This Saturday, the UNC-system Association of Student Governments will hold a special meeting to talk about tuition. Given their abysmal track record for effectiveness, Saturday’s outcome isn’t very promising.
When the meeting on Saturday adjourns, Student Body President Mary Cooper must pick up where ASG leaves off — and she must do so immediately.
On Feb. 10, the Board of Governors is scheduled to make its final decision on the system’s looming tuition hikes.
That leaves 13 days for Cooper to advocate on behalf of both UNC students and those in the entire system.
At this point, Cooper should spend every minute of every day focused on tuition, no questions asked. She has publicly supported UNC-system President Thomas Ross’ plan to cap tuition increases at 9.9 percent for in-state students this year. Until the board casts its final vote, nothing is guaranteed, and it’s up to Cooper to make sure Ross’ plan passes.
The Board of Governors
If ASG is unwilling or unable to effectively lead this effort, the responsibility falls to Cooper. As the student leader of the state’s flagship institution, it is her job to step up and make sure this gets done.
Cooper should reach out to every single member of the Board of Governors. With fewer than two weeks to do so, an email won’t cut it. We expect Cooper to personally call or meet in person with each of the 32 voting members of the Board of Governors.
This may not be convenient, but it is necessary. Anything less would be irresponsible, if not downright negligent.
We know how busy the student body president is. But it’s hard to imagine an engagement that could be more pressing than this. Cooper’s calendar should be cleared of anything unrelated to tuition between now and the Feb. 10 vote.
Cooper should assign two BOG members to each of the 15 other student body presidents from UNC-system universities. The SBPs should each be held accountable for personally lobbying these two BOG members.
They should get to know their assigned members, meet with them in person and learn which factors will determine their vote. After this, the SBPs should have a good idea of how their assigned BOG members plan to vote.
Sometime at the end of next week, halfway through this lobbying campaign, the SBPs must reconvene and report back with their findings. At this point, Cooper should have a fairly accurate count of every BOG member’s anticipated vote.
Next, the week leading up to the BOG meeting should be spent zeroing in on those members who are on the fence. This means more phone calls, more meetings, more time spent — and no letting up.
When the results of the BOG vote are announced, there should be no surprises.
Cooper should also facilitate joint protests by various UNC-system schools. Buses could be arranged to bring students from across the state to the BOG meeting, and system-wide petitions should be circulated.
A unified UNC-system social media blitz on Facebook and Twitter could be extraordinarily powerful. Cooper should make sure this online activity is recognized as being a part of the same movement.
Coordinating her campus
In addition to working with all the schools in the UNC system, Cooper should take responsibility for mobilizing the Chapel Hill campus — but she should delegate it to someone else. This way, she can spend 100 percent of her time defending financial aid and UNC’s low-cost tuition model.
Someone experienced, competent and goal-oriented should be tapped to take on this crucial role. Senior Adviser Lily Roberts seems like a logical choice.
Great leaders take disjointed experiences and turn them into a coherent story. If Cooper wants to prove that she is a great leader, she’ll have to do this with the chorus of voices that have chimed in — or shouted — about tuition at UNC.
Numerous and scattered groups of students have stepped up to fill the void that Cooper’s administration has left thus far. These protests arose organically and stemmed from students who felt genuinely compelled to speak up. It would be a waste not to channel their collective passion into a concerted, well articulated effort.
Cooper should make sure all these groups come together, are informed of the facts and get on board with a congruent plan of action. And this plan must complement the work of Cooper and the other SBPs.
Students don’t have many cards to play in the game against the BOG. We must make the most of the our personal stories to convey the gravity of the possible impacts of tuition increases. If we can appeal to the human element of this debate and go beyond cold, hard numbers, we just might have a chance.
The Cooper administration should seek out students who will be directly affected by tuition hikes and ask them to share their stories. Too often, the students fighting against tuition hikes are not those most directly affected by them.
While it is natural for student leaders to come from academically elite circles on this campus, we miss some of the most compelling stories if many of those fighting against tuition hikes are actually on full merit scholarships.
Cooper’s point person must actively recruit students who are personally feeling the crunch to share their stories. The point person needs to be working every day to get more students from more segments of campus involved in building this collective narrative.
By Feb. 10, every student on our campus should know what is happening with the BOG. Anything less will mark a failure for Cooper and her team.
Reaching out to parents
If tuition is important to UNC-system students, it is perhaps even more important to their parents, who typically carry the largest financial burden. Too often, these critical stakeholders are left out of the debate, and the student position is weaker because of it. This has to change.
As Cooper and the other UNC-system SBPs design their tuition action plans, it is critical that they engage parents. Parents Councils, local alumni clubs and students are great places to start this conversation.
Each year, roughly 400,000 North Carolina parents spend more than $1.5 billion on their children’s higher education. But rarely do they have a voice in the tuition debate. This doesn’t make any sense.
Their emotional stories of sacrifice, hardship and tough choices strike at the core purpose of public higher education, to provide families the opportunity for a better tomorrow.
No stone should be left unturned during the next two weeks. The outcome of the vote will define the Cooper administration’s legacy.
What our university’s students need now, more than anything, is a leader. Cooper has until Feb. 10 to show us that we have one.
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