University at Albany students demonstrating against tuition hikes and program cuts weren’t sure if President George Philip could hear their demands, so they brought the protest to his doorstep.
Philip stood on the steps leading down to the atrium at University Hall for about an hour and a half Wednesday afternoon as a group of about 250 students aired grievances ranging from a $300 annual tuition increase to more than $300 million in budget cuts to the State University of New York.
The impromptu meeting with the group came after organizers led a raucous march from the academic podium to Philip’s office. The meeting resulted in the president agreeing to host a question-and-answer session with the student faction next month.
Colin Donnaruma, a graduate student and one of the rally’s organizers, was encouraged by Philip’s willingness to listen.
“I thought it was a big step forward,” he said after the meeting. “He’s met with very small groups before, but he’s never agreed to meet with one this size.”
Donnaruma said the goal is to convince Philip to become a vocal champion of their cause in Albany, instead of passively watching the state Legislature pass budgets that harm the university and students. Last year, budget cuts resulted in the elimination of five departments at UAlbany.
“We told him to fight for us,” he said.
The annual tuition totals $4,970 for in-state residents, before fees, room and board.
The protest was part of an organized classroom walkout on 20 campuses around the state. At UAlbany, fliers advertising the protest featured a picture of a pig displaying the university’s top six salaries with the words “chop from the top — fight back against budget cuts and tuition hikes.”
Students issued a list of demands that included a repeal of the tuition hike, better student advocacy from SUNY administration and a more transparent budget process. They also called on administrators to accept a pay cut to reflect the difficult fiscal times facing the state university system.
Protesters were originally going to keep the demonstration on the academic podium, but shortly after the walkout began decided to bring their message directly to the administration building.
The group was initially turned away by several UAlbany police officers, but after several minutes of chanting from the students, officials agreed to meet with a dozen protesters to work out conditions under which Philip would meet with them.
Those conditions included a media blackout during the discussion. The Albany Student Press, however, was able to keep a staff member with the group and delivered live updates on Twitter.
The student-run newspaper indicated Philip touted the NYSUNY 2020 Challenge Grant Program as a way he’ll be able to hire more faculty for UAlbany’s humanities programs. He also told them that he agreed with most of their concerns.
“We know that we do not want to jeopardize access to this university,” the newspaper quoted him saying.
The protesters also called on Philip to stop collecting his pension, a request that he summarily denied, according to the newspaper. Philip earns an annual salary of $280,000, but also collects about $261,000 in retirement benefits each year.
Philip did not make himself available for comment after his discussion with students. UAlbany spokesman Karl Luntta characterized Philip’s discussion with students as “very productive.”
“He’s taking their questions into consideration,” he said.
Many of the protesters seemed energized by the meeting, and they vowed to return in force if Philip doesn’t hold to his promise to meet with them again in short order.
Donnaruma said the organizing effort benefited from the energy generated by ongoing protests on Wall Street. Several of the walkout’s organizers recently returned from the Manhattan protest and used it as an inspiration for Wednesday’s event.
Kyla Philbrook, a senior majoring in psychology, found herself inspired. She wasn’t as impressed by Philip’s reaction and doubted that he would act on their demands.
“But what happened here today is starting to dispel some of that reputation of apathy UAlbany has earned,” she said afterward. “[Philip] pretty much ignored us for a year. Now he can’t ignore us any more.”
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