Mum’s the word

Thursday’s UT System Board of Regents meeting came and went with perhaps the most unwelcome news possible regarding tuition for the next two years: No news at all.

The regents’ decision hurls the University into a state of uncertainty, creating administrative nightmares as it prepares its budget for the 2012-13 academic year. Students are left adrift in nightmares of their own as they begin registering for classes on Monday without knowing what their tuition bills will be.

In 2010, the previous tuition-setting year, the regents approved the tuition proposals of the system’s universities in early March. The group’s continued delay is the longest since the state Legislature granted tuition-setting power to the board in 2003, and the reason for the delay remains largely unexplained, according to The Daily Texan.

President William Powers Jr. submitted his proposal to the UT System in January to increase tuition by 2.6 percent for resident undergraduate students and by 3.6 percent for all other students. Powers’ recommendation mirrored the proposal prepared by the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC), which is composed of nine voting members, four of which are students. However, much of TPAC’s process resembled a charade as it was bound by directives from the system. Two of the most restrictive directives set a cap on the maximum tuition increase TPAC could propose and required that all increases be tied to improving four-year undergraduate graduation rates.

The board’s delay in addressing tuition policy brings about a few interesting questions.

First, the next scheduled regents meeting is May 2-3, which coincides with the hellacious last week of classes for most students at UT. And while the board has been supportive of keeping tuition low, any increase will likely be met with demurring by individuals who feel that any increase simply reinforces the hegemonic narrative of transferring the burden of public education from the state to parents and students. The board does have the option of calling a special meeting before May to address tuition, however.

Second, since last year, several University administrators have privately acknowledged — and cringed at — the possibility of the regents disallowing any tuition increases at all despite state budgets cuts. Their postponement of the decision only adds to that anxiety.

Deans at UT had to submit a proposal to the provost’s office in October that outlined how they would use any extra money they receive from increasing tuition to improve four-year graduation rates. The Daily Texan acquired the proposals through the Texas Public Information Act.

Several deans proposed using the money to reduce bottleneck courses, improve academic advising and tracking and increase mentorship services. Others, such as at engineering and business deans, proposed using the money to hire tenure and tenure-track faculty members to reduce the student-to-faculty ratios in classrooms — a respectable thought, but one that is concerned more with improving rankings than graduation rates. The College of Communication even suggested using some of the new money to build a bridge across Dean Keeton Street to connect the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center with the new Belo Center for New Media, which will open in November.

It is possible that the regents may scrutinize the proposals and feel that they do not merit a tuition increase. UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said that the deans’ proposals are currently being reviewed by the chancellor.

Additionally, while most universities in the state are upholding the emerging tradition of increasing tuition, some are holding out. Within the UT System, UT-Brownsville, UT-San Antonio and UT-El Paso are all proposing tuition increases, but UT-Arlington is not. And while the Texas A&M University System approved a system-wide, 3.95 percent tuition increase in February, the University of Houston System plans to keep its tuition the same.

The implications of the board’s decision go beyond the biennium as a change in tuition policy can affect how many view higher education as a whole.
At the moment though, the board’s inaction just has everyone else scrambling.