‘Dollars and sense’ rhetoric demands alternative student response

MBy Adam VanWagner maybe now it is time to get serious. With the Tim Pawlenty administration’s budget proposal announced last week, the hard numbers have been laid before us, and history dictates they have a good chance of becoming reality. In 2004-05, a $185 million cut to the University would mean dramatic changes for everyone connected with the school.

Clearly, we are at a critical juncture. The University faces the greatest reduction in spending in its history. For students, the budget proposal mainly ignites fear over increased tuition. As in years past, our main concern becomes our ability to pay for our education. We also want to ensure we are getting enough “bang for our buck.” Surely, financial obligations are a major part of any student’s educational experience, but I contend that such worries will only serve to solidify Gov. Pawlenty’s plan.

In reading Pawlenty’s proposed budget, it becomes clear he is attempting to engage students in a dialogue concerned only with economics. The governor suggests that MnSCU and the University cap their annual tuition increases at 15 percent, “an absolute maximum.” He “challenges the systems to limit tuition adjustments to much lower levels in order to limit the impact of the budget reductions on students.” He also proposes a reallocation of funds from the higher education systems into the state grant program. This is “in order to put more funds in the hands of students, enabling them to choose the best venue for furthering their education, and encouraging a vibrant and competitive marketplace.”

Would capping tuition increases limit the impact on students? Would increasing the amount of state financial aid benefit students? Yes, in one area – economics. But wouldn’t students be impacted if their research programs were cut, their favorite teachers laid off, their lecture series canceled, or their departments swept under the table? Definitely. To argue otherwise, as Pawlenty does, is to admit a shortsighted understanding of the University’s purpose. In Pawlenty’s opinion, we are customers, not students; our demands are minimal expenditure, not maximum scholarship and engagement.

Pawlenty’s economic olive branch to students is an underhanded attempt to control the lines of debate. Students are being duped into thinking that a minimal tuition increase is tantamount to a victory in the budget mess. What this does, very effectively, is demarcate the students’ position from the University’s position as a whole. Students are placed in contention with administrators, who must then work to appease the angry students – a tuition increase is not the first option they will consider, only a last resort. What might have been cooperative dialogue between students and administrators gives way to an internal struggle for the scraps thrown to us by the Legislature. What none of us seem to realize is that we are all losers – the money is gone in either case.

An important phrase is getting tangled up in the budget issue – “fiscal accountability.” In order to measure the cost-effectiveness of the state’s tax dollars, we as students are supposed to ask, “Are we getting our money’s worth?” It is a fair and important question, but not the only question students have regarding their education. Fiscal accountability is only one tenet in the creation of a better system of education. We have the ability to refocus the budget debate on issues affecting not only our pocket books, but also our education. Let us as students demand academic accountability, cultural accountability and community accountability. In doing so, we can create new avenues of dialogue, insisting that a dollar sign cannot be applied to all aspects of the University. The damage to the University will be greater than the sum of Pawlenty’s monetary cuts.

As students, it is our obligation to see beyond this economic rhetoric and recognize it for what it is. Let us not be manipulated into thinking that saving dollars means saving our education – it means losing it. There are still opportunities for active engagement with Pawlenty and the Legislature. Calling centers are opening in early March to build support for the University’s position. Now is also a great time to discuss these issues with faculty, administrators and other students to ascertain their visions of the University. On March 6, University students are uniting to go as a collective to the State Capitol, an event that will offer the chance to voice your concerns to your legislators. I encourage you to attend and to change the parameters of the debate. Go not as customers bearing dollars, but as students bearing integrity. Only by redirecting our own approach to the budget issue will we be able to preserve – and perhaps better – the University experience.

Adam VanWagner is a University junior studying cultural studies and comparative literature. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]