Trustees tell SA leader to take fee fight to administration

The top student leader’s fight for fee transparency came to a halt last week before the University’s highest governing body.

Sidestepping traditional lobbying routes for student leaders, Student Association President John Richardson put forth a proposal to the Board of Trustees’ Student Affairs Committee to itemize tuition bills by including a list and brief explanation of all fees. He said the committee, which met one day before a Feb. 10 board meeting, advised him to spend more time on the idea before bringing it to the full board.

When Richardson made a brief presentation before the board the next day, he called for approval of the ongoing career services overhaul and funding to renovate student organization offices, but made no mention of an itemized tuition bill – a point he had heralded as top priority since the fall.

About two weeks prior, Richardson and Executive Vice President Ted Costigan promised to power through the institutional roadblocks they claimed have been stalling the organization’s efforts to shed light on expenses, such as printing, technology use, study abroad and course registration.

“In past years, the Student Association tried to knock down one fee at a time. But we want to look at all cost of attendance issues holistically,” Richardson said a week before the Board meeting.

He also shared a report from the SA’s fee commission, which outlined and provided reasoning for 10 fees across the University, to the board’s committee and to University President Steven Knapp. Richardson’s dozen-member team met throughout the fall to identify costs ranging from requesting transcripts, to cancelling housing to signing up for 18 or more credits.

“It’s tough because the trustees are very smart people so they are very intuitive and want to know more,” he said, adding that the issue was so complex that the committee members “got side-tracked” from his original idea. He said they spent more than an hour discussing the existence of fees to fund different University operations.

Richardson said the committee’s chairman Alan From supported greater transparency in fees, but told him to first develop a detailed plan with University administrators.

“They basically said, ‘Go to them, and let’s see how it goes. If you present this to the larger board, you’re going to lose people,’ ” Richardson said, describing the committee’s reaction as generally supportive of the idea.

From lauded Richardson’s sustained lobbying toward other projects like career services after the board meeting, but did not return a request for comment on the tuition proposal.

In early February, Richardson and Costigan met with Knapp to discuss potential ways to better communicate various fees to students and their families.

Knapp and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz deferred comment on Richardson’s cost of attendance proposals to Robert Chernak, senior vice president of student and academic support services.

“The proposal requires a thorough analysis of the effect it would have on various schools and departments. The University is committed to working with the Student Association regarding this issue,” Chernak said.

Richardson said he will continue to have conversations with administrators about his proposal for an itemized budget, adding that he has passed along the report to vice presidents Chernak, Katz and Lorraine Voles, as well as Provost Steven Lerman, in hopes of getting them on board with the idea.

Admitting that his weeks in office are dwindling – new Student Association leaders will be selected before spring break – Richardson said he is confident that the fee commission will outlast his administration and ultimately usher in a culture of transparency.

This article was updated on Feb. 16, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly characterized John Richardson’s presentation to the larger Board of Trustees. He did mention student affordability, but did not mention an itemized tuition bill.

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