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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Student leaders: Restore the referendum

The Arizona Board of Regents’ annual tuition hearing is a well-worn university tradition. Presidents point at the economy and announce new tuition increases. Students point at administrator salaries and cry, “”Too high!”” Regents point at Phoenix and cry, “”No budget!”” But this year, there was something new: President Robert Shelton’s tuition proposal, padded with $664 in new fees. Unfortunately, Shelton’s fee proposal subverts a more important university tradition: student votes on student fees.

When it comes to tuition, students have never had much say. Tuition has increased like clockwork every year for the past fifteen years. But when it comes to fees, that hasn’t always been the case. Four years ago, there was a strong presumption that students had a right to vote on new nonacademic fees in free and fair elections. Between 1985 and 2006, every single fee approved by the Board of Regents had to survive a student vote.

With the exception of a directly academic IT/library fee in 2006, the Regents still respected your right to vote: In 2006, both the Student Unions Fee and the Rec Center fee extension were sent to referenda. Students voted for fees they wanted and voted down those they did not. This is how democracy works. But when UA administrators didn’t get what they wanted, they decided it would be easier to simply bypass the ballot altogether.

Administrators used to use surveys to supplement elections. Back in 1997, the UA hired an outside firm to estimate student support for a union fee, in order to avoid any conflict of interest. As Dean of Students Melissa Vito put it, a third-party survey “”is objective, because it’s not us doing it.”” The survey found that 54 percent of students supported the fee. But in a vote, 71.8 percent of students opposed it. In 2004, a survey said 84 percent of students would support a student activity fee. But in a vote 56.6 percent of students opposed it. In 2006, a survey said 72 percent of students would support a student union fee. But in a vote, 70.3 percent of students opposed it.

Now, administrators use surveys to supplant elections. What’s worse, they don’t even bother to avoid conflicts of interest or ensure objectivity. Every survey presented to the Regents this week was conducted by the fee-seekers themselves. Most of us understand the difference between a survey and an election. We don’t let Gallup choose the president, and Zogby won’t determine the fate of Governor Jan Brewer’s sales tax increase. But over the last four years, your student leaders have allowed administrators to replace real democracy with rule by survey.

It’s no surprise. After all, they’ve been allocated $787,500 from the Student Services Fee ­— nevermind that they never gave students a chance to vote on it. But whatever good these programs may do is outweighed by their corrosive effect on student participation in the fee-making process. When student leaders accept unapproved fee money, they deny students their historic right to determine where their money will go. The explosion in fees is not just the fault of university apparatchiks: Elected student leaders are equally complicit.

Students can’t fire university administrators. But they can and should choose student leaders who will respect their right to vote. The Regents are required by law to “”consider the results of organized student referenda”” on fees. When student leaders don’t bother to organize student votes, they are part of the broken fee process.

There’s an easy way to fix the process: restore the referendum. Student leaders should require new fees to go before a student vote, as they have historically, and as they do at other universities in Arizona. We hope that student government will respect students rights and make these changes on their own. Otherwise, they will continue to fail the student body they purport to represent.

— Guest columnists Vishal Ganesan, Evan Lisull, and Connor Mendenhall are editors of

The Desert Lamp, online at desertlamp.com.

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