Legislators get lesson from higher education advocates

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/CNS) — Most weekdays, Carmen Rodriguez, a biology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, addresses an auditorium of about 400 students. On Thursday, her audience was more personal: She was visiting state legislators’ office and educating lawmakers about issues important to higher education.

Rodriguez was among the faculty and staff members from colleges and universities across Virginia who joined together Thursday to advocate for such issues as a 2 percent pay raise and more financial aid for undergraduate students.

Participants in this year’s Higher Education Advocacy Day focused on five items that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has included in his 2016-2018 biennial budget:

  • A 2 percent salary increase for higher education faculty and staff, costing $25.7 million. The raise would be effective on July 1, 2017 – the second year of the budget; there is no plan for a pay increase in 2016.
  • In-state financial assistance for undergraduates, costing about $48 million.
  • Access and completion initiatives, costing $50 million. McAuliffe’s budget proposals would provide incentives for institutions to educate and graduate more in-state students and underrepresented students.
  • Tuition Assistance Grants, at a cost of $2 million. This would boost the individual undergraduate grant award for students attending independent colleges to $3,400 (from the current $3,100).
  • The proposed budget also includes $40 million in one-time incentive packages for research; $8.1 million for an online degree completion initiative; and $24.6 million for noncredit workforce development to be offered through the Virginia Community College System.

Matthew Conrad, VCU’s executive director of government and board relations, said McAuliffe has been a friend of higher education.

“The governor has been very generous to higher education and education in general. He’s made about a billion dollars in investments in education,” Conrad said.

He said VCU’s top priority is a faculty salary increase “to keep us competitive not only among our current institutions in the state but also outside of the state.”

“We also are very much concerned with the capital bond package that the governor has included,” Conrad said. This would fund a new building for VCU’s School of Allied Health, “which aligns very closely to the governor’s goal of creating jobs.”

Besides VCU, other institutions represented at Higher Education Advocacy Day were Norfolk State University, George Mason, James Madison, Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Mary Washington, the University of Richmond, Randolph-Macon College and the College of William and Mary.

At an organizational meeting before going to the Capitol, Susan Hagedorn, an associate professor of English at William and Mary, passionately discussed problems in the Virginia Retirement System’s optional retirement plan for higher education. Hagedorn has created an “Occupy VRS” website about her concerns.

“There are many problems with VRS. Right now, it’s only 65 percent funded. Those of you who opted for defined benefit plan, if you’re lucky, when you retire they’ll have enough money in the system but right now, they really don’t,” Hagedorn said.

At the morning meeting, faculty members received sheets about the legislators they were going to target first. Many paired up or formed small groups to focus on certain issues together.

Two VCU faculty members, Allen Lee and Carmen Rodriguez, joined Bob Andrews, a retired VCU professor, and traveled the halls of the crowded General Assembly Building. They approached Glen Sturtevant, a newly elected senator from Chesterfield County, first.

Allen Lee, a professor in VCU’s School of Business, discussed the importance of helping students afford their education.

“I’d like to put in a special plea for assistance for students who are undergraduates,” Lee said. “I have some students who are going to school full time and working full time. These are the ones who really need assistance.”

In many instances, the professors found a receptive audience.

Jediah Jones, the legislative assistant to Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, said the senator supports the Tuition Assistance Grants. Jones promised to relay the faculty members’ information to McEachin.

The Higher Education Advocacy Day participants caught Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County briefly in the hall on her way to a meeting. They found that she also supports more funding for the TAG program.

Claudrena Harold, a history professor at U.Va., said faculty members also benefit from the day’s activities. It galvanizes their commitment to common concerns, such as academic freedom, shared governance and the issues of rising tuition and financial aid.

“With tuition increasing every year, there is concern at times that we are pushing certain folks out of the market,” Harold said. “It’s important to provide an affordable, quality education.”

Capital News Service is a student-operated news reporting program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For more Virginia General Assembly coverage, visit the In the Rotunda section.

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