UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley hunger strike enters eighth day

From the left, Claire Buss, Zoila Lara-Cea, and Kevin Sazo are three of seven hunger strikers entering their eighth day of protesting recent cuts to the Ethnic Studies department at UC Berkeley. Photo: John C. Osborn

Zolia Lara-Cea considers UC Berkeley home, and the staff and faculty in the Ethnic Studies department family.

On Tuesday, Lara-Cea, a third-year Ethnic Studies student, switched between studying material for an upcoming final and talking with joy about her long history with UC Berkeley outside of California Hall yesterday. Seven days without nourishment did little to crack her spirit, and, despite her fatigue and the speed with which her heart beat even after walking a short distance, she spoke with a clear, coherent purpose.

“Even though you’re physically hurting, you need to make sure your spirit is in good shape,” Lara-Cea said. “They’re [staff/faculty in department] part of our family. An assault on them is an assault on our family.”

Lara-Cea is one of seven people now entering their eighth day without eating to protest the controversial consolidation of Ethnic Studies with other social science programs, resulting in staff reductions and the demotion of faculty to half-time. Despite camping out on the lawn for a week, and issuing a set of demands, students have yet to reach a deal with administrators.

Jorge Gonzalez, an Ethnic Studies graduate student who has attended the university on and off for 10 years, said the department’s staff has been so whittled down that it now only has two office workers and two counselors. Ethnic Studies lost two positions last semester and will now shed 2.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff positions. The constant reductions are harming retention and recruitment, he said.

The hunger strikers are watching this downward spiral within the department with alarm, said Gonzalez. “They’re seeing the looming future… that’s why they’re making this gesture. It’s a gesture that is selfless, and you have to appreciate that.”

Claire Buss, a senior who participated in a hunger strike last year over issues revolving around undocumented students and Arizona’s controversial SB 1080, said she felt great physically, but was cautious about whether the administration would concede to their demands.

“When it comes to the administration,” Buss said, “they don’t really care about us students; it comes down to the bottom line.”

Kevin Sazo, a 19-year-old East Oakland resident who has aspirations of enrolling in UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies program, spoke with a quiet, almost meditative voice. He felt compelled to join the hunger strike for what he sees as an attack on his future dreams.

“I thought, ‘how can they be attacking Ethnic Studies,’” Sazo said. “I took the initiative of being here and supporting the protest.”

Twelve people started the hunger strike on April 26 following a larger protest criticizing the consolidation of three departments under Operational Excellence, UC Berkeley’s initiative to cut costs and streamline its bureaucracy. The administration has proposed consolidating Gender and Women’s Studies, African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies to save $500,000 in staff costs.

The hunger strikers and their supporters sent a letter to university officials on April 26 outlining four demands: reinstate staff positions eliminated under Operation Excellence, end the current process of Operation Excellence, publicly support ACR 34 — an Assembly resolution that would formally recognize the work of Ethnic Studies departments statewide — and publicly acknowledge the unfulfilled promise to create a Third World College at the university.

A spokesperson with the university couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. But in a letter responding to the demands of the hunger strikers, administrators reiterated a need for the university to trim down due to losing more than $100 million in funding over the past three years. Officials also defended the methodology used under Operation Excellence when distributing cuts throughout campus. In the letter, administrators said they were open to dialogue with the hunger strikers.

“Our hope is to understand one another better, given that we have the same ultimate goals for equity and inclusion,” the letter stated. “This hope also applies to questions about the particular structure of ethnic and related studies and their place in the academic organization.”

Although administrators and student representatives have met several times over the past week, no agreement has been reached between the two parties.

A rally is planned for noon on Friday outside Cal Hall while the seven protesters continue their hunger strike.

As Lara-Cea recounted her early years living in Casa Joaquin Murrieta while her mother attended school (Ethnic Studies as well), she thought about the chain of circumstances that brought her to that moment. She tasted her first campus protest with her mother in the late 80s, early 90s over cuts to the department at the time, she said. After losing her art portfolio to a flood, and succumbing to lung disease and other respiratory aliments while attending Xavier University, Lara-Cera enrolled at UC Berkeley.

“I really think it was fate that brought me here, and it was my dream to come here when I was a kid,” Lara-Cea said. “The lack of diversity saddens me, but it’s home.”

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  • everybody knows

    Ethnic studies programs promote ethnic divisions and therefore do much more to promote the racial segregation of society than to diminish it. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever for race-based differences in genetic predisposition for behavior or intelligence in humans. This means that it is all about perception. The ignorant of our society perceive that there are real differences between races and ethnic groups. This is not true. The only differences are cultural. Ignorance of this affects the poorest segments of our society with the least access to information much more than these not-so-hungry looking folks who want to keep the academy of ethnic division in place out of pure self-interest. They should be working to promote human unity, not divisions. Yes, our history as humans, and indeed our present, is full of inequalities, biases, and atrocities based on ethnicity and race. Why on Earth do we want to promote these divisions by sanctioning their existence in the academy? As I sit now in a hotel room in Ethiopia, looking out the window at people who are truly in need, it is very hard not to look at the picture of the so called ‘hunger’ strikers without extreme cynicism. The world is full of horrible inequity, ethnocentrism, and racism. Why not work to END IT by showing the reality of the essential equity of all humans?

  • everybody knows

    Ethnic studies programs promote ethnic divisions and therefore do much more to promote the racial segregation of society than to diminish it. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever for race-based differences in genetic predisposition for behavior or intelligence in humans. This means that it is all about perception. The ignorant of our society perceive that there are real differences between races and ethnic groups. This is not true. The only differences are cultural. Ignorance of this affects the poorest segments of our society with the least access to information much more than these not-so-hungry looking folks who want to keep the academy of ethnic division in place out of pure self-interest. They should be working to promote human unity, not divisions. Yes, our history as humans, and indeed our present, is full of inequalities, biases, and atrocities based on ethnicity and race. Why on Earth do we want to promote these divisions by sanctioning their existence in the academy? As I sit now in a hotel room in Ethiopia, looking out the window at people who are truly in need, it is very hard not to look at the picture of the so called ‘hunger’ strikers without extreme cynicism. The world is full of horrible inequity, ethnocentrism, and racism. Why not work to END IT by showing the reality of the essential equity of all humans?

  • The Sharkey

    One way the University could trim down their budget is to reign in the overly generous pay & benefits packages they give to their top administrators.

  • Luvtroublemaker

    I disagree with this comment: “Ethnic studies programs promote ethnic divisions and therefore do much more to promote the racial segregation of society than to diminish it.”

    Why didn’t you look at it as though you can better understand different ethnicities and find the commonalities that bring people together. Besides, the U.S. is a mixed pot, we need to learn about the cultural differences to gain an understanding of how to live together. Cultural diversity makes this place unique.

  • Thierry

    Just get rid of this department. I’ve been seeing these lame protests constantly since I attended Cal a decade ago. It serves no purpose (as all the other curriculum in real departments addresses the Ethnic Studies subjects) and is a waste of budget. It’s like having “World Arithmetic” in addition to degrees in Math.

  • Glee

    I fully understand your point, and have argued the same point with people before. I don’t know what the ethnic studies degree is completely about, but I’m pretty sure the “differences” taught and explored are cultural. So courses like these would serve to inject cultural awareness among students and thus open up the ethnocentrism which exists in the world. However, I personally believe those clubs at universities which exclusively caters to a particular race or culture, adds to racial segregation. I know they say they’re celebrating a minority among a larger student body, but it truly suggests separation from the larger student body. I think ethnic classes are important for university students, but I don’t have too much sympathy for their staff reduction. I got my bachelor’s at a UC, and I frequently see these types of protests. Budget cuts affect everybody, but it needs to come out of somewhere. I wonder what these students’ suggestions are for an alternative to cutting from them. Another dept?

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.panzer Eric Panzer

    I think there may well be an interesting and substantive debate to be had about the role of the Ethnic Studies department at UC Berkeley. Nevertheless, I disagree with the dismissive characterizations of the department. One could use similar reasoning to suggest combining Linguistics and Rhetoric with English, lumping Art History and Art Practice, or eliminating the Chemistry department–some would say it’s really just “applied physics” anyway. I imagine that we wouldn’t so easily dismiss Linguistics, Art History, or Chemistry–but then again, perhaps there’s support for those amalgamations, too. Some may argue that, due its being in the humanities, Ethnic Studies is either being rightly or unfairly targeted. It is thus interesting to note that the Energy and Resources Group (a department pretty firmly planted in “hard science”) is experiencing a similar “change in reporting structure.”

    Worthy debate or not, I feel this is a distraction from the real issues: budget cuts to higher education and the bloated, top-heavy nature of the UC administration. I applaud efforts to bring attention to programmatic cuts; unfortunately, I think these protestors’ tactics are misplaced. Hunger strikes are aguably a very extreme sort of protest best reserved for violations of fundamental human rights or cases of severe oppression. The issue of budget cuts as they relate to departmental restructuring is, at best, only very tangentially related to human rights. Going on a hunger strike seems like a shrill response more likely to alienate the public than win its support. If these students want to take action to save not only their program, but the integrity of the UC system at large, I’d argue that they’d be better off eating a healthy breakfast, traveling to Sacramento, and demanding audiences with Republicans in the state legislature. But that’s just me. I prefer approaches that involve both talking and eating–though usually not both at the same time.

  • The Sharkey

    I don’t know about getting rid of it, but it does seem odd that it’s its own department instead of being a specialization in the larger field of Sociology.

  • Doc

    Ethnic studies always infuses a marxist critique into social diversity. The students no longer want a marxist take on politics. Hence the program is out of date.

  • Szunderwood

    Right. Ethnic Studies is a proving ground for militant, leftwing activism. As a degree or as a credential, ethnic studies indoctrinates students in the techniques of agit prop, protest and militancy all in service of the “La Raza.” At least in its infancy, the “Causes” of Ethnic Studies were larger societal issues of racism, injustice and systemic inequality, but, increasingly the cause has become mostly self-referential – protecting Ethnic Studies itself from the budget ax.

    UC Berkeley is a public, tax payer subsidized university which has no business enabling a highly politicized department exclusively devoted to churning out doctrinaire activists on one end of the political spectrum. I hope all of you would join me in outrage if a public university with your tax dollars facilitated a loosely defined academic discipline whose primary purpose was to incubate far right wing social activists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.panzer Eric Panzer

    Knowing students in and graduates of the Ethnic Studies program, I can confidently say that your characterization constitutes little more than a sweeping generalization and an ad hominem attack. I’ve certainly disagreed at times with the arguments and ideologies of my friends who have studied in this department, but your description is beyond the pale.

    Scientific research at UC Berkeley has led to the creation of truly horrifying weapons capable of rendering humanity extinct, but I hardly think we should judge our science program based solely on this fact. One could also point out that Texas A&M and our national military academies churn out some extreme right wingers–but this is neither representative nor helpful to the discussion.

    As if to prove my original point, this conversation–which should be about the state budget and administrative inefficiencies–has inevitably devolved into a food fight about academic, left-wing boogeymen. How very expected and disheartening.

  • Szunderwood

    Eric:

    I took some Ethnic Studies classes at UC Berkeley and at another UC campus. I was exposed to the extreme bias of the professors and the lack of true diversity of thought or opinion in those classes. It was lockstep indoctrination. Beyond that, I had (and have) several close friends who majored in Ethnic Studies and took on the whole ethnic studies mentality and way of life during their college years. One ended up dropping out of UCB and became a full time homeless activist while living the homeless lifestyle in Berkeley voluntarily (despite the rich, imploring parents back in Pacific Palisades). Yes, there are ethnic studies majors or those who take some classes to become more broadly educated in other cultures. I applaud that wholeheartedly. But, for the most part, the authors you are assigned to read and the rhetoric of the professors is simply ideologically distorted propaganda, not educationj.

    While I enjoy your comments here and I commend you for your many trenchant insights, I will respectfully differ with you on this one. Again, if the “stereotype” of a rightwing oriented, highly politicized, dogmatic social studies program was to churn out anti-abortion activists, open carry wingnuts, tea party/anti-government extremists, homophobic family values activists and so forth, I don’t think Eric Panzer would see as much nuance in the issue or give the department a pass with tax payer subsidies. At least, I hope not… Well, the fact is, I know you would not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sebastian-Eikhof/536453799 Sebastian Eikhof

    UNITED YOU SHALL STAND THERE BATTLE GOES FORTH I AM GREATLY AMAZED THAT THE PEOPLE WHO TOOK ACTION AGAINST THE PEOPLE WHO WERE FIGHTING ON HUNGER WERE THE MOST AWEFUL AND DESPITED PEOPLE THERE NO RIGHT FOR THIS KIND OF CRUELTY LET JUSTICE BE DONE

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.panzer Eric Panzer

    Thanks SZ, I really do appreciate your thoughtful response. Having never taken a class in the department, I will certainly grant that if I had taken one, perhaps I would find myself in agreement with you. It may very well be that my friends are the exception rather than the rule.

    At any rate, I certainly respect your view, and I think there’s enough room in this debate for the both of us.

  • Anonymous

    So cut everyone else but not us?

  • alyx

    no cut the bloated administration not the departments.

  • History can’t be ignored

    The original post under the title “everybody knows” is sheer idiocy. The title to begin with, is nothing more than a logical fallacy–an appeal to the masses.

    Ethnic Studies is not about perpetuating biological racism, but it does require students to understand and articulate the difference between archaic ways of thinking like biological racism and the shift toward cultural racism–which is what the author of this peculiar piece of biological argumentation is guilty of.

    Don’t mean to burst your bubble homie, but you’re the ignorant one. You may try to hide behind claims of not being racist because you don’t see skin color, but are you are as racist as they come. Don’t try to wax intellectual on a subject you know nothing of. Those whose power and privilege is borne out of the oppression and subjugation of masses the world over, historically predicated on race, are the most racist of all, since they hide behind claims of not discriminating against people. The refusal to see whether intentional or unintentional is clearly illustrated by the person who made the post–you are racist. You won’t or can’t see and that is what academia should be addressing. The refusal to articulate in academia these systems serves to perpetuate extant systems of privilege that are constructed on a system of racism. plain and simple. You need to go study and educate yourself, before your racism continues to subjugate others through your ignorance.

    Your claim as to cosmopolitanism, which you fail to understand is what you are arguing, is a farce and an insult to any individual with a critical mind. You’re an automaton that fails to see your racism in that you seek to ignore and erase the history of oppression that has given you everything. Don’t fool yourself, you haven’t earned a damn thing–life was handed to you on a silver platter, and your words prove it. Educate yourself son!

  • Szunderwood called out!

    I dare you to substantiate your claims. vagueness doesn’t hold anywhere, especially not at Cal. Name them! Who are these propagandists authors? Foucault, Stuart Hall, Gramsci, Wallerstein, Spivak, Hardt, Negri, liberation theorists? Who are these almighty academics in the traditional departments that are so much better than these? So far, you’re discourse couched in niceties is nothing but masked ad hominem attacks.

    After doing this, and showing some semblance of knowing anything about the subject, then show how the authors in your subject are “educational”.

    Your taxpayer argument is archaic and woefully ignorant of the nature of academia. If academia was subject to the state, then there would be no academic integrity permitted–professors would be puppets of power, and that most disciplines are nothing more than that does not serve the interests of the public. Do you even think your arguments through?

  • Sharkey has no bite.

    why are you trying to ossify knowledge? What interests are served by limiting the manner in which things are approached? Interdisciplinary knowledge reflects the manner in which the real world functions, things are never limited to a singular perspective like Sociology, Anthropology, or Political Science. Knowledge is furthered by interdisciplinary approaches, that is why there are an increasing number of interdisciplinary programs at the grad school level–it is harder to get into those programs than the standard ones.

  • The Sharkey

    Looking at the possibility of uniting similar disciplines into one larger department doesn’t ossify anything. If implemented correctly it would make interdisciplinary learning easier.

    What interests are served by combining departments? Budgetary interests. Which are extremely important right now given our current fiscal crisis in California.

  • The Sharkey

    Responses like this are just supporting Szunderwood’s comments. You really aren’t helping yourself any with outbursts like this.

  • Szunderwood

    I just would like to thank you for proving my point better than I ever could! Your hectoring, hostile, belligerent, ultra-self-righteous and narrow minded diatribes on this forum exactly epitomize the essence of an ethnic studies “education.”

  • Szunderwood

    I just would like to thank you for proving my point better than I ever could! Your hectoring, hostile, belligerent, ultra-self-righteous and narrow minded diatribes on this forum exactly epitomize the essence of an ethnic studies “education.”

  • The Sharkey

    This person may not actually be an Ethnic Studies major at Cal.

    If you take a look at their profile (click on the icon of a head next to their name) you can see that they frequently change their screen name and post trollish comments across several different news sites.

  • Szunderwood

    Good point. If I were trying to write a parody of an ethnic studies extremist, this is how it would come out…

  • The Sharkey

    Ha ha! Exactly!

    At first I couldn’t believe how well he proved your point, but it just feels like too perfect of an example of what you were talking about for it to not be a set-up.

    But who knows, maybe this guy really is that hopelessly unaware.

  • Doc

    Ethnic Studies is an idea who’s time has gone. The departments are closing nationally. Immigrants want to succeed in the U.S., not be taught to fail as revenge against capitalist expoitation. There is much room for teaching respectful diversity, but that is just not what the content of Ethnic studies has been about. Students flocked to hear about cultural revolution 40 years ago. Students today have made their decision for a better education. They should be congratulated for their wisdom.

  • everybody knows

    So, which group of people is it that you are against? Can you characterize them? It sounds like you are saying the people who are not racist/ethnocentric are the most racist and ethnocentric of all… or are you saying that it is actually ethical to be racist/ethnocentric? Or are you saying that some race/ethnic groups are bad for being non-racist and non-ethnocentric while others are good for being racist and ethnocentric? You sound very confused and angry. I am sorry that life has not been good to you, and it is natural to blame others for it. In fact, it is an aspect of human nature to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, to prefer the group you are in, and to have antipathy for others. It happens everywhere in the world. Why not just get over the whole idea of groups? Your racism/ethnocentrism against an ambiguously defined group of oppressors is a cowardly. I dare you to identify the group by ethnicity and race!

  • everybody knows

    So, which group of people is it that you are against? Can you characterize them? It sounds like you are saying the people who are not racist/ethnocentric are the most racist and ethnocentric of all… or are you saying that it is actually ethical to be racist/ethnocentric? Or are you saying that some race/ethnic groups are bad for being non-racist and non-ethnocentric while others are good for being racist and ethnocentric? You sound very confused and angry. I am sorry that life has not been good to you, and it is natural to blame others for it. In fact, it is an aspect of human nature to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people, to prefer the group you are in, and to have antipathy for others. It happens everywhere in the world. Why not just get over the whole idea of groups? Your racism/ethnocentrism against an ambiguously defined group of oppressors is a cowardly. I dare you to identify the group by ethnicity and race!

  • sandy

    I am currently within the Ethnic Studies department and can understand
    how some may be confused as to what you would use the major for. But I
    believe this is because many who do not understand, do not have much knowledge
    in the area. There are many jobs that can be pursued with this major especially
    considering many students within Ethnic Studies double major. Often times
    students major in Education and Ethnic Studies, Psychology and Ethnic
    Studies…In just one example the Ethnic Studies component is beneficial in
    working with youth and adults of all different backgrounds. This allows a
    career/academic counselor, teacher… to have more incite and a better ability to
    work with an array of students. Also it is the understanding of different
    perspectives Ethnic Studies teaches you that allows for someone to put into
    conversation many different perspectives and see what each one has to offer.
    I myself hope to work with youth on artistic expression and wildlife
    preservation. When working with youth of all different backgrounds I hope
    to work on understanding our cultural differences but at the same time on a teamwork
    effort. I myself am an American but culturally my family is from Central
    America. It is important to remember where we come from and the long
    histories we are a part of because that is what helps make us unique.
    This understanding does not promote divisions, it gives us grounding.
    If we were all the same and from the same place this would not be
    America. The area now called the United States of America has always been
    a place of diversity with over 200 different languages spoken before 1492.
    After 1492 this country has been a hub for people across the world.
    It is this diversity and differences in culture that makes us the U.S.
    and it is with these many different perspectives that we grow because we
    all have different understandings of things.

  • sandy

    I am currently within the Ethnic Studies department and can understand
    how some may be confused as to what you would use the major for. But I
    believe this is because many who do not understand, do not have much knowledge
    in the area. There are many jobs that can be pursued with this major especially
    considering many students within Ethnic Studies double major. Often times
    students major in Education and Ethnic Studies, Psychology and Ethnic
    Studies…In just one example the Ethnic Studies component is beneficial in
    working with youth and adults of all different backgrounds. This allows a
    career/academic counselor, teacher… to have more incite and a better ability to
    work with an array of students. Also it is the understanding of different
    perspectives Ethnic Studies teaches you that allows for someone to put into
    conversation many different perspectives and see what each one has to offer.
    I myself hope to work with youth on artistic expression and wildlife
    preservation. When working with youth of all different backgrounds I hope
    to work on understanding our cultural differences but at the same time on a teamwork
    effort. I myself am an American but culturally my family is from Central
    America. It is important to remember where we come from and the long
    histories we are a part of because that is what helps make us unique.
    This understanding does not promote divisions, it gives us grounding.
    If we were all the same and from the same place this would not be
    America. The area now called the United States of America has always been
    a place of diversity with over 200 different languages spoken before 1492.
    After 1492 this country has been a hub for people across the world.
    It is this diversity and differences in culture that makes us the U.S.
    and it is with these many different perspectives that we grow because we
    all have different understandings of things.

  • Former ES student

    As someone who majored in ethnic studies and was a grad student in the program at Berkeley, I think it’s biggest problem are not budget cuts or other external attacks but rather it’s a failure to look inward and recognize that the program has failed its students in providing a world class education. I think ethnic studies could be so much more but many of the professors and students are just wrapped up in thinking they are unjustly attacked rather than realizing that they’re to blame as well.

    I’ve seen ethnic studies grad students ill prepared to teach class and shown up by their students.
    My ES professor told me to resubmit my work because his “dog ate it” (I wish was kidding).
    I’ve seen another ES professor lecture to a class that was about a quarter full because he was a horrible lecturer that just relied on talking about the 60s.

    Of course there were some amazing ES professors (Takaki being one of the best) but there are too many substandard students/professors relative to the rest of the department.

    There are bad professors/grad students in other departments but I think if Berkeley ethnic studies students want to continue to justify resources for the department they’ll have to really look in the mirror and ask themselves if more resources is really the only issue that can “save ethnic studies”. It wasn’t doing so well when it had more resources.