The University of California has long posited its mission as one that serves society as a center of higher learning by advancing knowledge and research, aimed at ensuring equitable access and opportunity to the most talented and capable candidates.
But despite outward images, the past few years — even prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — have proved that the UC does not prioritize the needs and well-being of its students and staff.
UC Santa Barbara has failed on many basic levels to provide those who attend and work at the institution with the facilities to succeed here. The 2021 housing crisis is one blatant example — over 1,000 students were unable to find housing at the start of the school year, with hundreds of students being housed in hotels by the university and others living out of cars and facing housing insecurity.
And at large, the UC as a whole has systematically failed its most integral and important members. In 2020, the UC Regents presented data that showed 44% of undergraduates had experienced food insecurity, 16% had experienced housing insecurity and 5% had experienced homelessness in the past year.
The UC should not be surprised that they are now enduring the largest worker strike in higher education history. The strike is based on allegations that the UC has committed 30 unfair labor practices, including failing to engage in bargaining with academic worker unions who are asking for higher pay, cost of living adjustments and paid leave.
At the root of this problem lies the UC’s continuing inability to meaningfully engage with the concerns of its campus communities.
Unrest around the cost of living in Santa Barbara and other UC campus-adjacent counties was instigated in late February and early March 2020, when UC graduate students participated in the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) strikes across UC universities.
As the name of the strike demonstrates, graduate students advocated for higher wages due to a high cost of living in California. Though the strike was not authorized by United Auto Workers (UAW) Union 2865, the need for better pay and accommodations had already been clearly voiced to the UCs.
The strikes and higher pay advocacy took a back seat during the 2020-21 school year as people mostly worked remotely due to the pandemic. However, during Fall Quarter 2021, the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), a union representing nontenure-track teachers and librarians across all UC campuses, held informational pickets and was ready to strike over alleged unfair labor practices.
The strike was ultimately averted after the UC reached an agreement with the union for new contracts that included significant improvements to job security, salaries, paid family leave policy and better workload standards.
Earlier this week, Student Researchers United, UAW 5810 and UAW 2865 began a strike with union authorization.
Academic employees have long made clear the reality that they suffer from rent burden struggles, with 90% of workers spending more than 30% of their income toward paying rent according to UAW 2865. The average university salary of Academic Student Employees is a mere $21,000 a year, and the raises proposed by the UC will do little to alleviate the burden.
The union’s rent burden alleviation proposals — including a minimum graduate student salary of $54,000 — would make great strides toward eliminating the housing affordability struggles that UC employees face.
The multiple movements and attempts from UC employees asking this public institution to abide by its message in being an accessible place of education by helping staff meet necessary wages and needs begs the question: What recourse do people have for accessible education and employment if public educational institutions refuse to meet the basic needs of its community?
Last year, the Daily Nexus Editorial Board published a piece to address the housing and course shortages and offered the university this bit of criticism: There’s a fundamental flaw in the way the university is approaching education if the basic needs of students can’t even be met.
The same principle is applicable and true to UC employees.
In order to finance student housing projects, the state needs to commit to reinvesting in the UC. The UC has experienced severe revenue loss during the COVID-19 pandemic due to state budget cuts of $470 million in 2020. A continued reduction in funding to the UC would be unsustainable, when coupled with the state’s mandate for enrollment growth across all 10 UC campuses.
The 2022-23 state budget approved in July increased annual funding to the UC by $300 million, an upward trajectory necessary for its public universities to meet the basic housing and cost-of-living needs of the campus community.
The issue of housing, overall, is one the UC has chosen to address with stagnancy and bluster. Graduate and postdoctoral students are not being paid enough to afford housing near their workplace. Undergraduate students at UCSB are forced into an extremely crowded housing market with insufficient alternatives provided through university housing.
Currently, UCSB is facing litigation from both the County of Santa Barbara and the City of Goleta for violating the Long Range Development Plan in increasing enrollment without concurrently building sufficient housing. Several other UCs, such as UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine, have also been contending with housing crises that remain unaddressed.
It seems the UC is too preoccupied with increasing enrollment numbers — so much so that it is coming at the cost of addressing a basic need of the UC community: housing.
Undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students will not be able to benefit from or contribute to any educational institution without appropriate and accessible housing. To prioritize any other issue at this time would be to admit that the well-being of the people who attend, run and shape the UC as an accessible and prestigious institution are of lower priority than the profit of increased enrollment.
Last year, the Daily Nexus Editorial Board offered the following solutions to UCSB in how to address the housing shortage: The Nexus advises that the housing task force established by Chancellor Henry T. Yang should address the housing shortage in the long term, as this issue, though exacerbated this past summer, has been going on for years. The housing crisis is not an issue that can be neatly solved through temporary hotel housing — there needs to be concrete policies, decisions and conversations about this recurring, endemic issue in I.V. to ensure that students do not have to worry about a roof over their heads in the midst of signing up for fall quarter classes.
This advised solution is applicable to the larger UC system as well.
The University of California must treat the current housing crises — for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students across all of its universities — as an ongoing and long-term issue and address it through task forces and concrete policies that ultimately build additional housing and secure better funding for wages quickly and safely.
Problems and potential solutions must be addressed during UC Regent meetings. UC President Michael V. Drake must start conversations and engender tangible action to better support the UC community.
Undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students don’t disappear the minute they pay their tuition to the university. They stay to attend classes, conduct ground-breaking research and guide young minds to new ideas. But they must be appropriately supported by the university if they are expected to continue contributing to it. Otherwise, it’s not a mutually beneficial relationship; it’s parasitic.
The UC system has failed its mission and purpose — though they may be reluctant to realize or admit this. However, it’s not too late to right these wrongs.
The Daily Nexus Editorial Board advises the UC to begin addressing housing as an ongoing crisis impacting its undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students and take the necessary actions with re-budgeting and tangible policies to finally meet its mission statement and become the accessible and prestigious university it claims to be.
We are tired of waiting. Take action now.
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Nov. 17, 2022, print edition of the Daily Nexus