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DAVIS, Calif (Reuters) - Violent confrontations between police and protesters at two University of California campuses have drawn a new cadre of students into the Occupy Wall Street movement and unleashed what some historians call the biggest surge in campus activism since the 1960s.
While Occupy Wall Street protesters have a broad set of grievances that include income inequality and perceived corporate greed, many students have more specific concerns: soaring tuition, campus budget cuts, and fear of heavy student loan debt and lack of job opportunities upon graduation.
Student protests related to these issues have broken out sporadically on U.S. college campuses over the past few years, but the Occupy protests - and the police response to them - have swelled the ranks of campus activists in recent weeks.
A crowd of about 2,000 students, professors and parents held a rally at UC Davis on Monday and called for university Chancellor Linda Katehi to resign after police last week pepper-sprayed students sitting passively on the campus quad.
Video of an officer spraying an orange-colored pepper spray directly into the faces of cross-legged students circulated heavily on television and the Internet, prompting outrage as well as a wave of cartoon parodies.
"We didn't really know what it was until we actually were here on the quad (quadrangle) seeing fellow students getting maced," said John Caccamo, an 18-year-old biology student at UC Davis. The campus, near Sacramento, is not known as a hotbed of activism.
"This is the first time in the 11 years I've been here that students have said - 'Wait a minute, I need to wake up to where I am and what's going on,'" UC Davis art professor Robin Hill told Reuters at the Davis rally.
At UC Berkeley, a cradle of 1960s student activism, students and faculty members were hit with nightsticks earlier this month when campus police moved to break up an Occupy encampment.
The president of the 10-campus UC system, Mark G. Yudof, said he was "appalled" by the Berkeley and Davis incidents and has hired William J. Bratton, former police chief of New York and later Los Angeles, to lead an investigation.
The uptick in student activism has coincided with the efforts by authorities in many cities to shut down Occupy encampments. College campuses are increasingly a focal point of the movement in California and elsewhere.
In New York, protesters at Baruch College who were demonstrating against tuition increases scuffled with police earlier this week, leading to a dozen arrests.
At UC Davis, an encampment of some 100 tents has sprung up since Monday's rally. Encampments are also in place at UC Berkeley and other California campuses.
New York University historian Robert Cohen said the Occupy movement on California campuses is accelerating quickly compared with the student movement of the 1960s.
"If you date things from the Port Huron Statement and the summer of '62, it wasn't really until the fall of '64 that there was a mass student movement on campus," he said. The Port Huron Statement was the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the key groups of the 1960s New Left movement in the United States.
The 1960s and early 1970s were a time of great social unrest as college students rallied against the Vietnam war and in support of minority and women's rights.
Angus Johnston, a historian at City University of New York, said, "What we have had up until now is something very similar to the early 1960s, where you had not a huge number of activists but a committed core who were working really hard but weren't getting huge amount of traction from media or fellow students."
California students have regularly protested tuition hikes since the economy slumped three years ago. Tuition for in-state students in the ten campuses of the University of California reached $12,192 (7,862 pounds) this year, up from $2,274 two decades ago.
At the 23 campuses of the California State University system, which is increasingly plagued by overcrowding, tuition this year is $5,472, up from $1,572 as recently as 2002-2003.
In part because of the tuition hikes, a growing number of students now face large student loan debts, with two-thirds of 2010 graduating seniors nationally in debt an average of $25,250, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. That is up 5 percent from the year before.
Some earlier California demonstrations over tuition resulted in serious scuffles with police that included use of pepper spray and Tasers. One woman had reconstructive surgery after a UC Berkeley police officer hit her with a nightstick.
But those incidents received far less attention than those recently associated with the Occupy movement.
"When a cop pepper-sprays a student, everyone can sort of imagine their children, or their nieces or nephews, their friends who are students," said Kyle Arnone, a 26-year old teaching assistant at the University of California's Los Angeles campus.
"It's harder for the public to stigmatize student protesters as being a bunch of hippie, unemployed people that are difficult to relate to."
Additional reporting by Laird Harrison in Berkeley and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Paul Simao.