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Rigby-led UISG should lead fight to restore public higher-education funding

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 29, 2010 7:30 AM

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It appears the state’s under-funding of the University of Iowa will continue.

Students would be stuck paying the largest portion of next school year’s budget, under a preliminary version UI officials will present at today’s state Board of Regents meeting. That would make it the second year in a row (and the second time ever) that tuition and fees composed the majority of the university’s general fund.

But the troubling budget proposal also poses the first test for the nascent UI Student Government administration, headed by President John Rigby. With a strong effort, his administration could inform and mobilize students in opposition to the preliminary budget, ensuring declining state support has finally reached its bottom.

Under the fiscal 2011 preliminary budget, tuition would account for 51.9 percent of the university’s general fund; state appropriations would total 41.4 percent.

Rigby called the budget a “concern” and said his administration would work with lawmakers and regents, making sure they were cognizant of the student hardship high tuition causes. In addition, Rigby said he hopes to increase parental involvement on the issue through initiatives such as writing letters. As for students, Rigby was optimistic that, if sufficiently informed and vivified, apathy wouldn’t be a problem.

“We want to make sure we keep students engaged with and informed on the tuition issue, so if we’re clearly communicating to them the reality of the situation, we hope we could get students mobilized and energized about the issue,” Rigby told the Editorial Board.

It’s not as if state funding dropped off a precipice this school year. It has been an insidious, three-decade-long decline. The decrease began steadily with the advent of the 1980s and continued through the 1990s. In the 1979-80 school year, state appropriations composed 76 percent of the UI’s general fund. By the 2000-01 school year, state funding accounted for 62 percent of the university’s fund. Under former Gov. Tom Vilsack and current Gov. Chet Culver’s watch, however, state appropriations for public higher education were torpedoed further.

“These two governors have been very damaging to Iowa higher education, and I am a Democrat saying this,” Tom Mortenson, the higher-education policy analyst for Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY, wrote the Editorial Board in an e-mail.

In citing the specific funding levels, our aim isn’t to sharply delineate what does and what doesn’t constitute adequate state support for public schools. But as the Editorial Board has written before, it’s difficult to characterize a university as “public” when it receives most of its money from private sources (student pocketbooks, via tuition and fees).

Instead of castigating the progressive privatization, however, many have subserviently accepted it. UI officials and students shouldn’t rationalize the pernicious decline in state support with vapid platitudes about how the university just needs to be more “self-sufficient.” We need to fight back. And Rigby’s administration needs to be at the vanguard of this effort.

Representing thousands of students, UISG wields considerable power — especially when it teams up with student governments from Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa. While the preliminary budget will likely change before the regents approve it this summer, it’s vital that Rigby and UISG begin preparing for student mobilization efforts on tuition and funding issues now.

It would be naïve to think Rigby and UISG — or even large students protests — will magically goad lawmakers into restoring all funding. But in the effort to rebuff further public-education cuts and increase state support, Rigby and his administration must assiduously lay the groundwork for future UISG administrations to build upon. It won’t all change in one year. It might not even fully shift in five or 10 years.

But a vigorous campaign spurred by Rigby and UISG would be a great start.


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