Budget cuts spark student outcry

Tony Redell

Mark Bennett

Tony Redell

FRANKFORT – Over 300 college students from campuses across Kentucky, including 40 from Northern Kentucky University, gathered at the state capitol Feb. 5 to protest higher education budget cuts.

NKU students left from campus around 7 a.m. to meet with state legislators before the rally, which TeamNKU organized in response to the proposed funding cuts for state public universities ordered by Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

NKU’s loss in the process could amount to $4 million.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson, R-Park Hills, was one of the state officials who spoke to the students. Grayson acknowledged NKU’s historic underfunding despite its continuing growth in enrollment.

“It’s horrible that the state has continued to allow that to occur,” he said, adding he believes there is some explanation why NKU receives less funding than other universities.

As the youngest state university, Grayson thinks the former lack of influential alumni has resulted in less publicity for the university, until recently. Grayson also said he believes the Northern Kentucky community doesn’t fully realize NKU’s importance to its economy.

The region’s lack of representation in the capitol also poses a problem, according to Grayson.

“I think Northern Kentucky as a whole doesn’t get as much out of Frankfort because we don’t participate, for whatever reason, as much – we’re not engaged as much,” Grayson said. “I think the drive is a little bit too long to get people to be engaged.

“Our proximity to a border, that arguably we’re part of a major metropolitan area in another state, works for a disadvantage as well. We’re not as visible as we need to be.”

Some students also see NKU’s location as a drawback, as one sign at the rally read: “NKU is in Northern Kentucky, not Southern Ohio!”

Representative Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, addressed this problem, along with other concerns for NKU, in a meeting with students. Both Grayson and Callahan are in favor of the proposed new special events center, as it would provide many benefits to the campus and community.

“It’s certainly needed,” Grayson said. “It’s overdue.”

“It’s embarrassing when you have to take a graduating class, take them across the bridge to a facility in Ohio, and ask the governor of Kentucky to come across that bridge and deliver a commencement exercise address in Ohio,” Callahan said. “None of the other universities in this state have limitations to a facility such as we do.”

Callahan said Kentucky should generate more money through new taxes before taking future cuts from education.

“I disagree with [Fletcher] on not raising any more revenue.”

Both Grayson and Callahan praised NKU President James Votruba for his hard work and determination during this rough economic period in the state.

“We’ve got a great university. We’ve got a fantastic president. I mean, he is dynamite,” Callahan said. “If he wasn’t there, I don’t know where Northern would be at right now.”

Around 2 p.m., students from other state universities met up with NKU students in the rotunda to officially start the rally, chanting “Two, four, six, eight! Don’t raise tuition rates!” as they entered.

Not long after students began protesting, security issued its first warning to keep the noise level down, which only caused students to become louder.

“It’s our future, it’s our money, so we all wanted to come down here and make a stand,” said Sara McFadden, a freshman at Southeast Community College. “It’s time that [students] stood up for themselves, to show [that the government is] not going to run us over.”

McFadden came with a group of eight students and has personal convictions about the governor’s decisions.

“If the governor’s supposed to be so religious and so Christian-like, he must have forgotten the most important commandment of all – ‘Thou shall not steal’ – which is exactly what he’s doing to all these students,” she said.

Students from the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University, the University of Louisville, Eastern Kentucky University, Kentucky State University and Western Kentucky University also represented their respective universities at the rally.

Lance Melching, executive vice president of the Student Government Association at EKU, came with a group of 20 students and said he was impressed with student camaraderie.

“I think it’s great to see all these state institutions out here working together,” he said. “Usually it’s always a fight with each other to try to get the money.”

Chris Pace, SGA president at NKU, addressed the mass of students from a second-floor balcony behind a banner that read: “Don’t balance the budget on the backs of students.”

“My goal today is to echo the message you have already sent so clearly this afternoon: the future of this commonwealth depends on fully funding higher education,” Pace said. “You must invest in education, invest in the future, or in 20 years we’ll be no better off that we are today.”

Although Pace noted that Fletcher had courage to make the cuts during Kentucky’s present recession, he also criticized the state for failing to adequately prepare for the situation.

“[They] wished they had invested more wisely, and perhaps saved something for a rainy day, and it’s raining today in Kentucky!” Pace shouted.

“The reality is politicians get reelected on tangible things. We need to ask our leaders to be men and women of vision. If you want tangible things for Kentucky, give us a chance – have a vision for Kentucky.

“Every dollar you don’t invest in our future today will be the millions of dollars you lose in an infinite tomorrow!”

Student representatives from other schools also voiced their thoughts and opinions on the situation at hand. Student chants grew louder and the group received a second warning from security. Legislators periodically emerged from their offices to watch the proceedings, and a few senators even spoke to the crowd.

Fletcher’s spokesperson, Wes Irvin, was unable to be reached for comment at the time of publication.

“I thought the rally in general may have been a little more aggressive than I would have preferred this early in the legislative process,” said NKU President James Votruba.

Votruba was not upset with the intensity of students’ feelings, rather, he would have liked a less “in-your-face” approach. Votruba said he was pleased with Pace’s speech, but thought some of the other speakers may have went a bit overboard with shouting at politicians.

He was very impressed, however, that NKU students not only attended the rally, but went to Frankfort early to talk to legislators.

“I was quite proud our students cared enough to be engaged,” Votruba said, “and I give a lot of credit to our student government. They are strong advocates for NKU.”

Joe Myers, co-chair of TeamNKU, said he was excited that the rally went well.

“I don’t know how much we’ll gain from it, but we got noticed,” he said.

As Grayson believes being visible is key, even if the rally does not affect current budget cuts, students voicing their opinion on the situation will help in future years and may prevent more cuts.

“I think coming down here is good,” Grayson said. “Continuing to keep the pressure on is very, very important, and so I’m excited that there seems to be more of an effort to bring students here to talk to the General Assembly and talk to the Governor’s office about it.”

SGA Senator Mike Tobergta agrees that even if there are no immediate effects, the day was not be a failure.

“This by far sent a message, and if they don’t react to it this year, and we keep sending the message each ye
ar, they’re going to react,” he said.

Ellen Bagby, a freshman at NKU, thinks this message could be better expressed with higher attendance.

“I think a lot of the students either don’t care, which they really should, or they had classes and they really didn’t want to miss them,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate that a lot more NKU students weren’t there for support.”

Sheree Davis, SGA senator, was also disappointed with the attendance, but feels attendance does not directly correlate with success of an event.

“I think we accomplished the goal we set out, which would be to get legislators’ attention,” she said.

Signs were also posted around the capitol to remind legislators of students’ efforts after they returned to campus. A long banner left hanging in the tunnel that connects the capitol to the annex reminded legislators that NKU has been “underfunded since 1968.”

Callahan offered a piece of advice to the students: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”