Educators urge students to lobby

By Melanie Hunter

Representatives for the Rider chapter of the American Association of University Professors  (AAUP) called Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed cuts to higher education “disastrous” on Wednesday.

In an e-mail sent out to all faculty on campus, Dr. Judith Johnston, professor of English and chair of the Assembly of State Conferences of the AAUP, urged the faculty to lobby on behalf of Rider students.

“We have formed a coalition in New Jersey to speak out on current public funding of and planning for the entire higher education system in New Jersey,” she wrote in a separate e-mail. “This coalition is going to be launching a major lobbying campaign, involving both faculty and students.”

At the heart of the matter is Christie’s announcement made on March 16 that he would be seeking to cut $173 million overall from the state’s public and private colleges and universities (see Budget, p. 1).

In light of the effects that the proposed budget cuts would have on Rider and all state college and university students, Johnston is hoping to get students involved in the lobbying process. On April 19 at 1:30 p.m., the New Jersey Assembly Budget Committee will be holding a public hearing. Anyone can sign up to give five minutes of testimony, and protests outside the State House are likely to occur.

“Wouldn’t it be great to see and to hear a large group of students, organized by student leaders, with original banners and signs, peacefully and vociferously demonstrating against cuts to education?” Johnston said.

In another e-mail sent out to the Rider community by President Mordechai Rozanski this past Monday, the university also hinted at lobbying on its own behalf.

“While we recognize that we must do our fair share in helping the state achieve fiscal stability, we will work to educate state officials and legislators about the inequity of these cuts and, in particular, about their disproportionate impact on our neediest students,” he wrote.

The governor’s cuts to higher education also include setting a limit on Tuition Aid Grants (TAG) for new students, and cutting Educational Opportunity Fund grants. These grants represent aid awards that institutions give out to students with demonstrated financial need.

Dr. Jeffrey Halpern, associate professor of sociology, views these proposed cuts as a direct attack on students.

“It’s a war against those who are struggling the most,” he said. “We’ll return to an era where only the rich and privileged can get an education. It’s making it harder to achieve the American dream.”

Johnston agreed: “This is disastrous for the most needy of our students.”

Another group that has much to say about the proposed cuts is the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey (AICUNJ). The group’s Legislative Action Team (LAT) is contacting campuses to promote student involvement, according to John Wilson, president of the organization.

“The Association just completed an Economic Impact study,” he wrote. “We will be using this report to help make the case as to why a more severe impact in state support will work against the goal of stimulating the state’s economy.”

Rozanski said that according to one estimate, colleges and universities contributed billions of dollars to the state economy last year.

Christine Zelenak, director of the Office of the President, was chosen as Rider’s LAT liason.

“I will be meeting with LAT representatives from the other independent colleges and universities to help coordinate how our students can respond to the budget proposal,” she said.

On March 3, a press conference at the State House announced the formation of a coalition representing more than 30,000 faculty and staff from the state’s colleges and universities. Under a banner that read, “Accountability, Affordability, and Accessibility in Higher Education,” area professors, including Johnston, called for a faculty voice at the table.

“We need a plan designed not alone by college presidents competing with each other, but a plan that professors take a share in writing,” Johnston said. “Discounting our expertise does not serve the interests of higher education.”

The coalition is also concerned about the Governor’s Transition Team report, which called for abolishing the Commission on Higher Education (CHE) entirely. In its place, the Christie administration wants to create a smaller team that reports directly to the governor, and leave major decisions up to the boards of trustees of individual institutions.

But Nicholas Yovnello, a professor at Rowan University and president of the Council of NJ State College Locals, expressed the unions’ collective disagreement with this move at the March 3 press conference.

“The individual boards of trustees [will have] more free rein to build, borrow, create new academic programs and raise tuition with virtually no state oversight,” he said. “How will allowing 12 public institutions of higher education to go their own way do anything to reduce taxes or alleviate pressure on the state budget?”

Several senators have spoken out against the proposed cuts to higher education as well, including state Sen. Shirley Turner, associate director of Career Services at Rider.

“Aid cuts…will severely handicap those aspiring to continue their education,” she said. “These cuts are even more devastating in light of the fact that so many families these days do not have the financial means to shoulder the cost of higher education for their children.”

Sen. Richard Codey, himself a graduate of Farleigh Dickinson, an AICUNJ member institution, agrees.

“Cuts to higher education — particularly the 100 percent cut in aid to private colleges — will further the brain drain and damage our national reputation for new potential employers,” he said.

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