A group of students at San Francisco State University have decided to forgo food beginning Monday until administrators set aside $8 million in funding for the fiscally embattled College of Ethnic Studies.
The four students plan to camp inside tents at the grassy center of campus until SFSU President Leslie Wong or Provost Sue Rosser direct funding for Ethnic Studies to “not only sustain itself but thrive,” said Sofia Cardenas, a spokesperson for the students.
The College of Ethnic Studies learned in February that reserve funds from Academic Affairs used to close the college’s $200,000 to $250,000 annual budget deficit were depleted. According to Rosser, all of the colleges at SFSU have been underfunded since the recession in 2009.
That news prompted an outcry from faculty and students, who said losing that amount of money next year could have forced the college to suspend its graduate programs, eliminate 40 percent of faculty and cut half of the courses offered.
As a result of the uproar, Wong announced he would designate $200,000 in one-time funding for the college in the 2016-17 year. College faculty have countered that financial boost won’t cover all of its costs moving forward.
On Monday, four students decided to increase the pressure on the administration to secure additional money for the college.
They were supported by a crowd of about 100 as they marched around campus announcing the hunger strike and protesting possible tuition hikes across the California State University system, which the Board of Trustees is considering for the first time in almost five years.
Hassani Bell, 18, Julia Retzlaff, 19, Sachiel Rosen, 19, and Ahkeel Mestayer, 20, have dubbed themselves the Third World Liberation Front 2016. The name is in homage to the SFSU and other college students whose demonstrations in 1968 led to the establishment of the nation’s first Ethnic Studies college at SFSU.
“I’m upset,” said Mestayer, who came up the idea to go on a hunger strike after participating in multiple student rallies in support of Ethnic Studies. “I feel that the administration does not take students seriously.”
The students have named an $8 million figure because it would restore the college to its budget before the recession, Mestayer said. The budget for Ethnic Studies is around $3.5 million or more each year, according to Rosser, the provost.
“We don’t have $8 million,” Rosser told reporters during a news briefing Monday, which students forced their way into.
The university had not yet decided how it would respond to students camped out on campus as of Monday afternoon and Rosser did not say whether the students would be arrested. According to SFSU policy, erecting tents without the administration’s approval and camping are not allowed on campus.
“I have concerns about the health and welfare of these students,” Rosser said. “I can only reiterate that we are not cutting the budget of Ethnic Studies as we have said repeatedly.”
Rosser continued, “So if this is why they are going on hunger strike, I think they must have misinformation.”
All four of the students are enrolled in Ethnic Studies programs, and three are San Francisco natives.
Bell, who commutes to the campus on the southern end of The City from Stockton, said he grew up in Oakland’s Fruitvale and remembers hearing gunshots. An ethnic studies program at a high school in San Leandro helped him realize he wanted to change his community for the better, and dedicate his life to ethnic studies.
“When I volunteered to fast it was kind of just off instinct and anger,” Bell said, noting he did not want to witness his teachers lose their jobs. “Hopefully it doesn’t have to last too long.”
The hunger strikers view the problems with Ethnic Studies at SFSU as the manifestation of citywide issues, such as gentrification and displacement.
“The school wants to promote social justice and community activism,” Mestayer said. “And they’re doing the exact opposite of that.”
Retzlaff lives in the Sunset and said she has seen her neighbors and classmates forced out of The City.
Rosen said he and his companions are not part of any organization. However, he recognized that five other protesters have been camped out for 12 days in front of Mission Police Station, calling for the police chief to resign or be fired over a recent spate of fatal police shootings.
The demonstrators said they will abstain from eating until their demand is met and if they’re arrested, “We’ll be back the very next day,” Mestayer said.