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June 2013

Student Power: Policy Recommendations

Look, anyone who reads this blog (or follows me on Twitter, hint hint) knows I'm not a big fan of diverting organizing capacity toward legislative vehicles, let alone elections. We can't legislate or elect our way to a more democratic society, nor to a stronger student and youth movement.

That being said, there are a myriad of policy changes that can happen on the state level that can make the lives of student organizers much easier. I'm leaving off the "abolish all tuition and fees" and "hand all decision-making power over to general assemblies" kind of policies, because they're both obvious to us and entirely off the table for legislatures at this point.

There's a middle ground, however, of policy changes that can help us do our jobs better that aren't completely outside the current realm of possibility. A lot of these regulations can and should be applied to private universities as well — while they're not formally public entities, states already have reams of regulations private schools must adhere to, as conditions attached to either funding or certification. And depending on the state, some of these recs can be done at a regulatory level and don't even need the legislature's approval.

Transparency

  • Publicly available, detailed budgets for all private and public institutions
    The best that most students can hope for in both private and public universities is a vague, unhelpful summary of revenue and expenses. Getting a firm handle on university finance is important

  • Publicly available vendor contracts
    Usually vendor contracts are set up by their own terms to be confidential, only state law can override those clauses and mandate public access.

  • Publicly available reports of endowment investments
    Key for investment/divestment campaigns, along with sniffing out conflicts of interest among trustees.

  • All trustee and regent meetings for all private and public institutions held publicly
    Pretty straightforward.

Power

  • Authorize university employee and graduate student unions
    Also straightforward. Though we've seen recently how quickly legislators can roll back these rights — there is no substitute for an active and militant university union movement.

  • Mandate all student activity fees are exclusively under student control
    Universities love to give students control over their own activity fees, until students start doing something actually interesting with them. Mandating that a democratic, student-run organization such as a student government/association/union has final say over the use of those funds would ensure a potentially powerful asset in organizing campaigns.

  • Treat students like human beings
    That could be in the form of a state-based DREAM Act, Good Samaritan rules to allow students to safely get medical attention to someone who's overdosed or blacked out, abolishing the use of "free speech zones" that restrict student activity to a few square feet, etc.

  • Strict restrictions limiting campus safety/police use of lethal and “less-than-lethal” weapons
    One of the biggest differences between student protest now and in the 60s is the obscene level of police violence activists are subjected to today. It's a huge hamstring to any productive confrontation with campus administration.

  • Strict restrictions of campus safety/police activity during protests, occupations, and sit-ins
    Same as above.

  • Popular elections of trustee/regent boards
    This is a bit of the more "out there" proposals, but there are thankfully many examples of constituent representation on university boards — student and faculty reps on boards aren't a totally new idea. As a result, expanding their presence, even if not to 100%, is a lighter lift than it would otherwise be.

Funding

  • Guaranteed funding streams for universities with automatic increases each year
    Legislatures in many states can set automatic funding for programs, without having to reauthorize it in every budget. There's no magic bullet that fixes higher ed without greatly increasing state (and Federal) allocation to it.

  • Ban the siloing of funds from academic or research profits
    There are huge profit centers at universities, especially public research schools like UCLA, that are contractually required to keep their profits in-program. This is especially evident with biotech and defense firm research projects — profits and royalties that those programs get above and beyond their operating costs can't be redirected into needier programs.

  • Deprioritize new facility construction
    Universities are taking out massive loans on new construction projects, many of them little more than vanity projects to recruit more affluent students, while ignoring the funding needs of actually teaching students. That debt is driving many of the fiscal crunches we're seeing at schools across the country. The best policy to deal with this would likely vary from state to state.

  • Bar any state scholarships from being used at non-public universities
    State scholarship money should go to students who go to state schools. Most of us realize the problem with voucher schemes at the K-12 level — state scholarships to private universities are essentially the higher ed equivalent. And given the lower price of state universities and community colleges, states are getting more graduates for the buck.

  • Establish a system for states to directly lend to students on more favorable interest and forgiveness terms than Federally-subsidized loans
    There are already campaigns across the country to set up state banks like the lone Bank of North Dakota. Offering very low-interest student loans with generous deferment/discharge options would be a pretty straightforward prospect for a state. They could even use it to keep graduates from moving elsewhere, promising lower interest rates or partial/complete forgiveness if students live and work in-state for x years.

What other policies did I miss? Hate that I've now become a bourgeois reformist sellout? Head to the comments!