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Don’t pay tuition: why you should go on strike this fall

guest column

Editor's note: Duke announced it would rescind its planned tuition increase one day after the publication of this column.

If it was not already abundantly clear where Duke’s priorities lie, consider that the University is continuing to push for reopening despite the massive and ongoing surge in North Carolina COVID-19 cases. Duke recently limited housing to first-years and sophomores in an effort to increase safety, but the University should be keeping all students off campus in the name of safety, even if that means forfeiting revenue. Instead, Duke seems to care more about losing money than losing lives. And instead of offering a discounted rate of tuition to reflect the vast changes in our mode of instruction and on-campus lifestyle, Duke has opted to go ahead with an increase in tuition approved in February—the cost for each semester is up 3.9% from last year. Additionally, Duke’s refund policy isn’t budging—no matter what changes this fall, we are not going to get our money back. The act of submitting your tuition payment means you agree to these terms, so there’s only one solution: Don’t pay.

Of course, there are many reasons to go on strike besides unjust tuition rates. Duke has yet to publicly commit to divesting from the police and fossil fuels, or to refrain from investing in private prisons, ICE and all other exploitative industries which disproportionately harm BIPOC communities. Duke’s continued contracts with the Duke University Police Department and Allied Universal (a private security company with many allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination) protect and support these systems of oppression. Duke also has yet to meet the Black Coalition Against Policing’s necessary and urgent demands or to make Duke a sanctuary campus, and it has yet to secure the safety and protection of all its students and workers. 

Maybe you don’t think all of this is good enough to demand a tuition strike. Maybe you think Duke isn’t all that bad. After all, President Price has been sending lots of reassuring emails lately, including a list of regulations for on-campus health and a list of commitments to make Duke an antiracist university. Reading these emails might make you feel like Price and all of Duke administration really care about us, about making Duke a school dedicated to our livelihoods and to justice. But we must always be suspicious of declarations that are not quickly followed by action. And we have not seen enough meaningful action from Duke. It needs to recognize the urgency with which these changes need to happen: gradualism is deadly, and “patience is a dirty word.”

To ensure that the administration follows through on their promise of transformative justice, we have to force their hand. And to do that, we have to keep from them what matters the most: our money. The fact is, Duke is a mostly wealthy and white university. According to its website, 48 percent of undergraduate students can afford to pay full tuition. To that 48 percent, and especially to wealthy white students: You have the most power to make demands and create transformative change for the entire student body.

So if you truly want what is best for this university and you have the capacity to do so, you must go on strike. If you want to stand in solidarity with your Black peers and use your privilege as leverage to push back against the system that hurts them, you must go on strike. If you want to be on the right side of history, to ensure a future of sustainability and justice and love for the students that will come generations after us, you must go on strike. 

To be clear: first-gen, low-income and BIPOC students are not the primary students being called on to strike, but they are certainly welcome to join what will be a sustained movement. If they choose to do so, this effort will advocate for their protection, academic standing and financial stability if they are threatened by the University for any reason. 

Being serious about going on strike undoubtedly comes with a lot of questions. How will this affect you and your family? Will your standing with the University be compromised? What if Duke decides to just kick you out and you miss a semester? 

In hoping to provide answers, I will say this: This strike will be a collective effort, because there is strength in our numbers. If you choose to strike and Duke responds by threatening your enrollment or conduct status, your choice to pay tuition at any time will not be held against you. This effort will aim to be supportive and protective of all its members, and it will respect their decisions. However, the more of us participate in this strike, the less the power balance is skewed. Together we can create a community based on support and horizontal organization, a powerful force of students ready to stand firm against any attempts by our University to silence us. 

Within this community, there will be several levels to the strike. Many of you are probably considering taking a leave of absence this semester, and the deadline to request one is soon: August 15th. If you choose to go through with it, we urge you to use this email template to defer/withdraw in the name of justice. For students choosing to remain enrolled this fall: if you or your family have significant reservations about withholding full tuition, another option is to claim a discount. This summer, tuition dropped from $3430 to $2500 for a non-lab course, a decrease of 37.2%. It is only just if you claim this discount for the fall, especially if you are a junior or senior without on-campus housing. Use these email templates (including one for students on financial aid) to claim your discount and withhold fees that pay for services and facilities you will not be able to access. Lastly, if you cannot strike for any reason, consider signing your name here in support of the strike (all signees will remain anonymous) and urging any student organizations you know to sign here as well. All of these links can be shared collectively here, and you can direct any questions you may have to duketuitionstrike@gmail.com.

So what next? Soon a formal pledge to strike will be released along with demands for the University. Information will also be provided in the future about how to talk to parents and know your rights and risks as a student striker (follow @duketuitionstrike on Instagram and @DukeStrike on twitter for updates!). In the meantime, mention the strike to your family and friends, and please share and fill out this survey to voice your thoughts about Duke’s actions for change and your comfort level with getting involved. 

As the fall semester creeps closer, I implore you to think about your place at Duke University, and what you want its future to look like. I implore you to think deeply about whether or not Duke is really doing what’s best for its students. And if you can, I implore you to strike and help us all find strength and healing in resistance.

Andrew Parker is a Trinity sophomore working with an Inter-Campus Mobilization movement that aims to organize striking efforts on college campuses across the US, and with a new student abolitionist group called the Abolish and Build Collective.

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