Freedom Coalition Confronts Regents over Tuition Hikes
Mark Piotrowski and Annette Gerardi
The Board of Regents (BOR), the governing body of the State University System, held their monthly meeting at the University of Florida on November 1 & 2. Despite being a public meeting of a governmental agency, there was no time for students, faculty or citizens to address the BOR or to question their policies or decisions. Members of the Freedom Coalition, a multi-issue student group organizing against the proposed 10% tuition increase proposed by UF President John Lombardi, managed to get a few minutes to address the BOR. We say "managed" because despite calling a couple of weeks before the meeting, we were told that "you just can't address the Board of Regents". Well, of course not, we are only students (what were we thinking??? Sorry.)
The Freedom Coalition wanted to speak out about the current round of tuition increases, threats to financial aid in the U.S. Congress and the lack of democratic participation by students in determining policy at the universities in Florida. The Board of Regents along with bureaucrats like Lombardi believe that the University should be run like a corporation. That the people at the top (who are appointed by the legislature, not elected) should determine the financial, political and moral direction of the University and that students are here to sit in desks, not make decisions.
The meeting spanned 2 days, of which the BOR had graciously allotted 30 minutes to talk about a potential $170-200 per semester tuition and fee increase at state universities. The meeting was disorganized and disjointed: No microphones, Regents didn't have name tags or place markers, there were only a few seats for "spectators", and people went in and out continuously. The audience, which included university presidents and other administrators, kept shuffling papers and interrupting debate whenever they saw fit.
About half of the allotted 30 minutes for discussion of tuition increases was taken up by a discussion of whether or not students should use credit cards to pay for their schooling and if universities should accept them. Several Regents said that it was wrong for students to rack up huge debts on their credit cards paying for tuition and books because we would have to pay 18% interest on that debt. The issue of why students even have to use their credit cards was brought up by the new student Regent from FAMU, but her comments were quickly dismissed. The Regents saw nothing wrong with voting to increase tuition while lambasting students for running up huge credit bills to pay for increased tuition.
Freedom Coalition President Annette Gerardi finally was given a few minutes to address the BOR. She criticized the Board and university presidents for not standing up to short-sighted legislators who want to cut the education budget to pay for more prisons. Instead of standing up for universities and students, the university bureaucrats, led by UF President John Lombardi, have jumped on the tuition increase bandwagon. Suggesting more than $150 in increases for undergraduates and $1000 increase for professional students. Gerardi continued with a list of demands that included a tuition freeze, more financial aid, more Universities instead of prisons, and continued public universities instead of privatization.
Finally, the Freedom Coalition called on the Board of Regents as well as the University Administration to democratize the decision making process within the State University System. We demanded that students have a real say in what goes on at the Universities in which we are warehoused.
After giving their obligatory comments about how we don't understand the larger picture, how the BOR "doesn't have any choice" but to raise tuition, and how students really weren't interested because one Regent had solicited comments in the FSU student newspaper and got no response, Freedom Coalition member Natalie Ogburn responded:
Regent: "We have to look at the overall purpose of what we are trying to do here and the reason we have to have increases and how low the tuition is. And when you talk about the moral responsibility, I think we should also look at the responsibility we have to make sure you, and the students that aren't here, have space [in the university to attend].
Ogburn: "Unfortunately, you are not looking at the overall picture. If tuition is increased, we are already working ourselves to death. I have no social life. I have no time to participate in the community at school other than the Freedom Coalition. This is an overall picture from my point of view as a student. And if tuition is increased how am I going to work? Take on another job? I can barely handle the courseload as it is and you're talking about raising the courseload. These are things that need to be considered that are important to the students at UF.
Regent: (uninterested) "We are pleased to have your input. . . "
Lombardi vs. Board of Regents (What about the Students?)
One of the major issues raised at the BOR meeting was the behavior of UF President John Lombardi. The BOR felt that he was surpassing and circumventing their power and authority. Lombardi felt that he was doing what was best for the University of Florida. This power struggle between the BOR and Lombardi misses the essential point that it is us, the students who should be making these decisions and exercising the power over OUR education. We have to grovel to address the BOR for 5 minutes and are lucky if we can meet with Lombardi for 30 minutes to tell him how we feel about a given subject. Even when these occur, neither Lombardi nor the BOR are bound to follow or even listen to what we have to say. In fact, Lombardi left the room as the Freedom Coalition--made up of students from his university--was introduced.
This is why the Freedom Coalition says that what we, as students, need is Student Power--a term borrowed from the Black Power movement meaning that students should have direct control over the universities in which we live and learn. Not just greater student participation in the decision-making process, but real power to make decisions and determine the direction of OUR universities. Even when we get a small amount of power through our Student Governments it is not enough. Student Governments, like ours here at UF, are an advance from a totally administration-run university (even if they run as badly and unjustly as ours), but we can see that even SG officials are treated as token students and have no real say in the day-to-day functioning of places like UF.
The way we are going to get real power, Student Power, is through an organized and united movement of students, working and fighting together for the things we want on our campuses. This means everything from affordable education, to free speech, to determining what and how we learn. If you are interested in joining such a movement; if you are interested in fighting for your rights as a student, come to the next meeting of the Freedom Coalition and get involved today. Meetings are on November 15 and 29 at Reitz Union room 355 at 7 p.m. Info: 373-1906. In addition, Freedom Coalition staffs the Civic Media Center all day on Saturday, 11-7:30 p.m.