UTK Lobby Day
UTK students with Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Secretary of State Tre Hargett during recent visit to the legislature.
The UTK SGA is running a campaign to oppose bills in the Tennessee legislature that would restrict the use of student fees. We interviewed one of the SGA’s leaders to find out more about the campaign. Please tell us your name and current position in student government. If you’re willing, please also tell us anything else that you think is relevant about who you are: your year, major, past student government experience, etc. My name is Rachel Cross and I am the current director of the Government Affairs Committee at the University of Tennessee. I’m a senior double majoring in Political Science and Sociology with a Criminal Justice concentration and I’ve had the pleasure of working with Student Services and Government Affairs for the past three years. Outside of my role there, I’ve also been involved with SGA Student Senate, College Republicans, and multiple political campaigns. What are the current priorities for the SGA Government Affairs Committee? We have a lot on our agenda for the remainder of the spring semester – Advocacy Week, a town hall with Chancellor Cheek, another political debate, and of course continuing to fight for the rights of students to keep control of their student fees. Please tell us about the student fee bills being considered by the Tennessee legislature. What would they do? What would it mean for the university if they passed? It’s such a serious issue that it’s hard to condense it into a short version. Senator Campfield has proposed two bills – SB 1608 and SB 2493. SB 2493 would no longer allow the university to pay guest speakers, while SB 1608 would only allow the University Programs and Services Fee Board (UPSF) to give money to student organizations based on their membership numbers. This would obviously have a negative effect upon our student organizations who may not have a large number of members but who receive funding for events that are able to reach a large population on our campus. It’s also important to note that this bill will not just affect the University of Tennessee, but every public institution of higher education in our state. That includes the rest of the UT system, Memphis, ETSU, MTSU, community colleges, and so on. Right now at UT, the programming portion of student fees, which is only 5% of the $344 paid by students, is distributed by UPSF. UPSF is chaired by the student body president and comprised of students appointed by the president. They may ask for the advice of administrators or faculty, but decisions are made by the students. This is an attempt by the state legislature to censor what events we can have on campus – but we believe that since students are the only ones paying these fees, they should be the only ones deciding where they go. What are your goals for the petition drive you’ve organized to oppose these bills? How is the petition drive going so far? The petition drive we’re doing right now is going quite well. The main petition we have out is only available to UT students, faculty, or administration and we’d like to get at least 2,000 signatures. We feel that it’s important that the legislature acknowledge us as their constituents and take into account the detrimental effects and consequences that these bills would have. You can find our petition at http://sga.utk.edu/petition/ and if you’re not a UT student, there will be a link at the top of that page where you can still sign and show your support. Please tell us about the rest of the campaign. In addition to the petition drive, what other tactics are being used? Who else is involved? Right now, we’re just doing a lot of outreach. We’ve been reaching out to other student organizations on campus and explaining what these bills could do to them. We’re also reaching out to other universities and trying to spark a joint effort – I know that UT Martin and UT Chattanooga have been quite supportive and we look for them to pass a similar resolution to the one passed by our Senate very soon. We have people calling and emailing their legislators. A little over a week ago, the committee was actually able to go to Nashville and meet with legislators one-on-one and explain to them how student fees really work and why we’re against Senator Campfield’s bills. Our Student Government Association, its Government Affairs Committee, and other concerned organizations on campus are joining forces to combat this legislation and ensure the right of every student organization, regardless of its size, to have its voice heard. For other student governments that might want to plan a legislative campaign, what advice would you give them? What have been the biggest challenges? Biggest surprises? Lessons learned? Surround yourself with people who care enough about the issue that they’re willing to lose sleep over it, and don’t give up. The people are key. You have to be able to trust that they’ll accomplish the tasks you give them and then come back and ask for more. If I didn’t have such a passionate committee behind me, there is no way I could do this. And if I couldn’t call up our Student Services Director and drag him out of bed to make him proofread a statement for me, I would have probably made a fool out of myself by now. I think the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far is an odd combination of student apathy and trying to deal with the legislators themselves. With the students, it’s just trying to get the issue out there, make them aware of it, and hope they realize how this will affect them. With the legislators, I think it’s trying to make them see that we’re not all raging liberals who are trying to destroy our university, but rather that we are concerned students and constituents who are trying to protect students’ freedom to decide where their money goes. We may not like every event that’s held on our campus, but we believe that students should be the only ones deciding what these events are and what our money goes to. The biggest surprise for me is the fact that the majority of the bills’ current supporters are the very legislators who would be the first to condemn government overreach and preach freedom. I know when I was in Nashville, one legislator actually told me that we could “have our freedom, but there would be consequences.” It’s scary because the passage of these bills would set the precedent that if anyone in the state legislature disagrees with your organization or its message, they can take away your right to say it. As for lessons learned? People love freedom. Some may only want it to apply if others are using their freedom in a way that they see fit. But we hope to prove that we’re better than that. This is about student fees and student freedom, and we’re going to fight for it.