Bill would put student on university boards of regents
By BRANDI GRISSOM
As tuition prices at Texas public universities spike upward, so does the chance students may win a 30-year fight for a voice in governing their schools.
"In an era when regents are given the right to raise tuition, students should sit and help make that decision," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who filed a bill that would require a voting student regent position on each public university board of regents. "Students' voices should be heard if they're going to be taxed."
In 2003, the Legislature gave regents the authority to set tuition, which had previously been determined by lawmakers. Since then, tuition at state schools has increased an average of 16 percent statewide.
Brent Chaney, student government president at the University of Texas at Austin, said although a 37-percent tuition jump has hit student pocketbooks hard, it's bolstered their argument for a student regent.
"Now, students need to go to the board of regents to make changes, so it's more important than ever that a student is placed on board of regents," Chaney said.
Boards of regents each currently have nine members appointed by the governor. Under the bill, one of those nine positions would be a student. University students would nominate the student regent, and the board of regents would make the appointment.
Students at Texas universities have been pressing for a voice on the boards that make decisions about schools they attend since the 1970s. Currently, students serve as regents of public universities in 39 states.
During the two previous legislative sessions, in 2001 and 2003, lawmakers sponsored bills to create a student regent position. Both times the bills died in committee.
Opposition in the past has centered on student inexperience. Shapleigh's bill attempts to overcome that objection by making the student regents serve one year as an "apprentice" regent without voting rights, learning about the process. The following year, the student would be able to vote.
"When they sit as a full regent, they will have the knowledge necessary to act on complex issues," Shapleigh said.
Bipartisan support might give the students' cause added gusto.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, has drafted a bill similar to Shapleigh's. Wentworth said he plans to file his bill soon and has gotten the signatures of a couple other senators but is seeking more to sign their support.
"Most regents are prominent, politically active people, men and women both, who haven't been in college for about a quarter of a century," said Wentworth, who is a former regent for the Texas State University System. "There are nine regents. I'm asking just that one of those nine be a currently enrolled student who could give the board, in its deliberations, a perspective that none of the rest currently have."
The primary difference between Shapleigh's bill and the one Wentworth plans to file is the way the student would be appointed. Wentworth's bill would have the governor appoint the student regent, rather than the sitting regents.
That may be the sticking point for Shapleigh, who said he expects resistance from the governor's office. Robert Black, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor hadn't seen the bill but would be willing to work on the issue with the senators.
The biggest challenge to overcome for students is the Texas Constitution, which mandates that regents serve a six-year term. Both bills call for one-year terms for student regents. For that to work, students will have to get the approval of two-thirds of both House and Senate members and a majority of Texas voters.
The student regent bill is SB870.