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Forces on Left and Right Aligning in Tuition Fight

Is UT the new Wall Street? A group of students taking their cues from the worldwide Occupy movement is preparing for a battle with University of Texas System regents over proposed tuition increases.

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A group of students taking their cues from the Occupy movement wants the University of Texas System regents to know they won’t take tuition increases without a fight.

At a meeting in front of UT’s iconic tower tonight, the students will settle on a final version of a protest document they hope sparks a larger pushback against the growing cost of higher education.

If 2011 was a rough year for higher education, and UT in particular, the burgeoning Occupy UT group — which takes its name and inspiration from the worldwide phenomenon that began last year — might be an indication that 2012 may not be any easier. One assured flashpoint: how and how high tuition is set.

Forces on both the left and right of the political spectrum are already preparing for battle.

Toward the end of 2011, UT President Bill Powers concurred with recommendations from the university’s Tuition Policy Advisory Committee, made up of students, faculty and administrators, to ask the University of Texas System Board of Regents to increase tuition by 2.6 percent each of the next two years. That’s the maximum the regents, who will make the final tuition decision later this year, said they’d allow.

Adopting the recommendations will mean an extra $127 for in-state students in the coming academic year and $131 in the next. Leaders at UT argue that increases are necessary to avoid immediate cuts to crucial programs.

Not every university in Texas intends to increase tuition next year — the University of Texas at Arlington is a notable example — but it certainly is the trend. And the opposition UT faces from students and others who oppose the price hikes is illustrative of tuition struggles statewide.

Natalie Butler, the UT student body president and a member of the tuition advisory committee, said she hoped the increases would buy the university time to reconsider its approach to funding. “The fact that this current model is not sustainable is not lost on anyone, myself included,” she said.

When the committee’s recommendations were released following a closed-door meeting, many in right-leaning circles that spent much of last year questioning UT’s efficiency and transparency began crying foul. On the conservative Empower Texans blog, writer Will Lutz questioned if the process had violated recent legislative efforts to increase the transparency of the decision-making process regarding student fees. He concluded that while no open-records laws may have been broken, the committee was “ignoring both the intent and spirit” of recent legislation.

UT officials argue that as an advisory body that does not make final decisions on tuition, the committee can meet behind closed doors, allowing members to speak more freely.

Meanwhile, the ostensibly nonpartisan but generally left-leaning members of the nascent Occupy UT movement attended the advisory committee meeting following the announcement of the recommendations to chant their complaints about the proposed increases and the process that led to them.

“We know that this forum is a mere formality,” dozens of students stood up and shouted. “We know that this forum was never a chance to democratically participate in this decision-making process.”

UT President Powers later told the student newspaper The Daily Texan, “I thought the comments were very constructive. It was an interesting theatrical way to make a point. … It doesn’t surprise me that there’s not unanimous agreement on this across the University.”

Trevor Hoag, an assistant instructor at UT and an Occupy UT participant, said — speaking for himself, not the group — that he believes administrators are in “a tight spot” due to state budget cuts. And he said he wants to believe that they are more like-minded than it might seem at first blush. But, Hoag said, “If you’re really standing with us, then what would be the perfect rebuke to the Legislature than to say, ‘You’re going to cut us, but we’re not going to raise tuition. We’re going to buck the trend.’”

The Occupy students’ draft statement catalogs a list of grievances with the university: tuition increases “such that lower- and middle-class students can no longer afford to attend”; students accruing massive student loan debt, “which has led to wide-spread bankruptcy and default”; and an administration that “has leveled no serious rebuke against the legislature of the State of Texas” by demanding the re-regulation of tuition and a return to previous funding levels.

The students also complain that UT has made those decisions, among others, “with practically no democratic input from students, and it will continue to do so until students unite in order to turn the tide.”

Kevin Hegarty, UT’s vice president and chief financial officer, disagreed. He said the opportunities for student involvement in tuition recommendations had increased — the tuition advisory committee held open forums prior to its decision, and several new student budget advisory committees have been established in the last year — but overall student participation had not. “The vast majority of the student body does not seem to want to engage in that particular discussion, but that said, we’ll continue to make the effort,” he said.

Butler, the student body president, agreed, saying she had expected to hear calls to prevent tuition increases at two open advisory committee meetings before the recommendations were finalized. “I was expecting it and didn’t hear it, and that colored my thinking of things,” she said.

Now, the tuition decision rests with the regents, and it’s likely that they will hear opposition from voices on the right and from Occupiers like Hoag, who said, “We just want, if nothing else, manageable student debt.”

Hoag and his compatriots in Occupy UT have big plans. Thus far their strategy has been more event-based, but a physical occupation could be in the works for later in the semester. And they are reaching out to sympathetic groups at other schools, like Texas State University in San Marcos, which has had a small band of occupiers for months.

“Our target is, in some way, to attract others to swell the movement rather than to plead to the masters for more scraps,” Hoag said.

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