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Rising tuition, 'Occupy' spark new campus activism

TAMPA - Dani Leppo planned to keep her head down, study and finish as fast as possible when she transferred from St. Petersburg College to the University of South Florida this year. But as she crossed campus one day, she saw a group of people holding signs saying tuition was going up 15 percent. An activist was born. "We can barely pay our bills," Leppo said, "and here they are raising tuition."
USF government professor Harry Vanden sees the anger rising on campuses across the country. "This is a very bad situation for students everywhere," he said. "Student debt is higher than it's ever been. There are no jobs to speak of. These issues affect all of them across the country and it could unite them." Leppo joined the Tampa chapter of the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, a modern day version of the student protest group from the 1960s. Another group of students recently formed an Occupy USF group to call attention to students' struggles. Overall, their numbers at USF and throughout the country are small, nothing like the masses who made up the campus protests of the 1960s and '70s. But Vanden, who has written extensively on social reform movements, predicts the student groups will grow. "I think it's very serious, and I frankly have been surprised that something hasn't started before."   * * * * *   Political science professor Susan MacManus agrees the problems are serious for students. She doesn't, however, see it leading to mass protests. "A lot of my students are saying they don't have time to get involved," she said. "They're more concerned about getting through their classes and getting out and moving on." She said she saw more involvement three years ago, when Barack Obama was running for president. Obama targeted young voters like no candidate had. And they turned out in record numbers to vote for him in 2008, said a Pew Research Center study, "Millenials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change." The new SDS had emerged two years earlier, in 2006, with many of its members becoming active in the anti-Iraq war movement, said Justin Wooten, who helped start an SDS chapter at the University of Florida. But the energy waned after Obama's election and the disillusionment that accompanied the financial collapse. Some people thought the new SDS would collapse, said Wooten, now a student at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Then came Occupy Wall Street. "I think that's giving everyone sort of a new consciousness," Wooten said. Another thing is fueling these protests among students, said Mike Chrisemer, who helped start an SDS group at Florida State University before graduating two years ago.He now attends a graduate program at City University of New York. "These are people who grew up with technology, so you're seeing people using social media, like Twitter, to coordinate these mass protests. It's just natural for them."   * * * * *   A group of California students has begun coordinating the campus protest groups through a website called Occupy Colleges. "We're trying to bring them together around the essential issues," said Natalia Abrams, a recent graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles. Occupy Colleges is calling for a nationwide student strike for Nov. 28, "in solidarity with UC Davis , UC Berkeley, CUNY Schools and all students who are defending their right to protest against rising tuition cost and out of control student debt," says the website. Leppo, at USF, said she has surprised herself in the past few months. She was always the type to speak up if she saw something that was wrong, she said, but she never saw herself as a campus protest leader. After she got her associate's degree at St. Petersburg College a few years ago, she began drifting, "traveling, just like partying, not really doing anything substantial," she said. She came to USF to get focused and finish her bachelor's degree in English. Then she learned about the tuition increase. She lives at home with her mother and works 12 hours a week at a beauty supply store. She has a Pell Grant, but it doesn't cover everything, so tuition increases worry her. "These are our lives we're talking about, our future," Leppo said. This year's increase is the latest in a string of annual 15 percent hikes, imposed largely to make up for state cuts to university budgets over the past five years.   * * * * *   The SDS Tampa chapter had just started in August, so when Leppo joined, she was one of a handful of members. But each time they staged an action on campus, coming out with their signs and flyers, they drew a small crowd and a few more email addresses. Earlier this month, they banded with Occupy USF and assembled about 60 people who marched to the administration building at the southeast end of campus to present demands, including a tuition freeze. That same day, about 60 other students from the USF system trekked to a state Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton to take a stand against efforts to split USF Polytechnic from USF. In Tampa, administrators were waiting for the SDS and Occupy students, armed with charts and explanations about why tuition was going up. Including fees, it's about $6,000 a year for a full-time, in-state student, but that's lower than almost every other state's tuition. The students had planned to stage a sit-in until the administrators invited them into the building to talk about the problem of state funding, Leppo said. A similar thing happened when SDS members met with a group of USF student government leaders two week ago. "Our wallets are hurting," said Student Body President Matt Diaz. "But our battle is with the state Legislature," which has been consistently cutting the state university budgets. "Without the increase, the situation would be so much worse," Diaz said. Professors would be laid off, class sizes would go up, financial aid would go down. The SDS members agreed to work with the student government leaders and USF's administration, for now, to pack as many buses as they can in January for student day at the Legislature. Leppo's not sure what to expect after that. If there are more cuts and faculty members start losing their jobs and tuition goes up yet again, she predicts that students who've been hanging back will join the protesters. "Then you'll see some real anger," she said.

lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834 Twitter: @TBO_USFetc

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