Student Body President: UND Tried To Hide Tuition Hikes From Legislature

If there is one area of policy that causes more rancor in the increasingly cold relationship between the Legislature and the North Dakota University System it is tuition. Many of the actions lawmakers have taken in recent years, up to and including an effort to take the control over tuition away from the universities, is based on the perception (accurate, I think) that the universities use tuition as a weapon. No matter how much lawmakers increase university system budgets – and they’ve basically doubled them over the last few bienniums – tuition still goes up, and the universities point the finger at lawmakers for not increasing budgets even more.

So perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that the University of North Dakota would try to hide from the lawmakers proposals for massive tuition hikes at a time when the Legislature is still debating the university system budget and tuition policy.

That’s what UND Student Body President Tanner Franklin is alleging. Earlier this week the students went to the media with news of the tuition hikes, and apparently UND President Robert Kelley wasn’t happy with it, which I write about over at Watchdog today.

Read the whole article, but here are some excerpts:

In an interview with Watchdog, UND Student Body President Tanner Franklin said students brought the proposals to light, prompting a visit to student government offices from university President Robert Kelley. Franklin accuses the university’s administration of dismissing student views on tuition, and he wants new leadership. …

“He stated that he wished that the students had used the public affairs process instead of running to the public and ruining the process,” Franklin said of Kelley’s visit. Franklin said he was in a meeting during the visit but that he confirmed the comments with three students who were present.

“I found it disappointing that if the president had those sort of comments that he didn’t address them to me earlier in the day,” said Franklin, noting he visited with Kelley and two other university officials that day.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson confirmed Kelley’s visit but disputed Franklin’s description of it.

“President Kelley did stop by the Student Government Office on his way to an appointment at the Memorial Union and he did visit with someone, but it wasn’t Tanner,” Johnson said via email. “He told the student what he tells individuals throughout campus: that his preference is that folks who visit with the media involve the University and Public Affairs staff. This is a standard preference, but neither he nor anyone in our office have ever told anyone that they can’t visit with the media.”

Franklin specifically accuses UND of working to keep information about tuition hikes from lawmakers:

Franklin said information about the proposed tuition increases wouldn’t have been made public if students hadn’t taken the issue to the media. “Setting tuition at a public institution is a public issue, and it needs public input,” he said. “I think that everyone had a right to know what’s going on. In no shape or form did I mean to inadvertently ruin the process. All I was doing was simply informing the North Dakota public of where UND currently sits with the process.”

Asked if he felt UND was trying to keep news of their proposed tuition increases from lawmakers, Franklin said, “Absolutely.”

“These tuition models have been discussed for weeks now,” he said. “Since then all we have been asking for is some very simple and additional information about one of the options. They are continually putting off these discussions until the third week of April, which sits at the end of the legislative session.”

North Dakota lawmakers meet only once every two years for a session, which can last no more than 80 days.

“The UND administration knows that the Legislature isn’t going to like what they see,” Franklin said. “It’s frustrating and should be concerning to taxpayers when an institution of higher education isn’t providing this basic information. Meanwhile, the Legislature is continuing to deliberate over hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to higher education.”

A couple of lawmakers I spoke to aren’t at all surprised:

“These revelations have certainly given a boost to those of us who believe we need to put a cap on tuition,” said Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks, responding to the comments by Franklin and Johnson. He represents Grand Forks, where UND is located. “Otherwise, like in 2011 we get blamed for huge increases in tuition imposed after we adjourn.”

Holmberg is referring an 8.8 percent increase by North Dakota State University shortly after lawmakers adjourned their 2011 session. That increase is seen by many lawmakers as justifying more legislative control over tuition, which, Holmberg says, a division of his committee is debating.

Rep. Roscoe Streyle is a Republican from Minot and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s education subsection. He said this is further evidence of the university system’s poor relations with lawmakers. “I’m not at all surprised by the news about a university withholding information from the public and Legislature,” he said via email. “I hope one day they will truly want to try and rebuild trust with the Legislature, but that day doesn’t appear to be today.”

House Bill 1003 originated in Streyle’s committee.

Back to Franklin, he says the university is entirely too dismissive of student views on issues like tuition. He says the UND administration makes students the “enemy” when they’re critical of policies. And just a few weeks after that “Fire Kelley” banner appeared at a UND hockey game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, Franklin is saying it may be time for a house cleaning that doesn’t just stop with Kelley:

“It seems to be that when students get a seat at the table it seems that the university becomes very adversarial towards the students, almost making students the enemy,” Franklin said. “The moment that we raise any sort of a criticism we are immediately blocked out of the process. I don’t think they want our input. I think they want our allegiance and our blind approval.”

Johnson disputed this assertion and defended UND’s record of including students in administrative decisions. “The Student Government President has a chair at President Kelley’s Cabinet,” he said in an email. “Vice President of Student Affairs Lori Reesor involves students in multiple ways and in many leadership discussions in the Student Affairs Division.”

“I believe we do a very good job of involving students, seeking student input, and integrating that student input as we make decisions,” he continued.

But, according to Franklin, UND needs new leadership.

“I think that UND is a power-hungry, bureaucratic system that cannot live without more,” he said. “Someone needs to step in. New leadership has become a necessity so we don’t continue down the same path.” …

Asked specifically if Kelley should be fired, Franklin said he wouldn’t stop there. “In my mind it’s more than President Kelley,” he said. “I think we’ve got a few vice presidents who can be put in that pool, as well. Someone needs to start holding them accountable.”

Wow.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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