Students

In Heated State-Budget Fights, Students Strive to Be Heard

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Students protested budget cuts last year at the U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, one of several states in which student activists have tried to persuade legislators to drop or moderate their plans to slash spending on higher education.
June 10, 2015

Public colleges and universities in several states once again face the prospect of sharp budget cuts this year, and students say they have an important role to play in opposing them.

Still, student activists say, mobilizing peers is at least as significant a challenge, as they might not understand how budget cuts will affect them — until the cuts occur. Other activists say politicians don’t take them seriously. Timing can also be a barrier: Many legislative sessions wrap up in the summer, when most students are no longer on the campus.

The Chronicle examined college and university systems in four states that face significant budget cuts this year — Wisconsin, Louisiana, Illinois, and Connecticut — and spoke with students and experts to gauge how students are influencing the debate, and whether their efforts to roll back the proposed cuts are paying off.

Wisconsin

Initial proposed cut: $300 million over two years (13 percent) across 26 University of Wisconsin campuses.

What the cut could mean: The flagship campus, in Madison, said it would eliminate at least 400 positions in anticipation of the budget cuts and would scale back some academic and support programs. At least six campuses in the system have offered buyouts to some faculty and staff members.

What students have done: A group called UW Students Against Education Cuts has gained nearly 1,700 members on Facebook and has spoken out on campuses and at the Legislature. The group’s leaders have tried to design activities — such as a rally between classes — to take no more than a few minutes of students’ time. Students have also spearheaded a campaign asking the system’s president, Raymond W. Cross, to either take a public stand against state leaders’ budget proposals or resign.

"By the time it affects every student, it’s too late," said Lorenzo L. Lones, vice president of the student body on the Green Bay campus. "We’ve tried to help them understand the severity of the situation."

Changes made to the proposed cut: Lawmakers voted to reduce the cut to $250 million in late May. They have also moved to reduce the faculty’s role in shared governance and to remove tenure protections from state law, prompting an outcry from faculty leaders. The system’s Board of Regents voted late last month to move such tenure protections to system policy, though many faculty members have said that tenure would still be weakened if the budget plan was adopted.

Important date: June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, is the deadline for the state’s budget to be adopted.

Have students made a difference? A number of students have worked passionately to oppose the cuts, but Mr. Lones admitted that he doesn’t think many Wisconsin politicians care what students think. David J. Vanness, an associate professor of population health sciences on the Madison campus, said he’d like to see more students rallying against the threats to tenure and shared governance, "but it’s summer, and they’re not here."

Louisiana

Initial proposed cut: $567 million over one year (78 percent) across four higher-education systems totaling 28 campuses.

What the cut could mean: In late April, F. King Alexander, president of the Louisiana State University system, raised the possibility that his institutions would declare financial exigency — a designation that would allow campuses to fire tenured faculty members and restructure their finances. Some observers suggested that smaller campuses would have to close.

What students have done: A coalition of student groups has organized rallies throughout the spring, including a march to the Legislature in April that attracted about 1,200 attendees.

Andrew Mahtook, student-body president at LSU’s flagship, in Baton Rouge, said that at least one member of the student government had been at the Legislature each day of the session. He said students had attended committee meetings and had met personally with legislators, including Rep. Charles E. Kleckley, a Republican who is speaker of the State House of Representatives, and the chief of staff to Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a Republican. And next week, LSU’s student government plans to release a report card that grades each state lawmaker on higher-education issues.

Changes made to the proposed cut: The State Senate approved a budget on Monday that would allocate $955.3 million to higher education, keeping state support nearly flat. Senators made some other changes in the budget passed last month by the House, which will now consider the bill again.

Important date: June 11 is the last day of the legislative session, though the governor could veto the budget and force lawmakers to call a special session.

Have students made a difference? Mr. Mahtook said that, in his experience, lawmakers were happy to meet with students and took them seriously. Albert L. Samuels, a political-science professor at Southern University at Baton Rouge, called Mr. Alexander’s mention of financial exigency a "game-changer" that "sent a chill up lawmakers’ spine." But he said students’ activism had helped.

Illinois

Initial proposed cut: $387 million over one year (31.5 percent) across 12 university campuses and 48 community colleges.

What the cut could mean: The University of Illinois president, Timothy L. Killeen, said last week that some administrators would be laid off and some retiring employees wouldn’t be replaced. Randy J. Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University system, has said that tuition would have to double systemwide.

What students have done: University of Illinois students aren’t as politically engaged as are students in some other states, said Mitch Dickey, the student-body president at the system’s flagship, in Urbana-Champaign. Instead, students have shared personal stories on a Tumblr page called "Cuts Mean Us." Each testimonial includes a student and a quotation about how the cuts would affect him or her.

Mr. Dickey said students had also written nearly 1,000 letters to lawmakers. He and a dozen other members of the student government have been more directly involved. He’s testified before members of the State House of Representatives and attended legislative hearings alongside the state’s college and university presidents.

Changes made to the proposed cut: Democrats, who control the legislature, have proposed to reduce the cut to 6.5 percent over all, but their proposal would still leave a $3-billion gap in the state’s budget. Mr. Killeen said last month that he expected the final cut to universities to be less severe than the original proposal.

Important date: June 30 marks the end of the fiscal year and the new budget deadline, as lawmakers extended the session past its official end, on May 31.

Have students made a difference? "In my conversations with lawmakers, it sounded like we were very effective in committee hearings," Mr. Dickey said. Nicholas C. Burbules, a professor of education policy at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said the university’s government-relations staff had told him that students were the institution’s best representatives.

Connecticut

Initial proposed cut: University of Connecticut officials have said that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal would leave the institution with a nearly $40-million deficit; a $22-million cut was proposed for the system of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

What the cut could mean: Susan Herbst, UConn’s president, has said that the cuts would force her to lay off faculty and staff members and to curb degree programs. She has also warned that the university would have to postpone its 10-year plan to increase capacity by more than 6,500 students. The state-colleges system will increase tuition on all campuses. One community college made plans to close a branch campus.

What students have done: About 60 to 80 students attended a legislative hearing on the budget in late February, and several students testified to lawmakers. If students couldn’t lobby legislators personally, they wrote notes to lawmakers, and other students delivered them.

"There was a sustained effort throughout the legislative session," said Adam J. Kuegler, external-affairs chair of UConn’s student government. "Students were really willing to give their time."

Community-college students in Meriden, Conn., also protested the closing of the branch campus there.

Changes made to the proposed cut: In the budget passed last week by the legislature, UConn would receive $10.9 million more in state money than it received last year, but the university would still face an $18.3-million deficit. The state-colleges system would take an $8.2-million hit. Lawmakers voted separately to keep the community-college campus in Meriden open.

Important date: June 20 is the deadline for Mr. Malloy, a Democrat, to sign or veto the legislature’s budget. He said last week that he was unlikely to veto it.

Have students made a difference? "You can tell that the legislators want to hear from the students," not the administrators, said Jeremy T. Teitelbaum, dean of UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He said that while UConn students were generally not engaged with the budget process, the students who testified were highly articulate and well prepared.