In this second part of our interview with undergraduate student trustee, Jen Healy, we discuss a number of important issues beyond the questions surrounding the Wellman document raised in part one. Jen discusses what led her to run for student trustee, her work with CPPA, and trying to improve public funding for higher education in Massachusetts. She also weighs in on issues like the campaign to have more voting student trustees, and the administration’s risky decision to move UMass Football into the BCS.
Q: I have some questions about your role as student trustee. What would it mean to have more voting student members on the B.O.T.? I think a lot of grads and undergrads aren’t aware of how powerful the B.O.T. is in making big decisions that affect us, and that the student seats we have are an important interface between students’ concerns, the student experience, and the board. So, for starters, how did you become interested in being a student trustee?
A: So, last year I worked at CPPA (The Center for Public Policy and Administration), and my role in that was working with the “Access and Affordability” core team. That core team is sort of unique in that it works on all levels of government; we work on stuff on campus, but we also do state and national events as well because college affordability is an issue everywhere now. So I was working with them, and second semester I took over as core team leader, and I was really involved in looking at University policy in terms of funding, organizing the lobby day at the state house, and so I got involved with this work and was doing more and more of it. So I learned of the student trustee role as I started going to undergraduate senate meetings, out of interest and for CPPA reasons. Sometime in winter I was approached by a couple of students who asked if I would be interested in running for it. I looked into the position, and it seemed like it would step up my involvement in this kind of work, because there’s really no better way to be in tune with university policy than to sit on the B.O.T. where it’s drafted. It really appealed to me, and I felt as though I could use it to push these kinds of initiatives forward. I felt that I could make a difference by making more transparent the kind of work I did on the B.O.T. to the student government. I feel as though there’s a disconnect between a lot of what happens on campus, student government-wise, and at the B.O.T. So I wanted to make that more connected, because those are things we should know about. What I’ve been trying to do is bridge that gap; talking to people about the meetings, seeking input from people in student government, from people at CPPA, posing a question on Facebook to the student body, etc. The position itself is largely undefined, when it comes to being on campus. I have a million bylaws from the state telling me what I can and can’t do, but I don’t have any at all from the campus. So, defining the role for me is being that liaison from campus to B.O.T. and really trying to get in tune with the students opinions and perspectives on things, and bringing that to those meetings, because it has been largely absent form those meetings.
Q: And what have the main concerns been that come up for undergrads?
A: More than anything, nobody feels the impact of tuition and fee hikes more than the students do on the ground level. That’s just a fact. Many times, on almost all levels, when the state is doing its budget, people see a huge number for public higher education, and it’s a huge number that’s really easy to slash. And you see numbers like, a couple of hundred dollars here that student fees go up, and it doesn’t seem like a lot of money when you’re dealing with an entire state or university’s budget. But on the ground it means this student has to get a second job, or this student has to become a part-time student this semester, and I feel as though the impact is numbed by the time it gets to the Board. Not to say that they don’t take it into consideration, because they absolutely do; none of them want tuition and fee hikes. It’s just so much more real on the student level, and that’s what I try to bring to those meetings.
Q: So the B.O.T. submits a budget request every year. Are they asking for more? And are the president and the chancellors actively advocating for more money from the state? Or do you think they seem OK with the shift towards a business model approach to make up for the budget shortfall?
A: President Caret and the B.O.T. are asking for more help for more help from the state. Even when fees went up this year, they were asking for more money. They are asking for the state to fund educational costs at 50%. Right now I believe it’s 43%. The state used to fund upwards of 60% of that, and now we carry the bulk of it. But their rhetoric has largely been, we need more help from the state, but the business model has been their way of dealing with the cuts. I don’t think the Board would hike up tuition and fees if they didn’t have to. But I do think that there needs to be some collaborative work going on to find an alternative. Unfortunately the state is probably going to continue to cut the public higher education because of the deficit, but that doesn’t mean that student fees can continue to go up. A “land grant university” is supposed to provide education even for those of lower economic status, and we’ve kind of strayed from that unfortunately. But I think there definitely needs to be some more collaboration between the state and the university to find an alternative to this, because students really can’t take it anymore.
Q: What are your thoughts on the question of having more student trustees, or more voting student trustees? I heard that a bill was proposed on the issue (to grant the Lowell, Dartmouth, and Boston trustees voting rights); what stage is that in, and what do you think of it?
A: The language of that bill came from the UMass Boston trustee, Alexis, and she used language that was used before to try to make this happen. The idea is that the rule about only two voting student trustees is from 1992 when Lowell and Dartmouth had just become part of the UMass system, so it’s outdated. It wouldn’t give students a majority on the board, not even close. We would just be adding three. What she did was she took the language to the governance committee, and they wanted more information about certain things, so we’ve been doing that research and plan to bring it back to the board. Because we would really like the Board’s approval on this before we take it to the legislature, which is the next step. Personally, I’m in favor of it. I think it only really makes sense. These are five very different campuses, and I know that I’m certainly not informed enough nor do I have the experience to vote on something for UMass Boston or Dartmouth or Lowell. Amherst is nothing like those campuses. To give an example, when UMass Boston hears the word “construction,” they get excited because they’re really trying to build their campus and make it more residential, and make it a community. When I hear the word “construction,” I think, God, another detour. It has a really negative connotation to me. It would make a lot more sense in my mind if students were there to vote for their constituencies. I didn’t get elected by Boston and Lowell and Dartmouth. I got elected by Amherst. So I think it only makes sense.
Q: Have you heard from any of the trustees or governance committee what the reception was of this bill?
A: Yes, it was not received well. Their major concern was that the extra three votes may call for some restructuring of the board, and it might make a lot more work and be more than just adding three more votes. When it comes to committees and that kind of thing, they were worried about the structure changing. The other points that were brought up against it were that, well, the non-voting student trustees get to sit in on the meetings, contribute and ask questions, so why do they need the vote, and that kind of thing. My opinion on that is, yes, that’s true, they’re involved in the discuss, however, experience has taught us that when it gets right down to it, your vote it your negotiation piece, and without a vote you don’t really have a tangible say. And I think that’s very important. This isn’t a two-campus university system, it’s a five-campus university system, and if there’s going to be five student trustees on the board, they should be able to vote.
Q: Are you confident that it’s going to go through?
A: I think that there’s going to have to be a lot of discussion about it. It’s not going to be a clean process. It’s also one thing to get the Board’s approval, but taking it through the legislature is a whole other monster. She could have taken it right to the statehouse, but we didn’t think that was a good idea at all. So I think that it’s going to be a long process, and by no means easy, but I really do hope that it gets passed.
Q: In years past we’ve often heard from the Chancellors and the President when discussing budget crises, one of the things they’ll feed people is, oh, well, we’re obligated to all these collective bargaining agreements, and are hands are tied financially because of them, passing off their financial issues on organized labor. Do you hear any talk or proposals or complaints in the Board about these collective bargaining agreements?
A: I haven’t on the B.O.T. The only time I’ve ever heard an administrator mention that is from Eddie Hull last year when he said that he would like to make the dorms more vibrant, but because of union contracts he can’t do that. It was something to that affect. That’s the only union busting comment I’ve heard, but not from the B.O.T. Not yet anyway. I imagine it will get more heated around budget time when discussing student fees, tuition, and that kind of thing.
Q: Could you say a little bit about the “Higher Education Lobby Day” you helped organize last year? That’s something GSS would love to support in the future.
A: Last year we took about 200 students from UMass, and from across the state upwards of 500 in all including faculty, staff, and students. We had a rally in the auditorium with speakers, and then we all went to the state house to lobby the legislature for an increased state allocation to higher education. It was a great event, there was a lot of energy, and we’re going to do that again this year. The money has to come from somewhere.
Q: My last question –while we’re talking about funding for higher education– I wondered if you have any thoughts on –or have taken a position on– the administration’s decision to move UMass Football into the BCS (Bowl Championship Series), have the games out at Gillette, and the huge financial investment involved with that? In fact the Faculty Senate recently formed an ad hoc committee to evaluate the financial impact of the move over the next few years. Do you have a sense of what the undergraduate population thinks about it, student government, CPPA, etc?
A: The paperwork that I’ve seen regarding that move, and the proposal that was used, shows that it should bring in revenue. I personally don’t know if it will or not, and I think having an evaluation committee is a really good idea. My biggest concern with that move, I think, is a matter of student culture, taking the team away from the campus is an unfortunate loss to the community here. I hope they bring it back, because it’s the students’ team. It’s their friends and classmates, and it’s unfortunate that they have to drive two hours to see the games. But if it’s going to bring in revenue, I understand the move, however, I hope at some point they bring the team back to the students. I would love to see the numbers from that evaluation committee though, whether it actually is going to start brining in more revenue. Because it not, I don’t see the point.