Zachary Bell | Why I’m walking out

Critical Playground | March 1 is the National Day of Action for Education

· February 27, 2012, 11:50 pm   ·  Updated February 28, 2012, 11:45 pm

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Zachary Bell
Critical Playground

On Thursday at 1 p.m., I will put down my pencil, stand up and walk out of class. I’ll meet fellow students at the Button and we’ll walk to Governor Corbett’s office and to the Philadelphia School District building.

I will march alongside high school and college students, teachers, workers and community members. I will harmonize with voices from Temple, West Chester, Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Community College of Philadelphia and Penn. I will step in synchrony with protesters around the country.

It’s not my usual Thursday afternoon routine, but there’s a reason for it.

Students across Philadelphia are walking out on the National Day of Action for Education for a range of reasons. Some want gender-neutral housing on their college campuses. Others want living wages for their school’s staff. Many claim that student debt is depriving them of their right to an education. The March 1 Coalition Statement of Principles for Philadelphia Students outlines several more.

For me, one reason underlies the rest — the need for democratic decision-making within a university. Currently, the way that many colleges make decisions is unnecessarily opaque and exclusive. Penn, for example, is governed by a Board of Trustees that oversees all of its major governance and financial decisions. Trustees appoint key positions within the University, such as the President and have final say on Penn’s investments, relationship with the government and media.

Students can opine about things that impact their day-to-day lives through several bodies including the Undergraduate Assembly, but there’s only one space for us to give our input on larger University-wide decisions regarding investments, relations with West Philadelphia and corporate partnerships — the University Council.

The Council, which has no trustees, gives a select number of student groups and faculty a chance to discuss University operations (primarily educational objectives) with administrators. Once a year, the “Open Forum,” allows any student to speak for up to three minutes.

This year, I used my three minutes. I shared the March 1 Statement of Principles and invited administrators to start a dialogue on the issue. The result: silence paired with perfunctory smiles.

In a time when many colleges are cutting courses, raising tuitions and firing teachers —students deserve more than three minutes.

Past incidents where students, staff and community members have rallied against University decisions reveal flaws in Penn’s decision-making process. For many years, former residents of Black Bottom — a West Philadelphia neighborhood that was displaced by the University in the 1950s and 1960s — have protested Penn’s expansion. Last year, Penn finally decided not to renew its investment in HEI Hotels, which has been accused of unjust labor practices. This year, students protested Penn’s relationship with PNC Bank due to its involvement in mountain top removal.

Colleges are non-profits, commissioned to serve the community. Student tuitions sustain Penn and are paid to serve us. Students and West Philadelphians deserve a say during important decision-making processes and should not have to rely on protests after the fact.

This is enough to make me stand, but for those whose legs are tired, I’d like to offer a few other points that have pricked me when I’ve thought about staying seated.

The walk out does not just concern Penn: individuals are demonstrating solidarity with all Philadelphia students. While Penn is financially shielded, Temple University and Penn State face a 30 percent cut in funding in Corbett’s latest budget. Community colleges also risk losing $8 million.

It’s disturbing to think that students may be deprived of learning while we sit silently at our endowment-secured desks.

Walking out is not tantamount to signing an “I agree” petition — it’s deciding to engage in a discourse. The act of walking out says, “I am not going to raise my hand and wait to be called on by teacher. There are issues I’d really like to discuss and they’re just not being addressed here.”

If we believe in democracy, we cannot just inhabit institutions. We must be prepared to change them. Today, college is the primary institution that students belong to. Tomorrow, it will be society at large. When we enter the workforce, our generation will define the status quo.

The lords of politics, business, religion, medicine, media, music, art and education will rise out of their thrones and beckon us to sit down. We can choose to sit in those seats. Or squat. Or kneel. Or bring in a new chair. Or sit on the floor, or stand. Or walk out.

Zachary Bell is a College senior from New Haven, Conn. His email address is zacharyabell@gmail.com. Critical Playground appears every other Tuesday.

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