The legislature’s Higher Education Committee has approved a bill that would give it more input into tuition-related decisions at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Senate Bill 329, “An Act Concerning Student Tuition at Public Institutions of Higher Education,” was approved March 16 by the committee on a 14-6 vote.

The bill would require college officials to notify in writing the Higher Education Committee whenever a tuition change is proposed. A provision that was dropped from the bill would have required that the committee be given “reasonable time” to comment on any changes before they were to come up for a vote at any of the state’s schools.

Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, said in a release that the bill came up in part because of the timetable and subsequent public reaction surrounding the University of Connecticut’s tuition hike in February.

Handley’s statement said UConn officials announced only a week before trustees were to meet that they planned to seek a 6.3 percent tuition hike. Tuition was ultimately increased 5.9 percent overall by the trustees on February 18. Aside from the tuition increase, which raised in-state tuition 5.66 percent and out-of-state tuition 5.78 percent, room and board and other fees also were increased.

Peter Nicholls, UConn’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, said in his testimony on the bill that in addition to giving students and other stakeholders ample opportunity to weigh in on tuition and other issues, the board already gets input from state government.

The governor serves as the board’s president ex-officio and appoints 12 board members who must be approved by the General Assembly. The commissioners of the state departments of Agriculture, Economic and Community Development, and Education also are board members.

UConn President Michael Hogan said in an email that the university is happy to abide by the current statutes requiring that the board of trustees notify the public about its meetings in advance.

As a public university, UConn is subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, as is its board of trustees. The board is required to post on its Web site its annual schedule of meetings as well as the meeting minutes, which include results of the board’s votes.

Nicholls said UConn values transparency and public input in setting policy. “University officials meet with student leaders, faculty, and other affected groups as it develops tuition recommendations for the board,” Nicholls said. “The president and the chief financial officer also attend public student forums to discuss the issue.”

The board also allows public comment during sessions at every meeting. “It is important to note that prior to voting on tuition rates at its last meeting in February, the board heard 40 minutes of spirited comments from students, faculty, and the general public on the issue,” Nicholls said.

But apparently that was not enough for some students.

According to Jason Ortiz, a student activist who says he heard part of the provost’s testimony before the Higher Education Committee, when he and others asked for information on possible tuition increases, “they’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ll get back to you’” or that they will plan a meeting to discuss it.

“It doesn’t take a meeting to explain to me what a figure on the budget is,” Ortiz said. “This is a run of the mill kind of thing.”

He said that it is easy enough to see that tuition is going up and that students aren’t given enough time before the votes to find out where the money is going. “Going to the board of trustees minutes before the vote is not the best way to have a dialog,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz helped form the Student Coalition on Reprioritizing Education, or SCORE, when a group of students walked out of the trustees meeting on Feb. 8, only 10 days before the board was to vote on the increase.

“We walked out because they were giving us the run around. Their graphs and presentation were misleading if not downright dishonest. We knew our time would be better spent organizing students than continuing to listen to the administration’s spin tactics in raising our tuition yet again,” Ortiz said.

“Students are willing to pay for a quality education but they don’t like seeing their money spent on a $4,000 rug,” Ortiz said, referring to the widely publicized expenditure of $475,000 in public funds on renovations to the UConn president’s office shortly before tuition was increased. The UConn Foundation reportedly reimbursed the university for some of the cost of the new furniture, but that came after the renovation was made public. The majority of the work was reportedly paid for with public funds.

Ortiz said that news of the renovations “cemented the issue” regarding tuition increases for many students.

While Ortiz said he wants the General Assembly to pass the tuition notification bill as “a starting point to force transparency,” he also said the committee “took out any real biting language” by removing the provision for comment by the committee.

“Now it’s just, ‘send us an email before you make a decision,’” he said. Ortiz, in his testimony, recommended that the bill include a provision requiring the board to give the committee 30 days notice with a full explanation of why changes are being made to tuition rates.

Tom Haggerty, president of UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government, said he doesn’t understand what legislators are trying to accomplish with the legislation.

“There’s not really a point to the bill,” Haggerty said.

Haggerty, who serves as a student trustee on the UConn board and spoke in support of the tuition increase, pointed out that the trustees’ meeting schedule and minutes already are public information.
“There’s no need to waste paper on more legislation,” he said.

The proposed law would similarly affect the trustees for the state’s Community-Technical Colleges and the Connecticut State University System.

The UConn board of trustees’ next meeting is April 20.

The bill is now on the Senate calendar and may be taken up for debate or a vote at any time. If it is approved by the Senate, it then moves on to the House.