When then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut the California higher education budget by 20 percent in 2009, the largest protests erupted on University of California campuses than had been seen in the United States since the 1960s. The struggle for public education was the culmination of a state Republican Party that had for years maintained effective minority rule by grafting the tax wedge onto the racial wedge and a Democratic opposition that came to accept the description of public infrastructure as a “safety net” for society's alleged losers. University administrators themselves suppressed public support for public funding by touting privatization measures as significant solutions, though these represented only marginal revenue increases. The media was largely indifferent to faculty and staff protests about loss of pay and cuts to education but showed surprising sympathy to students' fears that the fee hikes would deny them access to a bachelor's degree. While UC administrators systematically denied that public funding cuts would seriously damage educational access for low-income students or students of color, student movements reconnected these issues, constantly noting the links between reduced funding, reduced access, and racial discrimination. Along with democratic consensus making and the place of nonviolence in protest tactics, race was also a key issue around which activist coalitions broke down. Despite movement infighting, the student struggle for public education forced a quietly antieducation governor to stop cutting the higher education sector, brought international attention to the decline of public higher education in the United States, and produced public sympathy for the beneficiaries of the public sector for one of the few times in recent decades.

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