Making the Case: Colleges unite against Christie’s cuts to higher ed

Junior Amanda Matticks, Rider’s outgoing SGA secretary, joined President Mordechai Rozanski at a legislative hearing on April 14 in response to Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts to higher education. At left is Christine Zelenak, Rider’s Legislative Action Team leader. Students and faculty plan to participate in a rally April 19 at the State House.

By Melanie Hunter

A statewide protest continues to grow in opposition to Gov. Chris Christie’s recent proposed cuts to higher education, in advance of a student and faculty rally expected outside the State House on Monday, April 19.

The demonstration will coincide with an Assembly Budget Committee hearing on higher education, which will consider Christie’s proposed 100 percent cut in direct aid to New Jersey’s 14 independent colleges and universities. This is part of a larger plan to cut $173 million in funding to both public and private colleges. Rider would be specifically affected by a nearly $2 million cut from operational costs and  other cuts to need-based financial aid programs.
Melissa Rebovich, community liaison for the University Democrats, said the organization is planning to attend Monday’s rally.

“The cuts in grants are targeting the lower-income students, which will impact the diversity of Rider,” she said. “We want students to get involved, and to know that they can have a say in this.”

Student groups from New Jersey colleges plan to attend the rally, including the Rowan University SGA and Democratic Club.

“We’ve been gathering students not only from the Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF) program but from Greek organizations on campus and the Lambda Theta Phi brothers from Rider, Rutgers and Temple,” said Sarah Donofrio, president of the Rowan Democratic Club. “I’ve gathered supporters from Rutgers-Camden and Burlington County College to come rally with us. We’re aiming for 100 students.”

On University Day last Thursday, Rider students signed letters to legislators at a table set up by the office of Campus Life. The letters were addressed to the N.J. Senate president and the speaker of the General Assembly. As part of a larger writing campaign sponsored by the state Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (AICUNJ), the letters advocate the restoration of EOF and Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) funding. Over 200 students on both campuses signed the letters, according to Christine Zelenak, director of President Mordechai Rozanski’s office (read the letter on p. 10).

Students had the opportunity to sign an open letter to the speaker of the General Assembly and the Senate president on University Day. The letter got close to 200 signatures.

“The overall purpose of the AICUNJ and the presidents’ advocacy work is to educate decision-makers about the need to mitigate the proposed inequitable cuts to member colleges,” she said in a statement.

In addition, a representative from the AICUNJ and one student each from Saint Peter’s College and Seton Hall University are scheduled to testify before the Assembly Budget Committee, according to Zelenak. The Association of American University Professors (AAUP) will also be represented at the hearing by Amy Bahruth, an assistant instructor of labor relations at Rutgers University and president of the part-time lecturer bargaining unit of the Rutgers Council of AAUP chapters.

“The millionaire’s tax issue that Christie won’t reinstate — those same people being taxed are the people that most likely benefited from higher education, who had the access and could afford it,” Bahruth said. “It’s about giving back and letting others have a chance for that same access.”

Jonathon Padron, president of the University Democrats, says that the cuts will leave already burdened students with more debt, and some might be forced to drop out.

“This is not just a problem of the lower income bracket, especially in the current economic climate,” he said. “This has become an issue for the normally financially insulated middle-income earners as well.”

Judith Johnston, professor of English and chair of the Assembly of State Conferences of the AAUP, has also spearheaded an extensive outreach program within Rider and among other colleges.

“About two dozen Rider University faculty have volunteered to write letters and e-mails to New Jersey legislators, and I am coordinating that lobbying effort,” she said.

Last month, Johnston organized a statewide faculty coalition to lobby for increased oversight and accountability. The coalition was formally launched at a March 3 press conference at the State House, where dozens of professors holding union and organization banners lined the walls of the small annex room.

“Because our institutions are stretched almost beyond capacity, we need a statewide plan for increasing the access, affordability and accountability of higher education to New Jersey residents,” Johnston said that day.

On Wednesday, Rozanski  and  presidents and representatives of 20 other New Jersey colleges answered questions from the Assembly Budget Committee (see Hearing, p. 1).  Besides appearing at the hearing, Rozanski has also been meeting with other legislators and officials, such as Pamela Lampitt, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, and Senate Education Committee member Sen. Shirley Turner, who is a Rider administrator. University Democrats Vice President Joe Gallant said that he recognizes the administration’s concern over the cuts.

“The administration has an interest in this too because they want to enroll a certain amount of students each year,” he said. “They can’t do that if students don’t have the money to come to Rider.”

On Wednesday night, former Speaker of the Assembly Joseph Roberts spoke at an event sponsored by the Rebovich Institute. When asked about the cuts to higher education, Roberts said that cutting aid and enforcing tuition caps was “an assault on two fronts.”

“Traditionally, the state says, ‘We’re going to give you money, and we want you to hold the line of tuition,’” he said. “Doing both is a bit of a problem.”

Wilmer Castro, vice president of the Rowan SGA, wants students to get involved in order to influence legislators to vote against the proposed cuts.

“Our main objective on April 19 is to let the state house and legislators know that their consituents are against the current budget proposal,” he said. “We all have committed students eager to let their voices be heard.”

Donofrio agrees.

“The most important message we have for Rowan students and all New Jersey students is that it is so vital that we stand up for ourselves,” she said. “We must not allow Governor Christie and our elected legislators to disregard our futures. We are constantly the forgotten demographic.”

The hearing on Monday is slated to begin at 9:30 a.m. in the State House Annex, Committee Room 4. If you are interested in attending, please contact Melissa Rebovich at rebovichm@rider.edu. The Rider Democrats plan to attend the rally starting at 3 p.m.

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