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New regents: advocate for higher education

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 03, 2011 7:20 AM

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The three potential new regents are entering a rather messy field.

Gradually increasing tuition has prompted Nicole Carroll, Katie Mulholland, and Bruce Rastetter — all appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad to the state Board of Regents on Feb. 25 — to make affordability a priority. But the regent-proposed tuition hikes are a response to one thing only: shriveling state appropriations. In order to make Iowa public universities accessible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds without sacrificing quality, the new regents must be willing to take a stand against higher education cuts on the state level.

The tone of Regent President David Miles has shifted over the last year, from submissive statements last February on the necessity to “do more with less” to a Feb. 24 guest opinion in the Des Moines Register demanding an end to spartan education budgets. Miles’ turnaround may be belated, but it is commendable; we can only hope that Carroll, Mulholland, and Rastetter are willing to join him in lobbying the state government for increased funding.

Taking that stand might mean going against Branstad, whose proposed budget slashes higher education appropriations for fiscal 2012 by $75 million. This poses a unique problem for one of the new regents, businessman Rastetter. Rastetter, a University of Iowa alumnus, was the largest donor to Branstad’s campaign (and has donated even larger sums of money to the UI).

When asked if this connection would cause him to hesitate in opposing Branstad’s proposals, Rastetter did not believe there was a conflict. “I think that the tone between the regents and the governor, and the regents and the legislators, can be improved upon,” Rastetter told the DI Editorial Board on Wednesday. “I will reach for higher education and stick up for state universities, but I have never seen Gov. Branstad do anything that goes against these goals.”

Branstad’s budget is hardly the first to cut funding from Iowa’s public universities. Under former Gov. Chet Culver, the percentage of the general education fund covered by students’ tuition grew 4 percent in a mere three years. The students’ share now stands at its highest in UI history — and the previous academic year marked the first time that tuition and fees accounted for more than 50 percent of the UI’s funding.

State appropriations? Less than 40 percent. And that’s not because the UI is growing beyond its means; it’s a direct result of legislators and governors, Democratic and Republican, chipping away at public-education funds.

As Miles pointed out, to compensate for the higher education cuts proposed by Branstad, tuition would have to raise 15 percent — three times the amount proposed by the regents for next year.
Rastetter said he’d rather not comment on Miles’ op-ed and its criticisms of state officials. “I don’t have a context as to why [the regents] feel that way,” he said. “I know that Gov. Branstad wants to make these universities better. It obviously is a tight budget situation in which tough decisions that weren’t made in the past are having to be made by him now.”

Carroll also trotted out the tough-times justification. “Clearly it’s to the benefit of the regents institutions if we can get higher appropriations from the legislature,” she told the Ed board Wednesday. “Obviously, right now, the Legislature is dealing with an awful lot of areas that would like increased appropriations.”

A lot of areas, sure, but very few that have as critical an influence on our democracy and our future as public universities. If the legislature and state executive continue to prioritize business tax cuts ahead of higher education funding, the regents must be willing to advocate on behalf of the institutions they ostensibly curate; students and university officials must not be the sole voices defending Iowa’s higher education.

Rastetter, Carroll, and Mulholland await confirmation in the Senate, which is expected to proceed without difficulty. While some prudence in their public remarks is expected prior to their confirmation, the Editorial Board hopes that the new regents will become unequivocal advocates for state university appropriations upon assuming their positions, regardless of political opposition.

“Making a difference is more important [than the title],” Rastetter said. A professed love of education must spur activism to protect it.


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