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Grad students protest GOP's tax hike and prepare to fight about tuition

UC Berkeley graduate students want to know how the university will protect them if the GOP’s grad tax goes through

Photography by Alex Parkin

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Dozens of sign-wielding protesters — graduate students, librarians, lecturers, and even a city council member — gathered in the shade cast by the University of California Berkeley’s administration offices. They had a message to deliver to the university’s chancellor Carol Christ: fight the GOP’s plans to raise taxes for graduate students. Push for free public higher education.

“Carol Christ, come down! Carol Christ, come down! Carol Christ, come down!” they chanted outside the closed doors.

She didn’t. (She’s in Asia, a UC Berkeley spokesperson says.) So the protesters left her a note: two letters and a sign, taped to the building’s door. The sign was decorated with monopoly money in Berkeley’s signature blue and yellow. It asked in plain black letters: “What is the backup plan?”

Margaret Mary Downey, PhD student and elected union rep at UC Berkeley.
Margaret Mary Downey, PhD student and elected union representative at UC Berkeley.

The protest at Berkeley on Wednesday was one of dozens of walkouts and rallies planned nationwide to fight the tax bill that the House of Representatives passed two weeks ago. Many PhD students receive waivers that cover their tuition — and the House’s bill would raise grad student taxes by categorizing these waivers as income. The Senate’s plan doesn’t tax these tuition reductions, tax law expert Patrick Thomas says in a direct message on Twitter. But that doesn’t necessarily tell students what to expect from the combined bill. In theory, Berkeley students were fighting the House’s tax plan, but its existence opened up a broader question: why were they being charged tuition in the first place?

PhD students are more like employees than like college students. Many don’t take classes after their first few years. Instead, they teach and conduct research, and they’re paid a small stipend for their work. (This is already taxed as income.) While most PhD students don’t typically pay tuition, universities still generally charge for it — at least, on paper. The university then can waive the tuition fee, or the student or their faculty adviser might cover it with grant money.

Berkeley Protests

So why charge tuition at all? It’s a way for universities to collect more money from federal grants and any students who do wind up paying out of pocket, says Robert Kelchen, an expert in higher education finance at Seton Hall University. “If tuition were to go to zero, programs will lose that revenue.”

Until the tax bill drew national attention to these tuition waivers, many graduate students didn’t spend much time thinking about them. “I knew my tuition was being waived,” says first-year anthropology PhD student Levi Vonk. “I had never thought about the political implications that meant that someday Republicans would try to tax my waived tuition. I just assumed that would never be taxed.”

Berkeley Protests

That’s something Margaret Mary Downey, an elected representative for Berkeley’s graduate student union and a fifth-year PhD student studying social welfare, wants to change. Hours before the walkout began, she and other graduate students met in a tiny building on campus to make signs for the protest. Paint and glitter spilled across the blue linoleum and most of the tables in the room, but not Downey’s. She had her laptop open. In between organizing the protest, she was trying to submit an article to an academic journal.

“The root of this is that tuition is part of this shell game,” says Downey, who wore a red union T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Educate! Agitate! Organize!” arched over a fist clutching a pencil. “What would really solve this issue is if higher education were truly public, truly affordable.” Downey’s message was echoed by the signs littering the floor. The sign with a stark black-and-white message of “No tax on grads” was answered by another decorated in sparkles and a heart that said “Abolish tuition now.”

Berkeley Protests

A few minutes before 12PM, the 20-odd people in the room formed a chanting column and marched to a campus plaza. Neuroscience graduate student Katelyn Arnemann pushed a stroller carrying her one-year-old baby. Arnemann, who’s studying Alzheimer’s disease, decorated the stroller with a sign showing a graduate student crushed beneath the weight of research, teaching, education, and family.

Protesters holding signs assembled in a long line on an elevated section of the plaza, and a growing crowd of people formed a semicircle beneath them. The bright day had grown unexpectedly warm. Puffy coats were wrapped around waists and draped over bike helmets and backpacks on the ground. An emcee wearing the red graduate student union T-shirt led a chant: “When education is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”

Berkeley Protests

Graduate students, a postdoctoral scientist, an undergraduate student, and a professor all addressed the crowd, which grew to more than a hundred people. But when Downey took up the microphone, she said, “I see that a key constituency is missing — and that is our administration. Where are they? What is the plan?”

The UC Berkeley graduate student union had a plan, she said, outlined in a letter addressed to Chancellor Christ. The letter thanked the administration for speaking out against the tax plan, but it asked for more from the UC administration and the UC Regents: that they ensure the tax bill doesn’t financially harm graduate students and that they push for a tuition-free UC system. It was a defeated message that showed a lack of confidence in the government’s willingness to help.

Berkeley Protests

A much smaller column of people chanting “No cuts, no fees, education must be free!” marched from the plaza to the administration’s offices to deliver the letter. About 10 minutes after the “Carol Christ, come down!” chant faded away, the chancellor’s chief of staff Khira Griscavage appeared and held up Downey’s microphone. She said she would receive the letter on behalf of the chancellor and they would respond if the letter asked them to.

The students wanted a response. “We're asking for free tuition,” a student in a red union T-shirt called back. “We're asking for our administrators to support a subsidized tax plan. And we're asking them to exercise a more mobilized and militant resistance to the GOP tax plan.”

Griscavage peeled one of the letters off the door, folded the tape down along its sides, and walked away, leaving “What is the backup plan?” still stuck to the glass. If the final bill succeeds at raising graduate students’ taxes, universities across the country will be forced to respond, but for now, that question remained unanswered. With the letter delivered, the protest fizzled out. People went back to their teaching, research, and grading responsibilities, leaving a “Fuck Tui$ion” sign lying on the ground.

Students gathered for a group photo before marching to the plaza where the protest would take place.


Students gathered to make signs before marching to the plaza where the protest took place.