Free University will provide no tuition fees for students

Brett Johnson

The Free University of San Francisco opened its doors to students seeking a cost-free alternative to traditional higher education, a concept that has piqued the interest of some Sacramento State students, and left others skeptical.

The university has no permanent classrooms, no administration buildings and no paid faculty. Students do not earn college credits or grades for the classes they take, and the courses have no prerequisites. The university is not an official institution, nor does it plan to be.

“That’s part of the magic,” said Alan Kaufman, creator of Free University. “We’re a collective. We’re a university that exists only within the heart of its members. We see teaching as a conversation between students and teachers, and we don’t need walls for that.”

Kaufman, an author and professor prior to the school’s beginnings, first conceived of the idea for the university in 2004 following his strike against his former employer, The Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Kaufman held freedom of speech seminars in his pop-culture class to protest the school. When the administration restricted him from having guests come in and give free speech lectures, he took his classroom outside &- onto the streets. Kaufman said in that moment he realized being inside of a classroom was unnecessary to his teaching.

“We need to stand up to the colleges that are exploiting students,” Kaufman said. “I want to bring about the downfall of the capitalization and privatization of education, and have higher education reconsider their profit-seeking ways.”

The Free University has seven lecture courses taught by volunteering professors and self-taught professionals in law, art, literature and history. The first set of classes started Sunday and is scheduled to run until April 3. Classes are presently held at Viracocha, an antique store that has given the university permission to use its premises.

The university is featuring a course on American law and evidence taught by Matt Gonzalez, prominent San Francisco lawyer and running mate of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Chuck Sperry, an artist renowned for creating posters for big-name rock bands, is teaching an art seminar.

“A university without tuition or fees could exist anywhere, including Sacramento,” Kaufman said. “We’re creating a model for free higher education that anyone can emulate. That’s our role, our purpose.”

Ethnic studies professor Timothy Fong supports the idea, but questions how realistic it is for a university to function without money.

“Higher education was originally intended to be available to anyone,” Fong said, “Education is supposed to be a right, not a privilege. The unfortunate truth is that instructors, buildings and technology all require money. It’s not really possible for anything to be free in today’s society. The Free University seems like a good cause, but I just don’t see it working.”

Junior graphic design major Martin Mendoza said not having to take out loans and empty his bank account for an education is a foreign concept to him.

“I think that it’s an awesome idea,” he said. “I mean, we pay all of this money for what? A piece of paper that says we learned something. There’s been times that I’ve paid money for elective courses just because they seemed interesting, and not because it was a requirement. If I could learn those interesting things for free, I would definitely do it.”

While a tuition-free college experience appeals to some, senior speech pathology major Stephanie Borja said not receiving credits for courses takes away from the purpose of going to a university.

“What student wouldn’t want to go to college for free?” Borja said, “However, you need a degree for just about any profession. The option to take some free classes on the side would be nice, but I wouldn’t give up my Sac State education, however expensive it is, for a school that won’t grant me a diploma.”

Kaufman said the Free University will continue to expand, and will do so without the help of any fundraising or donations. The university has another 13 planned classes to implement, with an additional 30 proposed courses still being evaluated.

“There’s been a lot of question about whether or not the Free University is sustainable,” Kaufman said, “I say that it’s sustainable as long as there’s enough people that care about it. I’ve seen students in terrible financial conditions, sleeping on dirty laundry and eating Ramen all day. If we can continue teach, liberate and empower students without any money being involved &- we’ll sustain.”

Brett Johnson can be reached at [email protected]