Protesters strip down to swimsuits in call for ‘freezing’ tuition hikes

Regents chairman SayS state funding cuts put higher ed costs on students

Koran Addo

A high of 28 degrees did not stop eight University students from donning their swimsuits and risking hypothermia to call for a tuition freeze Friday.

They and approximately 70 other University students and staff rallied outside McNamara alumni center after a Board of Regents meeting. Along with tuition freezes, the group called for a decrease in the University’s capital improvement spending.

While cars honked their horns and a parking police officer looked on, the group huddled with members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3800 to give speeches and sing songs.

In an open letter to University administration and the regents, student Julia Rybak asked that the University’s priorities be re-examined in the face of federal and state budget cuts.

Rybak said the rally was necessary because of a 108 percent increase in tuition over the past decade and plans for a 27 percent increase over the next two years.

She said the tuition hikes were “morally and ethically questionable.”

As the crowd cheered, Rybak attacked University President Bob Bruininks for saying students accepted the challenge of tuition hikes.

“While it certainly has been challenging, it is not acceptable,” she said.

Regents Chairman Dave Metzen said he was not aware of the rally and expressed sympathy for students.

“We’d all like to freeze tuition,” he said. “Not one regent is happy to have tuition go up the past five or six years, but when the state cuts $185 million, what are you going to do?”

The group, however, felt the University’s capital improvement spending was unnecessary, including the proposal to build a new Gophers football stadium.

Phyllis Walker, AFSCME Local 3800 president, said the University continues to use the budget crisis as a crutch for money issues while there is an excess in administrative positions with escalating salaries.

University health sciences worker and AFSCME Local 3800 member Stefanie Levi said she was frustrated by the University’s agenda to rehabilitate buildings, while the regents talked around the impact capital spending has on students and workers.

“The administration is damaging the quality of education as they go ahead with their capital spending, building their glass and metal palaces,” she said.

While protesters criticized the University’s spending agenda, Metzen said state budget cuts have left their hands tied.

Despite his sympathy, Metzen said the timing of the rally puzzled him.

The State Legislature hears bonding requests for capital improvement for buildings and roads in even years and requests for financial assistance for tuition and salaries in odd years.

Metzen said it is too early to know if he would support a tuition freeze next year and that it would depend on how much money the state gives the University in 2005.

“I don’t know why (students) would lobby (at the University),” he said. “They ought to be lobbying at the Legislature.”