high rates of sexual assault, even in the wake of the largest Title IX lawsuit pay-out of all times. Nothing has changed since 2013, when a UConn Police Officer told a survivor reporting assault that “women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, or rape is going to keep on happening ’til the cows come home.” The officer was never disciplined. The university can not even take up the basic practice of keeping survivors safe from their attackers after reporting.

International struggle for education

An alternative vision for what universities can be is contained in the social movements that have pushed against the capitalist domination of these institutions. Removing police from university campuses is not an unheard-of idea, and students at the University of Economics in Athens mobilized in their thousands just last November to keep the cops away from their education. French students have occupied buildings demanding funding for housing, mental health services, and inclusive education policies in the wake of a students’ self-immolation in protest of creeping austerity. Pakistani students organized mass demonstrations for university funding, democratic rights, pro-women policies, and against police activity on campuses.

Students, staff, and community members in the United States have a lot to learn from these struggles. All of them are part of militant traditions linking students and workers and involving united fronts that bring together labor unions, student organizations, and community groups to fight for control of the university.

The negative role of police in university campuses is universally recognized by student and worker militants around the world. Police brutality against activists is a common occurrence not just in the United States but also in every other country, and the struggle for mental health and other services is also a general component of the class struggle as a whole. Now is the time to fight against the stranglehold of large corporations, maintained by those same police, on the education of workers and oppressed people. Now is the time to fight for free quality public education, which necessarily includes health care and housing from the cradle to the grave, and a living wage for all.

Photo: UConn Daily Campus