Undercutting the student voice

Dave Player

The Student Government Assembly passed a resolution Tuesday to include a referendum on the ballot in this spring’s election. The referendum will include two questions: first, “Do you support the proposed tuition increase?” and second, “Would you accept budget cuts to a wide-range of University services and programs?”

At face value, “referendum” is a misnomer. A true referendum puts an issue to the public whereby the popular vote will be decisive in what course of action is taken on the issue. For example, in 2010 the UT student body voted in favor of a referendum to create the Green Fee, a $5 per-semester fee for each student to be used for environmental initiatives. The issue was put forth, students voted and the issue was decided.

In contrast, Tuesday night’s “referendum” carries no binding significance. Tuition is set biennially by the UT System Board of Regents. The regents incorporate recommendations from President William Powers Jr. and the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee, a committee that includes several student members. This “referendum” would essentially be an opinion poll. The result will not force any action on the part of any party. The only possible merit would be to provide “feedback” to the regents on student responses to those two questions.

The fact that the legislation in question passes itself off as a referendum when it so clearly is not is disingenuous. It defrauds student voters into thinking their vote on that item carries more weight than it factually could.

Additionally, the fact that the two survey options are not presented as being mutually exclusive essentially renders the data worthless. For the past three years, the University has undergone drastic downsizing as first administrative and then faculty positions were either consolidated or eliminated. If the University does not increase some area of revenue to cope with the reductions in state funding, then further cuts to academic offerings will be necessary.

I don’t like tuition increases. As a law student, I pay substantially more per semester than the average UT student. If asked, I would say that no, I would not favor tuition increases. Concurrently, I don’t like cuts to academic offerings or student services. Like many Longhorns, I came to UT for its world-class academic offerings. Faced with the two questions posed by the “referendum,” I would vote “no” for each.

And thus, my vote would be meaningless. It is inevitable that one of the two outcomes will transpire. Any polling of student opinion should seek to discover which of the two options students prefer. Students don’t like paying higher tuition, and they don’t like cuts to academics and services. What had the potential to be a useful tool to measure student opinion will instead only confirm a truism: UT students don’t like bad things. Instead, poor formulation makes this “referendum” an exercise in futility.

There are deeper and more troubling concerns with the referendum, however. Most notably, a last-minute survey disguised as a referendum serves to undercut the student voice in the tuition setting process and disenfranchise the thousands of students who participated in last March’s election.

One of the major tenets of the platforms of last year’s student body president candidates was their respective stances on setting tuition. Students’ votes were influenced by candidates’ positions, and more than 8,000 students voted to decide who should represent them to the campus’ administration and the UT System regents.

If that system of student representation, a system that students fought for years to have in place, is allowed to be undercut by a last-minute resolution, then the entire process is cheapened. The weight of student opinion in the future may well be called into question since the current Student Government assembly, in their recklessness, has shown how easily it may be disregarded.

A minority fringe has taken it upon themselves to subvert the democratic process and substitute their own opinions and views for yours and mine. Calling themselves “Occupy UT,” the group seeks a form of democracy in which it is not a matter of who gets the most votes but of who can best shout-down the opposition that gets to dictate campus policy. Should this quasi-referendum find its way to the ballot in March, it will serve no purpose but to undermine the democratic process and weaken the student voice on future issues.

Meanwhile, our student representatives have allowed themselves to be strong-armed in a misguided attempt to reappropriate the student voice. As the students too busy occupying a classroom or library to attend the SG meeting, we shouldn’t stand for it.