BERKELEY — An estimated 5,000 students, professors and other employees packed UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza on Thursday to protest budget cuts and fee hikes they said are decimating the university system.
The two-hour rally — believed to be the largest Berkeley demonstration since the 1960s — coincided with a faculty walkout that moved many classes off campus for the day. Professors across the 10-campus UC system participated in smaller assemblies at other campuses to protest the university's handling of furlough days.
As the Berkeley rally began, lines of demonstrators streamed into the plaza from all sides, chanting and holding signs. Protesters brought many issues to the gathering: One sign advocated marijuana legalization, while others criticized administrative salaries and student-fee increases.
Some emphasized the need to keep Thursday's energy going long enough to make changes.
"What's really important is this is just the beginning," said senior NhuNhu Nguyen, a student government senator. "We should use our mobilization to hit the roots of the problem, which is legislative."
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who did not attend the rally, said he understood the anger, but said that Sacramento and California residents — not the university — are to blame.
"I don't blame the students and staff for being angry," he said. "They have to direct their anger somewhere."
The protests remained peaceful throughout the day, beginning with picketers at the entrances to campus. Around 11 a.m., the picketing groups began streaming into Sproul Plaza for the rally.
A series of faculty, student and employee speakers told the crowd they were angry that public support for the university had dwindled over the past few decades. The state has cut hundreds of millions each from the UC and California State University budgets over the past two years.
"You are wonderful to be supporting our cause. We support you, too," a custodian told the crowd. He said he had been laid off last week, one of more than 150 layoffs on the Berkeley campus this year.
Most professors planned to stay out of classes Thursday and some planned teach-ins and rallies throughout the day. The protests coincided with the first day of classes on eight campuses statewide.
Geology Professor George Brimhall was one who said he felt a responsibility to be in class for any student who wished to be there, though he gave them the choice of attending or not. He also planned to repeat the course for those who missed the early session.
"I feel like I still have a contract with any student who wants to be here," he said. "I'll lecture to one student if that's who shows up."
On the picket line, a union ceramics technician expressed the broad concern underlying the protest.
"All the causes are aimed at one thing, they're trying to decimate the university," Robert Abrams said. The "they," he said, was government in general. "There has to be a better way."
Brimhall had a different way of expressing the difficulty of focusing on an issue and a cause.
"The problem is so big that is difficult to know what any of us can do," he said. His idea for a solution was to repeal Proposition 13, the state's cap on property taxes that voters approved in 1978.
The protest comes after a rough year for the university, which has cut enrollment, ordered employee furloughs and raised student fees to make up for state budget cuts. In November, the Board of Regents is expected to increase tuition by 32 percent over the next year.
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246.
Correction: An early online version of this story incorrectly quoted a participant. In commenting on tuition increases, Victoria Fowler should have been quoted as saying of UC President Mark Yudof, "He said he wants to raise tuition in order to maintain a high caliber of education, but at the same time he's furloughing faculty. It doesn't make any sense." The early version also misspelled the name of UC Berkeley employee Toni Mendicino.