URBANDALE — Students from across Iowa’s three public universities on Wednesday shut down a Board of Regents by interrupting its afternoon session with loud chants, songs, personal stories and demands for a tuition freeze — pleading for a response, “Yes or no, will you implement a tuition freeze?”
At no point during the hourlong impromptu protest during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at its office in Urbandale did any of the nine regents publicly respond to the dozens of students.
None of the university presidents spoke up either, and all three left the room at various times — as did Board of Regents President Mike Richards and the board’s Executive Director Mark Braun, who said he pulled aside members of the student group to try to coordinate a later discussion.
“I offered to them to sit down and figure out how we can get something worked out where there can be a dialogue, back and forth,” Braun told The Gazette after the board adjourned the meeting about an hour early. “They demanded that the board respond today.”
Because the regents are bound by state law to discuss only items outlined on their previously released agenda — and issues central to the student concerns weren’t on this week’s agenda — members couldn’t discuss them, Braun said.
“To engage in conversation about this and deliberate is committing a violation of the Open Meetings law,” he said.
At the time of the protest, the board had just returned from a 45-minute lunch. Before that, the board had held its scheduled public comment period — during which two students unaffiliated with the protesters spoke about Iowa State’s chalking policies.
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“There was a window from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., they did not avail themselves of that opportunity,” Braun said. “If all of the speakers would have come, the board would have sat and listened to everything that they had to say. They missed that window or chose not to take that window. So, this is what we had to do.”
Over shouts and chants like, “the students, united, will never be defeated,” and, “yes or no?” to the question of a tuition freeze, the board approved its required bond sales and ended the meeting.
Even after the board and university leadership left the room, students continued their protest over rising tuition rates and the universities’ lack of response to acts of racism and white supremacy across the campuses.
“Enough is enough,” one student shouted. “We call on the Board of Regents to reverse the multiyear tuition model and institute a tuition freeze at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. And we call upon the board to ensure this tuition freeze does not further harm students by cutting needed programs but instead is supported by increased state funding.”
He commingled that issue with recent acts of racism on the campuses, saying, “You sit by and do nothing while we, your students, are attacked by white supremacists and the administrations who don’t care about the true cost of raising tuition every year.
“The multiyear tuition model is killing us.”
Board President Richards, of West Des Moines, said after the meeting he believes the students have a lack of understanding about what control — or lack thereof — the board has over state appropriations and the efforts administrators have made to advocate for more state support.
“We don’t have anything to do with the appropriation side of it — that’s the Legislature,” he said, adding the campuses view their role as a partner with the state to secure the necessary funding. “And then we make our adjustments on tuition, based on continuing to provide access and quality education to the students.”
Last semester, in response to the group’s demands for town halls on each campus to discuss their concerns, the board sent a letter committing to “having a presence at campus forums on diversity, equity and inclusion when they are held by regent university leadership or shared governance groups.”
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“We are concerned about this issue,” according to the letter, signed by Richards. “We do not want anyone to feel isolated, afraid, or unsafe on our campuses. We want each one of our students to know their views are listened to.”
UI President Bruce Harreld told The Gazette after the meeting the students have a right to express themselves, but his campus has an “active governance process.”
“I meet with students in various groups — we have a student government group, we have a graduate-student group, we have diversity groups, I meet with student leaders every month,” he said. “I never heard any of those issues expressed that way.”
As to the student calls for a tuition freeze and more campus programming and resources, Harreld said, they can’t have it both ways.
“Somehow, those things need to get balanced.”
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