THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Group walks 114 miles to protest higher education cuts

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / October 8, 2010

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The 10 marchers, slightly haggard but determined, trekked 114 miles from Pittsfield to the foot of the State House to deliver a message yesterday to legislators: Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities are in a free fall after enduring years of budget cuts.

Campuses have faced layoffs. Student fees have skyrocketed. And the number of full-time professors is dwindling while enrollments spike.

“We’re seeing campuses get squeezed to the limit,’’ said Alex Kulenovic, a recent UMass Boston graduate and organizing director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which spearheaded the march. “Higher education is not a privilege for the elite or a commodity for the few who can afford it. It is a right for everyone.’’

As tourists and curious passersby looked on, more than 250 professors, students, alumni, and staff of the state’s public higher education system joined the marchers at a rally on the edge of Boston Common to mark the end of the six-day march. Protesters waved signs that said “Fund education’’ and “Stop the cuts.’’

The goal of the walk, which began last Saturday at Berkshire Community College and included stops at eight other public colleges, is to call on every legislator in this election year to pledge to increase state funding for higher education and lower tuition and fees to the national average.

Massachusetts ranks 46th among the 50 states in per capita support for public higher education and has cut funding per student more than almost any other state in the last five years, according to data compiled by State Higher Education Executive Officers. The cuts have driven the University of Massachusetts system to raise tuition and fees to among the highest in the country for public universities.

“We decided we needed to do something a little more dramatic to wake people up about the importance of reinvesting in public higher education,’’ said Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at UMass Amherst, one of the people who made the full cross-state trek.

Senator Stan Rosenberg praised the crowd for mobilizing to demand that Beacon Hill begin to rebuild the higher education system in a state that gave birth to public education.

“We are seeing a national trend but it’s being played out in Massachusetts far more aggressively and far more destructively than any place else in the country,’’ said Rosenberg, a Democrat from Amherst. “The public higher education system in Massachusetts is absolutely dying. It’s time that Massachusetts get right and straight with public higher education again.’’

Others called attention to the effects, large and small, of the cuts. Grace Altyoub, a UMass Dartmouth freshman from Dudley who was studying to become a nurse, won’t be returning next semester because she can no longer afford the school, despite having worked 60-hour weeks all summer as a manager at a Dunkin’ Donuts. Mark Clinton, the only full-time political science professor at Holyoke Community College, said he has to bring his own chalk and dry-erase markers to classrooms because supplies are scarce.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, warned the crowd that if voters roll back the sales tax, as Question 3 proposes, the state would lose $2.5 billion in revenue, and “you can bet that those of us who work in education will have a bull’s-eye on our backs.’’

Organizers of the march say they hope legislators will commit to making significant progress towards bringing funding, and tuition and fees, in line with the national averages by 2012 to increase college access to working-class families. Doing so, they said, would also help the state make progress toward Governor Deval Patrick’s vision of making two years of community college education free to all high school graduates.

Following the rally, marchers set off to knock on legislators’ office doors. Mostly, they met with aides, pitching their cause from conference tables and office couches. They secured some commitments. Others were reluctant to make any promises.

“As you know, Steve is a strong supporter of higher education,’’ Sean Connolly, aide to Democratic Representative Stephen Kulik of Worthington, told a contingent from Western Massachusetts. “I will pass this on to him. But these things can be hard, particularly given the financial situation now.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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