Hundreds of students at State University of New York campuses from New York City to Buffalo walked out of classes and held rallies Wednesday to protest program cuts, demand a rollback of tuition hikes, and show solidarity with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
"I'm here because the state Legislature cut SUNY's budget by more than $300 million this year, and then over the summer they passed a plan to raise tuition by $300 a year every year for the next five years," said Jackie Hayes, a graduate student in Latin American studies at SUNY Albany. "On our campus, the state budget cuts translated into the elimination of five departments — French, Russian, Theater, Italian, and Classics — and we're concerned about how the next round of cuts will affect academic programs."
Students at the Albany rally marched to the administration building and chanted "Let us in." After some negotiation, campus security let 230 students in to talk with President George Philip, but media were barred.
"It was a fruitful and productive discussion and we will be scheduling meetings in the future to continue the dialogue," campus spokesman Karl Luntta said after the 90 minute meeting that covered concerns from tuition and budget to administrative issues.
In New Paltz, New York Students Rising member Eirik Bjorkman said about 85 students walked out of classes about noon then sat in the shade listening to speakers and attending workshops on education and other statewide issues. Besides organizing through modern tools including social media, they used old fashioned methods such as brightly colored, foot-high chalk messages scrawled on sidewalks that said: "national walk out 10/5 noon."
While some students said they were aware of the Wall Street demonstrations, the New Paltz walkout was more connected to issues impacting students such as state budget cuts, rising tuition, increased class sizes and fewer course offerings.
"Personally, I don't have any idea what's going on with Wall Street. My main concern is the education system. These people will be leading the country someday and I would like a well-educated populace voting," said Brad Gorfein, a 24-year-old sociology and psychology major from Kings Park, N.Y.
Danielle Kingsbury, a 21-year-old senior from New Paltz, said she walked out of an American literature class to show support for some of her professors who she said have had their workloads increased because of budget cuts.
"The state of education in our country is ridiculous," said Kingsbury, who plans to teach. "The state doesn't care about it and we need to fight back about that."
Morgan Hook, spokesman for the 64-campus SUNY system, said the university has seen $1.4 billion in state budget cuts over the past four years. "What rational tuition does is stop the bleeding and make it so we don't have to shut down any more programs."
Annual tuition at four-year SUNY schools could rise to $6,500 under the plan, from less than $5,000 now.
Protest leaders in Albany passed out papers listing the six-figure salaries of top SUNY administrators. They called for cutting salaries and putting the money into academic programs.
"SUNY administrators are amassing millions of dollars in personal wealth while students are drowning in debt," said Kyla Philbrook, a senior psychology major. The crowd responded with a chant of "Chop from the top!"
Stephen Pampinella, a doctoral student in political science, gave out Gov. Andrew Cuomo's phone number and urged students to call and demand a repeal of tuition hikes, higher taxes on the wealthy, and a line-item SUNY budget provided to students on demand so they can see where their tuition money is going.
"Students across the state will mobilize and vote these guys out," Pampinella called through a megaphone.
Ralliers responded with the chant, "Rock the vote!"