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A Voice but No Vote

It took decades to get Texas lawmakers to allow students to sit on each university system's board of regents — and only on the condition that they can't vote. But most other states with student regents do grant voting privileges.

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Kyle Miller combed through dozens of high-caliber resumes and sat through hours of interviews as Texas Tech University System leaders pondered a new president of the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. But unlike the nine other members of the Tech Board of Regents, he didn’t get a vote when it came time to picking a person for the job.

As a student regent, Miller — like other student regents at university systems across the state — gets to do all the work that comes with being on a board that runs a billion-dollar public institution. He gets to sit at the massive conference table and voice his opinion in meeting. But like a higher-education version of the District of Columbia's non-voting member of Congress, he has no power beyond that of persuasion. He's the embodiment of education without representation.

To some, simply getting Miller’s voice and those of his fellow student regents into the debate represents real progress. It took decades just to get Texas lawmakers to allow students on university boards, which decide on issues like tuition and hire and oversee presidents and chancellors. Yet that board seat came with the condition that it be a nonvoting position.

Now, though, those who favor greater student involvement in higher-education decisions are pushing lawmakers to make the work of student regents more meaningful by giving them voting powers. Critics of the push say students don’t have the experience to make big and impactful decisions and that they’re not on the boards long enough (student regents serve one-year terms, while grown-up regents serve six-year terms). But other states have made such an arrangement work: Of the 39 states that have student regents on public university boards, 29 give students voting power.

Miller, a medical student at the Health Sciences Center, says being a student regent has opened his eyes to the inner workings of the university system. Helping to choose its president, he says, was among the most important decisions made during his term, which ends this month. “It gave me an opportunity to seek out candidates that we could present to the chancellor that I thought had the students’ needs in mind,” Miller said. “Being a student at the board level, you really see how your system can have more collaboration across institutions.”

Jeffrey Harris, a student at Angelo State University — also part of the Texas Tech system — will replace Miller. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Harris last week, along with nine other students across Texas’ public university systems, to represent their peers on boards of regents. Perry also appointed a student representative to the Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees all universities and colleges in Texas.

The student regent position is open to all undergraduate and graduate enrollees at any institution within a university system. Potential student regents are usually active participants in student government and on campus in general and hold positions on advisory councils. They apply through their university’s student government associations or directly to the governor’s office. Each appointed student must attend a different system campus than the previous regent to ensure diversity. This year, Perry's office reviewed 56 applicants for the 10 student regent positions and the slot on the Higher Education Coordinating Board, says his spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger.

State Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, authored the bill, HB 1968, that created the student regent position in 2005. In addition to the stipulation that student regents can't vote, it was agreed that the student regent seat must not replace an existing board seat. The only way to get students the right to vote would be to pass another bill, something Rose has tried but failed to accomplish in the last two legislative sessions. “We’ve met the same opposition that I think has always defeated this idea — that only middle-aged people and senior citizens ought to be making the decisions for college students,” Rose says. “I don’t think that’s the right way to run our universities.”

The issue has sparked a debate in higher-education circles and among students. The state's higher education commissioner, Raymund Paredes, says he backs Rose's proposed change because student regents are critical to the process of institutional oversight. “They provide an invaluable perspective. ... If it were up to me, I’d give them the right to vote,” he says.

Francisco Cigarroa, the chancellor of the University of Texas System, says that while voting works for other states’ university systems, he’s still not sure it will work here. “One of the issues that has been at debate is, are there enough life experiences in the students in regards to business and managing huge amounts of dollars to vote?” he said in response to an audience member's question at The Texas Tribune’s TribLive conversation series on April 29. 

Both side agree that the position comes with a steep learning curve.

“It’s very difficult to get your arms around the strategic priorities in a short 12-month period,” says Larry Anders, Texas Tech’s board chairman, who believes the term should be extended to more than one year.

Miller agrees, though he feels his voice is being heard even in a one-year term. “I think that your word has more validation when you speak up,” he explains.

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