UT needs less fees, better priorities

By: Forrest Wilder and David Peterson, Columnists
Daily Texan
January 24, 2002

Students cycle through the University and approximately every four years, history is erased. The student body has no collective memory. This involuntary amnesia allows the UT administration to stick it to us again and again. The slate of administrative failure is wiped clean with each successive generation of students.

The irony, then, of the proposed infrastructure fee is lost on nearly everyone. The buildings we could soon be paying to renovate and repair were built using student fees exactly like this one. In 1970, the "students' building fee" was raised $30 per semester, to a total of $100, in order to pay for UT's most intense period of building. In 1960, the regents' 10-year building plan totaled less than $15 million. In 1971, there was $46 million worth of construction at UT-Austin. In 1973, $150 million.

All this at a time when "real" growth in state support was dropping drastically. Thus begins the University's long-standing habit of looking to students rather than the state for money.

The buildings, bought and paid for in student money are now aging and require expensive overhaul. Not surprisingly, the University is once again expecting its students to shoulder the burden.

Students aren't the only ones with amnesia. The administration apparently forgot that aging buildings required renovation and repair. Thus Faulkner's stated "surprise" at UT's financial outlook, which the UT community was privy to at the public hearing on Jan. 17.

In effect, Faulkner and Co. pitched a PowerPoint sob story. First, they overwhelmed the audience with numbers the bottom line being that the University is in fiscal straits. Then, they outlined a number of "austerity measures" that will have to be implemented if new sources of revenue aren't found. The explicit message of the evening was that the University's "first-rate" education will suffer. Unless...

Enter Faulkner with the all-too-predictable conclusion that students will have to buy their own salvation ... or else ...

The University's fundamental financial problem is that the state underfunds the school. In 1984, state appropriations constituted almost 45 percent of UT's operating budget, but now they cover less than 25 percent. The administration has tried to make up for this in the recent past by exponentially increasing student fees. At a certain point, relying on students to pay for basic university needs becomes untenable.

Even with the fanciful five year funding projections (infrastructure fee included), over $150 million of the University's core budget in that period will come from so-called "sources still to be identified." Can the University identify these sources and make the money materialize? If not, a new batch of students will be surprised to find themselves sitting in a shabby lecture hall, their university president asking them to savor their affordable education by paying new fees.

It's widely recognized that UT's primary drawing point is a blend of affordability and quality. Faulkner said as much at his rare appearance before students last Thursday. Before he disappears back into the Tower, it's our responsibility to make it clear to him that both of these merits are threatened by the University's failure to get to the root of its budgetary problems.

Comparing the UT and University of California systems is telling. They have a number of striking similarities. Even though UT students pay only slightly more tuition and fees, UC-Berkeley students enjoy smaller classes, better student-to-faculty ratios and greater national prestige.

The UC System, which is substantially larger than the UT System, manages to sustain a number of schools which easily compete with the best of American public universities without the inter-university quibbles over funding and resources that plague the UT System.

The UC System operates at a much greater capacity, offers more students an education comparable, if not better, in quality to the University, and does so while charging lower tuition and fees. What's their secret?

It's no secret that the UC System is rightfully valued by the California Legislature, which provides sufficient funding to maintain high levels of both affordability and quality.

So, here at the University the problem and the solution are very clear. For too long, the UT administration has passed its failure at the Texas Legislature onto students. If Faulkner truly values his formula of affordability and quality in higher education, he should wean the University from its parasitical relationship with its students.

It is time to show the administration some tough love. Students need to break the University's cycle of dependence on our money. Only then will they stand up and demand that the state adequately fund what is after all a state school.

We can leave a legacy that future generations of students could truly appreciate - even if they don't remember us.

Wilder is an English senior and Peterson is an anthropology senior.