By Trevor Christian
Stony Brook University students and unions celebrated May Day with a series of outdoor classes and speeches designed to call attention to the issues of student debt and rising tuition costs, among other topics.
Though May Day has a long history as an international labor holiday, the practice of offering classes, collectively called a “free university,” began in New York City in 2012. Classes were first held at Stony Brook last year along with a rally that tracked through the administration building.
This year, the focus remained on outdoor classes and a series of speeches in the plaza next to the Student Activities Center, a decision that a small police presence around the academic mall may have affected. Short talks by both undergraduate and graduate students alike drew cheers from a crowd of around 30, which also included professors and union workers.
“We wanted to bring awareness to the type of labor the graduate students do,” said Jessica Rybak, an organizer for the local chapter of Communications Workers of America (CWA) and part of the committee that ran the event. The CWA represents graduate students at Stony Brook.
But it was the classes taught by both professors and students that took up most of the day. Some were held in building lobbies in the morning and patches of grass in the afternoon after the rain let up. Other professors listed normal lecture sessions with the organizing committee and opened their classrooms to anyone interested.
Liz Montegary, who teaches gender studies and believes that public universities should be better funded by the state, hosted a discussion with her students on the lawn outside Frey Hall. She said she believes that education would be different if it were free.
“We’d be teaching ways of being accountable to our communities,” said Montegary, “we would be teaching modes of restorative justice, we would be teaching more radical ways of being over all.”
The discussion focused on how the privatization of public universities has specifically disadvantaged queer students, who are less likely to have parents willing to co-sign their loans.
While many at May Day said their goal was to slow or prevent privatization at Stony Brook. Mia Jorgensen, the executive vice president of the union that represents the State University of New York’s graduate students, said that the challenge is actually more difficult.
“I would argue that public universities are already privatized and that we would have to try to reverse it,” said Jorgensen.
Rybak, who during her time as an undergraduate student at Stony Brook organized many rallies, said she hopes to bring more activism to the university again by joining forces with other unions and organizations.
“We’re hoping that that coalition can grow into that kind of thing where we all support each other,” Rybak said.