'Disaster Capitalism' Cited as Hundreds Gather at Walk Out for Penn State
A Penn State vice president, a faculty member and two State College elected officials joined with university students Monday at University Park, calling for a unified front against Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed education-funding cuts.
For nearly an hour at midday, several hundred people gathered outside Old Main to rally in the student-organized Walk Out for Penn State. Nearly a dozen of them spoke.
"You know what this is? This is what's called 'disaster capitalism,'" State College Borough Council member Peter Morris told the crowd, speaking from atop the Old Main steps. He said some conservative politicians are using the recession and budget deficits as an excuse "to give the rich tax cuts and to screw everybody else."
"Education is a fundamental human right," Morris said, soon urging the group: "Keep fighting. Keep fighting. Keep fighting. Don't stop."
He spoke after borough Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, who said it's "very appropriate" that residents are "standing up and demanding that these cuts be rescinded."
"Education seems to be in the sights of the budget cutters, and -- frankly -- that shocked me when I heard it," Goreham said.
She said lawmakers "need to see the faces" of those who would be affected by the proposed education cuts, which at Penn State would mean a 52 percent decline in state support.
Facing a $4 billion budget deficit, Corbett introduced his 2011-2012 budget proposal in March. The plan includes a total cut of about $1.6 billion for education spending, including a $182 million reduction for Penn State. The governor has said he doesn't believe education should be recession-proof, and has tweaked the university for raising tuition more than 110 percent in the past decade.
In the same period, he has said, Penn State received $3.5 billion in state support.
But university President Graham Spanier has fought back aggressively -- and publicly -- against the criticism, noting that Penn State has endured dramatic expense increases, including for health care, utilities and insurance. The university has cited rankings that put Pennsylvania among the least-generous states in its per-student support of public higher education.
Corbett's proposal would mean a reduction of nearly 20 percent in the Penn State budget line items for general education and instruction, among other losses, Spanier has said. The university counts an overall annual budget of about $4 billion, but cannot shift revenue streams targeted for specific uses -- including millions in restricted endowment income and billions in research grants and medical billing -- and redirect them to general education, he has said.
If Corbett's budget wins approval, Spanier has said, the university will be forced to undertake a variety of dramatic cost-cutting steps, including hundreds of layoffs, program cuts and some tuition increases. Penn State has already announced a yearlong pay freeze for most employees; that will begin this summer.
At the rally outside Old Main, students refused to accept the Corbett proposal and said students, employees and other State College-area residents should raise their voices together. Undergraduate Travis Salters, who leads the NAACP at Penn State and ran for student-body president, said the university itself needs to step up, too, and offer adequate support to students who enroll.
"Equal access to education is our demand," he told the crowd outside Old Main. "And we will ensure this by any means necessary. ...
"Nothing will change without a movement," Salters said. "Nothing will change without pressure. And nothing will change without you."
Paul Clark, a professor in labor studies, said the country is seeing a sustained assault on its middle class and on the American dream itself. Teamsters Local 8 President Jonathan Light spoke, as well.
Chris Stevens, an undergraduate and a leader of the Penn State anti-sweatshop movement, said that "we need the economy to work for the people, not the corporations."
"We're not here to divide Penn State. We're not here to divide Pennsylvania," said Paige Heimark, an undergraduate. She said the Walk Out for Penn State, assembled by a coalition of progressive student leaders, was rooted in keeping Penn State affordable.
"We can raise millions of dollars for kids with cancer," Heimark said, referring to the university's Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. "But we can't change our tuition?"
That, to her, makes no sense, she said.
Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims also appeared before the microphone, praising the collective effort.
"This kind of unity means a lot here," Sims said. "it's going to mean a lot more, though, if you go to Harrisburg tomorrow."
Tuesday will mark Penn State's Capital Day, an effort among university supporters to lobby state lawmakers for higher-education support.
"The (university) administration is with you," Sims told the assembled on Monday. He said politics "is all about choices," and that elected officials make the wrong choice in cutting support for education.
After Capital Day, student organizers said, they expect other public events to materialize. One is expected around April 18, Stevens said.