Editorial: This year’s tuition-setting process reveals need for more student voice
The following is the opinion of the Emerald’s editorial board and not Emerald Media Group as a whole. The editorial board is comprised of the 2015-2016 Editor in Chief, management staff and opinion editor.
On March 4, the University of Oregon Board of Trustees raised tuition by almost 5 percent over the voices of students yelling in protest. Not surprising — tuition at UO has increased every year for nearly two decades, and students have protested for just as long.
But this year’s tuition-raising process was also marred by several glaring failures, most of which began with the activities of one body: the Tuition and Fees Advisory Board.
The advisory board makes tuition recommendations to the the university president. Its meetings are the earliest opportunities students have to provide input on tuition. It has four student members: two are appointed by ASUO, and two are appointed by administration.
This year, ASUO’s President Helena Schlegel and Finance Director Shawn Stevenson were the only student members regularly attending advisory board meetings — cutting student voice in the discussion by half because the two administration-appointed members were not consistently attending meetings.
Although ASUO and the advisory board both make decisions that impact the lives of students, ASUO operates with a better sense of accountability than the group deciding tuition costs. The ASUO works under a system of clearly defined expectations and ramifications for not fulfilling them. Senators, for example, can’t miss an unlimited amount of meetings. But when they do miss them, they can find minutes from the meetings.
The advisory board has no such set expectations, and the head of the advisory board, Jamie Moffitt, admitted that it does not take official minutes for its meetings. Students also can’t readily find information about the advisory board through a simple Google search — and even if they do stumble upon the group’s page, all they’ll find is a scattered assortment of spreadsheets.
Information about who its members are, what is expected of them and how they are held accountable should be made available online. Not to do so is to exclude students from half of the conversation.
The advisory board also demonstrated its need for transparency in its January meeting. The board settled on its recommendation in the absence of the two consistently attending student members after they left for class. Later, the board told Schlegel and Stevenson that all remaining meetings were cancelled. This effectively cut them out of any further opportunities to weigh in on tuition. Students were, once again, left out. But in the current system they could do nothing to regain any control.
Unfortunately, this lack of transparency extends beyond the advisory board. Administration tells students that it has to fund many multi-million dollar projects, while simultaneously claiming it wants to do everything possible to keep tuition low.
But the administration and board don’t back those claims by showing alternatives for tuition-based funding like reallocation or budget cuts. That disconnect is incredibly frustrating to students and discourages them from engaging in the tuition-setting process. As it is, the influence they have is minimal.
After all, the Board of Trustees has the final say on tuition increases, and it has only one student member — one of the three board members to vote against next year’s tuition hike. Discussion about tuition would benefit if the Oregon state legislature added just one more student voice to the board, which is mostly comprised of members who graduated from college over two decades ago, when the average student wasn’t shouldering $30,000 in debt.
All this represents an inefficient use of student voice in a system that must change in order to bridge the gap between students and administration. Students literally can’t afford to have so little awareness and agency in this process.
The university won’t be able to afford projects such as improving campus Wi-Fi and providing faculty raises if its students can no longer afford to be taught.