A United Voice

Viviana Aldous

Student leaders sent a letter to the Board of Regents on Monday urging them to increase transparency and consider student input in the discussions of possible changes to the UT System.

The regents are considering substantial changes to higher education at institutions in the System that would ultimately diminish the quality of education offered by these institutions.

Senate of College Councils President Carisa Nietsche, Student Government President Natalie Butler, Graduate Student Assembly President Manuel Gonzalez and 10 college council presidents signed the letter that identified key discussions and student responses to them.

The most controversial of the reforms threatens research and questions its value. One “reform” proposes separating teaching budgets from research budgets — a change that would prove devastating to faculty and students at the University, a top research institution.

In response, the letter reads, “The value of our institution rests on its cutting-edge research and world-class faculty. … Diluting the role of research in undergraduate education at UT would decrease the value of the degrees sought by students and would diminish the competitiveness of Texas’ students when applying to jobs and graduate schools across the country.”

This excerpt alone shows that student leaders understand both the significance of research at UT and, more importantly, that the Board of Regents is ignoring student, faculty and alumni input, much of which denounces the suggested reforms.

The little value the regents place on student input was made clear after Butler wrote a letter to the board following a trip to Arizona State University with regents Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich. In her letter, Butler denounced the attempt to model UT after ASU. Shortly after she sent her letter to the Board of Regents, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa wrote to ASU’s president apologizing for Butler’s letter and clarifying that her views do not reflect those of the UT System.

Many of the proposed reforms to the UT System have been embraced by ASU. ASU’s model is attractive for political leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, who has called for a $10,000 bachelor’s degree plan that would necessitate more online learning to lower the cost of education.

Additionally, the controversy surrounding the hiring and subsequent dismissal of Rick O’Donnell reflects yet again the lack of transparency and consideration of students, administrators and alumni of the UT System. It seemed as though the board heard their criticisms when it dismissed O’Donnell, a former senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation who was hired as a special adviser to the Board of Regents. O’Donnell supported a number of changes to the System, including the separation of teaching from research.

However, just one day after O’Donnell’s dismissal, the board replaced O’Donnell with Sandra Woodley, the former chief financial officer and chief planning officer for the Arizona University System.

At a time when the regents are considering significant changes to the UT System, it is important that students take a stand together in defense of the quality education that UT offers.

Ideally, student opinion would be advocated to the regents through the student regent. Perry recently appointed John Davis Rutkauskas, a Plan II, business honors, finance and French junior, to serve as a student regent from June 1 through May 31, 2012.

But last week, Rutkauskas told The Daily Texan, “The [student regent] position is not about approaching the board as an activist but as an intermediary presenting the students' opinion, rather than demanding action.”

In the face of threats to higher education, his refusal to “demand action” is disconcerting, as the crucial role of a student regent is exactly that.

While it appears Rutkauskas has no plans to advocate for students, it is relieving that student leaders at UT are speaking out against the regents and in support of preservation of quality higher education. The letter is a significant stride toward presenting a united student voice against the suggested reforms.

The regents have made it clear that they only want supportive feedback, but with more students and alumni denouncing the reforms and demanding more transparency, their input will grow increasingly difficult to ignore.