Mary Cooper was caught in the middle.
In a year of unprecedented tuition hikes that often pitted student against administrator, the student body president had to serve as a mediator — and only had so much time to act.
“There had to be a level of realism,” said Cooper, who leaves office today.
“Sure, I don’t think tuition should increase, but to have a productive conversation, you have to go in with the mindset of, ‘OK, we are suffering so badly, how can we (compromise)?’” Cooper said.
As the sole student member of the Board of Trustees, Cooper was the board’s only member to vote against a 15.6 percent tuition increase proposal for in-state students in November.
Cooper proposed an alternative hike of 6.4 percent, which she said she believed to be more attuned to students’ wishes, but it was rejected by the board.
“I did not agree with the piece of work given the magnitude of the problems we faced, but I admired her for it very much,” said Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost.
The UNC-system Board of Governors ultimately passed a systemwide average tuition and fee increase of 8.8 percent for the 2012-13 academic year.
Despite her alternate proposal, Cooper was criticized by some student protesters for not taking an active stance on tuition quickly enough.
Sophomore Sean Langberg, a member of Students for a Democratic Society who was active in tuition protests, said that while he believed Cooper’s proposal was sound, it was already too late.
“The decision came out in August or September, and (student government) finally got engaged in December or January after many of the power players on the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors had kind of already made up their minds,” Langberg said.
Cooper said too much bureaucratic red tape during the tuition proposal process was to blame, making developing a proposal difficult.
“Every single person was rushed, from the protester to the administration to student government — we were finding out what the rules were of tuition late in the game,” Cooper said.
“If I had a Magic 8 Ball, then I would have started ages ago.”
Student Body Vice President Zealan Hoover mirrored her sentiments, emphasizing Cooper’s attention to detail.
“She does not rush to make a decision — she makes sure she makes the right decision,” Hoover said.
“That really says a lot because the only criticism that has been cast at her a lot is that she took too long to make a decision, but I’ve never heard someone criticizing her for making the wrong decision,” he said.
As tuition became the first of Cooper’s priorities, it did not stop her from accomplishing her major platform points.
Despite some unforeseen delays, not one of Cooper’s “big three” platform points have gone unfulfilled.
To launch the Student Enrichment Fund, Cooper and Hoover used their own student government stipends to finance the initiative.
Since then, the fund has received a $5,000 donation from the Parents Council, and funding will fall under the auspices of the Office of University Development, Cooper said.
Many cabinet members and administrators said Cooper’s ability to accomplish her goals despite tuition and budgetary concerns was outstanding compared to past administrations.
“She’s been exceptional because not only does she bring to the table what you would expect from a student body president, but her sense of strategic judgment and ability to see the big picture and think from the beginning beyond her tenure has been extraordinary,” said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs.
Will Leimenstoll, who will be inaugurated as the new student body president today, said he admires Cooper’s ability to build leaders, something he hopes to do during his own administration.
“Mary is really good at growing leaders and empowering students who she sees potential in who may not have gotten the chance to prove themselves yet,” he said.
As Cooper’s term draws to a close, some administrators wonder if the future holds public office for her, especially since her father, Jim Cooper, is a U.S. representative for Tennessee.
“I actually have a lot of supporters here in Nashville who are already telling me I’m just holding the seat warm for her until she runs for the seat in Congress,” Cooper said.
“In fact, my own campaign treasurer has been telling me that he would throw me over in a heartbeat for Mary, and he’s been my treasurer for, like, 30 years.”
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