The future of higher education is in jeopardy

The future of higher education is in jeopardy

- in Progressive Voices

N.C. State students have seen record tuition increases, cuts to financial aid and the consolidation of services. The cost of education continues to skyrocket and student debt is exponentially increasing and is now over $1 billion. In-state tuition and fees have more than doubled in the past 10 years from $3,827 in 2002-2003 to $7,787 in 2012-2013.

Can it get worse? Sadly, the answer appears to be “yes.”

The UNC Board of Governors, the body that oversees North Carolina’s public university system, recently appointed the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, an advisory committee that will help chart the spending and academic priorities for the UNC system for the next five years. While this could be used as an opportunity to engage students, faculty and local communities about the future of the university system, the opposite has taken place.

The Advisory Committee is filled with far right politicians and multimillionaires. It is also overwhelmingly full of wealthy white men who will be making recommendations to the Board of Governors in the coming months.

The most notorious member of this panel is Art Pope, the multimillionaire CEO of Variety Wholesalers. Pope, who works closely with ultra-conservative political funders David and Charles Koch, was instrumental in the 2010 right-wing takeover of the N.C. General Assembly, helped fund the effort to pass Amendment One, and was called the “architect” of the attempts to re-segregate public schools in Wake County. He bankrolls and directs the operations of many different hard-line conservative organizations in the state.

These groups advocate for big budget cuts for the UNC system, the privatization of education and other services, dramatic tuition increases, and regularly attack women’s studies and African American studies programs. Many of the others on this panel — including UNC Board of Governors member Fred Eshelman and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis — have well-documented ties to Pope, his organizations and his backwards agenda for our state. The board has many members that have direct ties to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council). ALEC has produced and continues to produce “model” legislation for states across the country that restrict voting rights, limit states’ ability to control dangerous weapons, promote the privatization of education and roll back environmental regulation.

This board spells disaster for the university system. In addition to the politics of the board, there is currently no room for public comment or student input leaving the board members unaccountable to the public.

Students at N.C. State rely on an affordable public education. Many of us take out student loans and rely on financial aid to stay in school. We put at least four years of time, money and energy into this university.

Unfortunately, student voices are almost always left out of the equation when making decisions. Most of the time decisions are handed up to administrators and “experts,” disenfranchising students from getting involved. These decisions have become more centered on business and profit rather than the education we are receiving. This is regrettable as students are the ones who keep the university going and constitute its reason for being. They ought to be intimately involved.

The good news is that we are fighting to change this. Recently, students from all across North Carolina have been hosting Student Power meetings on their campuses to advocate for issues affecting students and increasing student representation. The group has created a statewide network NCSPU (North Carolina Student Power Union). NCSPU has called for the removal of Art Pope from the Advisory Committee, a public forum at every meeting and more student representation. We have also demanded that the state live up to its constitutional promise to keep higher education “as free as practicable.”

With an already inflated cost of education we cannot afford a greater financial burden. Students in North Carolina have an obligation to public education and future students to change the composition and procedures of this board. The University system as we know it is at risk unless students come together to change the course of history.

Bryan Perlmutter is a senior at N.C. State University.