2011-04-07 / Local & State

Student Leaders Band Together On Cuts

By Genaro C. Armas

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Student leaders at Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities – Lincoln, Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple – have banded together in hopes of mustering more support against proposed massive cuts in state funding.

They’re trying to build more enthusiasm on their campuses among young adults who generally aren’t as politically active as previous generations. Temple’s student leader said a rally at the Philadelphia school on Wednesday drew at least 1,500 people, including from Penn State’s Abington campus and area high schools.

They coordinated with Pitt, where student government president Molly Stieber said between 150 and 200 attendees including students and faculty braved a snow squall to listen to 20 speakers.

“The student body is upset,” she said Thursday in a phone interview. “Some of them understand what’s going on better than others. In general, you won’t find a student who wants their tuition to increase.”

The displeasure is over Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposal to slash spending by 50 percent for the 14 state-owned universities in the State System of Higher Education, as well as the four state-related schools partially funded by appropriations. Many such rallies have been held across Pennsylvania to protest the largest cut proposed by any governor this year.

Anticipating cutbacks with the expiration of federal stimulus dollars, the student leaders at Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt and Temple formed a coalition in December to address potential budget issues.

“We wanted to be pro-active and getting our students more aware of the issues,” said Natalie Ramos-Castillo, Temple’s student government president.

But student groups, much like the administrative leaders of the institutions, say they were taken aback when Corbett rolled out his plan. Echoing other university chiefs, Penn State president Graham Spanier has said that “everything is on the table,” including layoffs, program cuts and a tuition hike.

At Penn State, Spanier sent an email to faculty and staff late Thursday encouraging them not to let criticism of the university and “misleading claims” deter employees from the “important work we do.” He included a question-and-answer section of key issues in the funding crisis.

“Gov. Corbett has faced an incredibly large budget challenge since he took office in January. He must dig the state out of billions of dollars of deficits,” Spanier wrote. “Penn State is willing to do its fair share. We will work with members of the House and the Senate and the governor’s staff to help identify what a fair share is for the university.”

Opposition to Corbett’s proposal has also put student leaders, at least at Penn State, in the relatively unusual position of aligning with school administrators on a hot-button topic.

For example, consider the awareness campaign this week in the lobby of Penn State’s student union building. Luis Caza, 22, helped organize the event, in which he and other students would sit in front of a handwritten sign, draped on a couch, that read “Corbettville: Vision of Penn State’s Future.” On the floor were sheets of paper that read just “52.3(percent)” – which is about the percentage cut in funding that the university faces.

Caza, of Belleville, N.J., said his group initially started in the fall to protest rising tuition at the university. Now that tuition bill, roughly about $14,400 per academic year for in-state freshmen and sophomores, could go even higher.

“ Everything kind of changed because the budget came out, and we had to drop everything to focus everything on the budget campaign,” Caza said.

As one of the state’s, if not nation’s, largest university systems, with roughly 95,000 students, Penn State also stands the most to lose in funding. The size of the main University Park campus, where nearly half of Penn State’s students attend, also makes generating grass roots efforts a bit more difficult than at smaller schools.

Elections for a new administration took place Wednesday, but Ragland said he still planned to stay involved with the funding issue.

“I think students know about it, but I don’t see the urgency,” Ragland said this week. “I don’t know what it is.”

Caza, Ragland and other students are still optimistic about more efforts planned next week, including a Monday protest in which some students will leave classes at noon to descend on the Old Main lawn for a rally. Temple students are scheduled to lobby at the Capital in Harrisburg on Monday, and Penn State and Pitt students plan similar efforts in Harrisburg on Tuesday.

At Pitt, Stieber said student leaders have been reaching out to local unions for support at budget-related protests, with student groups intending to similarly back unions for their own rallies.

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