Four San Francisco State University students mark the beginning of a hunger strike at a rally at the main quad, to demand $8 million in funding from the university for the College of Ethnic Studies. (Natalie Yemenidjian/KQED)
A protest at San Francisco State University Monday marked the beginning of a hunger strike by four students who vowed to go hungry until the school agrees to increase the budget for the College of Ethnic Studies.
At least 200 people showed up for a noontime rally to support the hunger strikers.
"I'm out here because these are racist attacks against the college," said Julia Retzlaff, a hunger striker who said she won't be attending her classes during the strike. "As a white person, I have to be an ally and to show up."
"I'm exhausted," said Chris Arreola, one of the strike's supporters. "Our education shouldn't come at the cost of our bodies or at the cost of our voices."
The College of Ethnic Studies announced in February that it was facing a shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and would face staff and program cuts unless it got financial help from the university. Students protested, and the administration agreed to fund part of the college's short-term deficit.
San Francisco State has said the annual operational cost for the college is $5 million, of which $3.4 million has been covered by available university funding and the balance made up by payments from a reserve fund. The administration said earlier this year that the reserve funding has been depleted.
Among the hunger strikers' demands is significantly increased funding for the College of Ethnic Studies -- $8 million a year. College supporters said the $8 million would cover operational expenses like salaries for tenured professors, for untenured lecturers who make up 40 percent of the teaching staff and for student services. The increased amount would also allow the college to thrive, supporters say.
"If Ethnic Studies doesn't get the $8 million, we're coming for [President Leslie Wong's job]," said S.F. State student Ahkeel Mestayer, 20, one of those who said he's on hunger strike. "Let's say we don't get the $8 million. Having the community support us is an act of revolution."
Beyond the budget issues, college supporters say the university has retaliated against them by not allowing the college to hire new faculty for two vacant tenured positions.
Sue Rosser, S.F. State's provost and vice president for academic affairs, disputed the claim the university is taking a punitive stance.
"We are not cutting the budget of Ethnic Studies as we have said repeatedly," Rosser said at a press conference Monday.
The four students on hunger strike, -- Retzlaff, Mestayer, Hassani Bell and Sachiel Rosen -- are minoring in the college's race and resistance studies. They have dubbed themselves the Third World Liberation Front 2016, alluding to the 1968 Black Student Union/Third World Liberation Front's protest from which the College of Ethnic Studies was established.
Bell, who grew up in East Oakland, went to San Leandro High School, where he took ethnic studies courses.
"I hope I can do the same thing my teachers did for me," Bell said. "Convince youth that their lives matter. It's hard to believe you really mean something."