Pay attention, be vocal

Holly Heinrich

As summer approaches it’s tempting to let thoughts of the University slip into the back of our minds. But if you’ve been advocating for higher education at the Capitol, it’s time to pay closer attention and get more active: Major decisions are still being made. With one month left in the regular legislative session, many major higher education decisions are still up in the air. It’s possible the Legislature will intentionally bring up heated higher education issues while most students and faculty are out of Austin. That’s happened before.

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, for instance, scheduled a key hearing on legislation regarding guns on campus during spring break, when the committee was aware that students would be out of town. So whether you’re staying in Austin or heading home for the summer, don’t let the Legislature believe you’ve stopped paying attention to politics. If students don’t stay aware and involved, policy-makers will be far more comfortable making decisions that students oppose. No one wants to return to campus in the fall to discover their University has been downgraded from an institution striving to reach the top tier of academic excellence to one that has become a budget education superstore, the Costco or Sam’s Club of public universities. The following are a few issues to follow and contact your legislators about in summer and fall 2011.

The Board of Regents
The Board of Regents has considerable power to set University policy — and it is also one of the least transparent and accountable policy-making entities in the state. Recently, the regents have been embroiled in a conflict centered around the hiring and subsequent firing of an adviser who advocated cutting back research, a goal which is out of step with the University’s long-standing mission to be a top research institution. There is also controversy surrounding a recent challenge by Gov. Rick Perry, who asked university regents to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree (including textbooks), a feat which many experts say is only possible if most classes are online. The Board of Regents has assembled two task forces to review these issues: the Task Force on Blended and Online Learning and the Task Force on University Excellence and Productivity. Be on the lookout for their recommendations because their findings may influence the Regents’ decisions on whether to implement plans which would make the quality of a UT degree very different from what it is today.

The regents are also expected to raise tuition during the upcoming school year, but due to expected state budget cuts, this decision wouldn’t be surprising. State contributions to the University have been decreasing since 2003, when the Legislature gave the regents the power to set tuition; between 2003-2008, tuition and fees rose 63 percent. Students have the best chance of preventing drastic tuition increases by advocating for university funding from the Legislature.

The Board of Regents will hold public meetings on May 11-12, July 13-14 and Aug. 24-25.

The Higher Education Budget
Tuition increases and financial aid are dependent on the amount of funding the University receives from the state. The University has postponed releasing financial aid offers to next year’s incoming freshman class because the University does not know how much aid, if any, it will be able to provide. The budget passed by the Texas House cuts nearly $1 billion from higher education. The proposed Senate budget cuts less, but still reduces higher education funding by $500 million. This is an important issue to speak out on now, and when you return home, ask your family and friends to contact state legislators and tell them to continue funding universities.

Congressional redistricting has never been a hot-button issue for college students, but it matters, especially at UT. Logically, the University would be best represented by a congressperson who lives in Austin and understands the concerns of the University and its students. Instead, the University lies in Republican Congressman Lamar Smith’s district, which stretches all the way to San Antonio, where Smith resides. UT students make up a minor part of his constituency, so the University does not have to be a significant consideration in his congressional votes or elections. Redistricting has long been viewed as a political game, but voters are increasingly taking interest, especially in areas where a community has been intentionally gerrymandered and people cannot elect the representative who best represents their needs.

The University we return to in the fall will be directly affected by the decisions made by the Legislature and the Board of Regents during the summer. If you care about the quality and cost of your degree, keep paying attention, and stay vocal while you’re away.