The Arizona Desert Lamp

What’s free as possible?

Posted in Uncategorized by Evan Lisull on 29 April 2009

“The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.”

Arizona State Constitution, Art. 11, Sec. 6

This phrase has been stretched far beyond its past-due date, trumpeted as though it were some God-ordained right (even as actual rights – freedom of association, freedom of speech – are chipped away without so much as a pause). It is cited by students like scripture, as they complain on the elliptical machine about the proposed tuition increases. Later, loafing in a leather chair in the air-conditioned lobby of their dorm, they text their friends: “$1100 – WTF?”

You get the point. Perhaps Rep. Pearce is posturing when he calls the universities “country clubs,” but behind that bluster is a kernel of truth: we’re a long way from Cicero by lantern light. The original tuition cap, adjusted for inflation, works out to $1,600. And indeed, with $1,600, you can get a very nice tent and a collection of books. But if we’re already all-in on the modern university thing, then one can’t expect to pay traditional university prices.

Practically, though, there seems to be a bigger issue in the phrase – what exactly is “as nearly free as possible” referring to? The Board of Regents has taken the phrase to be a comparative one – hence, we have to be “as nearly as free as possible” when compared to other equivalent schools. (But what equivalent? Aye, there’s the rub.) Yet it’s odd to assert that the phrase was drafted for the purpose of trumping other states, unless the state constitution was written by a nascent marketing crew. “Cacti? Forget the cacti – education’s free as possible here! You can’t get that in Virginia, now can you?” Rather, the statement was probably intended to be an intrastate guarantee, independent of other considerations.

So as Tom Rex of ASU says, it’s broadly a statement of purpose. But more than that, it doesn’t guarantee a type of education; rather, it’s a statement for the entire system. This “as nearly free as possible” still exists – it’s called Pima Community College. If you want the ritzier, research-based education offered by the UA, you should be prepared to fork over more. Ideally, this would get us back to the Three University Model – and while this would probably make the UA itself much more expensive (especially for out-of-state students), it should also make the school much more elite.

As important as minimizing cost to Arizona students should be, there is also something to be said for diversity in higher education offerings. Increasingly, the UA is becoming ASUSouth; and while this may help the state in adhering to this throwaway phrase, it punishes her best students by forcing them to go elsewhere to get a top-notch education.

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Generational Warfare on the Task Force

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 1 April 2009

This is pretty much all you need to know about the recent decision by the ABOR’s Tuition Task Force (an ASA brainchild, by the way) to dump the “bottom-third” tuition policy:

AYES (6):  Regent Ernest Calderon, Regent Fred Boice, Regent Dennis DeConcini, ASU President Crow, NAU President Heager and UA President Shelton

NAYS (5):  Student Regent David Martinez, Student Regent Ross Meyer, ASU Undergraduate Student Government President Rigazio, NAU Undergraduate Student Government President-elect Templin, UA ASUA President-elect Nagata

This is literally Student v. Administrator, with no one crossing over – and, since the administrators invariably set the rules of the game, the students get out-voted. All sides, however, agreed that the current bottom-third policy is pretty stupid:

UA President Robert Shelton said the current restriction is simply an “arbitrary number” and does not compare the university’s tuition to it’s true peer universities.

“The peer group that we have is a nonsensical peer group – those 50 flagship universities – most of them have nothing in common with us,” Shelton said after the meeting.

UA Student Regent David Martinez III said if the “top of the bottom one-third policy” were revoked it would eliminate an important connection between university officials and students.

“Even though I am categorically opposed to that policy because of its arbitrary nature, I see that it did keep tuition low,” Martinez said following the meeting. “It was a process that held regents accountable and gave presidents a process in which to set tuition.”

The Arizona Board of Regents instituted this policy eleven years ago – why are university presidents and regents just now starting to criticize it? As with the fees, it is only when it serves the university administration’s interest that this policy is questioned – for Shelton to posture as though he is acting on some sort of principle other than “revenue enhancement” (a phrase actually used by NAU President Haeger) is perversely amusing.

Even with this insipidness, there is a kernel of truth here – the policy is arbitrary. The root of this evil, of course, is the anonymous ignoramus who proposed the “as free as possible” clause, a vacuous sentiment entirely out of place in a state constitution. Yet the bigger problem is not the bottom-third policy per se, but rather how it has been applied like a straitjacket to the three major universities. The solution here is not to grant more power to the extant Board of Regents – who came up with the policy in the first place – but rather to give each university its own board of regents – a UABOR, an ASUBOR, and a NAUBOR. These boards of regents would be far more sympathetic to the interests of each individual university, rather than trying to find policies that make all three parties happy. There’s been a lot of “rah-rah” over “unity in times of crisis” and other such displays of faux solidarity, but the fact is that we not only compete with ASU (and NAU, to a far lesser extent), but should have different aims as well; we are not a “New American University,” nor should we be.

Anyways, now that that hurdle has been cleared, ABOR is free to fee.