Fees and Football? Students Call “Illegal Procedure” on University Administration

Features       February 28, 2013 2:21 AMBy:        0 comments

It’s another chapter in the saga of the conflict between students and the Texas A&M administration:  University administrators want to implement a fee increase, but many students are skeptical.

The dynamic has plagued Texas A&M University through the Murano and Loftin administrations. The storyline is similar each time. The university president announces a plan, typically regarding fee increases, and then students react, typically in opposition to the proposal. In the end, the administration’s plan usually carries the day, but students end up footing the bill and wondering if they have any voice at all.

After taking several surveys about the Kyle Field renovation fee increase proposal, Senior Theater Arts major Heather Taylor found the situation “disheartening.” Taylor was disappointed because the surveys and referendums do not have binding power. “The school does not have to listen to anything; these are simply just for survey purposes not for any real concrete decisions that are going to be made,” she said.

IMG_0810Texas A&M President Bowen Loftin acknowledged the “non-binding” nature of the surveys in a campus update email sent Wednesday.  “From this input we will develop a funding plan for the Kyle Field redevelopment that is in the best long-term interests of the University,” Loftin said in the email.

Freshman Economics major Carrie Verwers said the best interests of the university “are not made up purely of football.” She continued, “They want us to pay more fees for things we will not benefit from necessarily, and I doubt they will ever lower the fees so I don’t see how future students will benefit either.”

“I wish Dr. Loftin would also consider the best interests of current students and the academic mission of the university,” Verwers said.

In the university administration’s February 20, 2013 survey, 54.8% of the 7,664 student respondents voted “Yes” to supporting the proposal of increasing the University Advancement Fee (UAF) by $36.30 per semester and increasing sports pass prices by $80.36 per season.  Loftin did not announce the results of the SGA referendum in either of the two statements he released about the administration’s survey results.

However, in the SGA referendum, 65.2% voted to “OPPOSE increasing sports pass prices and fees, and support funding the renovations out of funds currently generated by the University Advancement Fee.”  The referendum was held February 21 and 22, and ballots were cast by 12,352 students.

Loftin’s omission of the SGA referendum results in his statement is probably not a surprise to most.  In a poll conducted by Aggie Polling last week, 69.3% of respondents indicated that they thought the university administration would publicize the results of the surveys only if the results benefited their plan.  Aggie Polling is an independent student-run project of The Aggie Guardian.

Texas A&M University Spokesman Jason Cook declined to comment to The Aggie Guardian on the survey and fee increase proposal, other than rereading the last paragraph of Loftin’s February 25th statement.

Speaker of the Student Senate Scott Bowen isn’t going to let the administration forget the results of the SGA referendum.  “Students have held a referendum and spoken, and they want the Kyle Field renovation paid for using existing student fees,” Bowen said. “And that’s what we’ll advocate for in SGA.”

University Administration Survey Troubles

The university administration’s surveys have both had their hiccups.  Alec Goetz of The Battalion first reported on February 21 that the university administration accidently sent their survey to all administrators, faculty, and staff in addition to students.

IMG_0819Jason Cook refused to disclose details or detailed survey data, but he did tell The Aggie Guardian that “only student responses were included in the survey results” and that the administration was able to “authenticate” the respondents “through the email system.”  When The AG pressed for clarification, Cook said to “file an open records request.” The Texas Public Information Act gives state agencies a ten business-day waiting period before they have to respond to open records requests.

Many students found out the hard way that the university’s survey timed-out after a certain period after clicking the invitation link in the email.  Even if they hadn’t yet cast their vote, students were not able to return to the survey to vote after they took time to research the issue.

There were also blunders when the university launched a survey on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.  The survey was originally intended to go out on Monday in order to “take advantage of the experiences of students in Kyle Field.”  However, the administration delayed the survey by two days since the Aggies suffered a defeat at home that weekend.

The survey did not include “0” as an answer option to the following question: “How many Texas A&M home football games did you attend during the 2011 season?”

Many students did not complete the survey because they could not accurately answer the question, including Wildlife & Fisheries Sciences Graduate Student Mike Treglia, whose correspondence with the university administration was obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.

“I found myself unable to complete [the survey] due to restricted answer options,” Treglia wrote. “This survey seems to only be able to accept responses from a certain portion of the A&M community (those who attend home games), yet if student fees are potentially affected, it seems that all should have the opportunity to respond.”

Another student, Staci Willis, was “extremely disappointed” about the survey.  In a letter to the administration, she wrote: “Since this survey excludes the large population of students who do not invest their time or money in A&M football, it therefore is HIGHLY unrepresentative of the percentage of students who are willing to offer up their student fees for such a project.”

In her email, which can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here, Willis continued, “It still concerns me that the administration would seek feedback on an issue from only a portion of the students (i.e.- football game attendees) when the entire student population could be adversely affected (with a hike in student fees for everyone). I would recommend that if students who attend football games wish to contribute to the redevelopment project, that this is accomplished through a fee applied to the purchase of a football ticket or sports pass.”

It is unclear whether the final survey results were released; however, preliminary results as of September 13, 2012 at 11:26am can be viewed by clicking here. University documents revealed that the survey was sent to students at both the College Station and Galveston campuses.

The Student Government Association did not report any abnormalities associated with the student body election referendum that was held last week.

Outside Influence

When the university administration distributed their survey last week, a mass email was not the only thing students were bombarded with. The 12th Man Foundation ran advertisements in The Battalion on the day before and the day of the survey.

12th Man Foundation Vice President of Marketing & Brand Management Mark Riordan said that the foundation “wanted the ad to be when the survey was hitting people’s email accounts.”

“We wanted people to vote yes on the appropriations of student funds,” Riordan explained.

12th Man Foundation advertisement along with strategically released renderings.

A student reads the newspaper with the 12th Man Foundation advertisement along with strategically released renderings.

The 12th Man Foundation ran two full-page, full-color, back-cover advertisements in The Battalion. Riordan said the foundation paid the “going rate” for the advertisement. When contacted this week, The Battalion quoted a “going rate” of $1,560 per day for a 501(c)3 foundation to place a color, full-page, back-cover advertisement in the publication.

The advertisement encouraged students to “VOTE “YES” FOR THE KYLE FIELD RENOVATION!” (emphasis theirs).

Carrie Verwers thought the ad’s message was misleading. “We didn’t even get a choice on whether we wanted Kyle Field renovated,” she said. “It’s a misleading advertisement when the vote was really about whether we should pay more fees or not.”

University Spokesman Jason Cook declined to answer questions about the 12th Man Foundation advertisement, other than saying that the 12th Man Foundation is a “separate 501(c)3 organization.”

However, the university administration and the 12th Man Foundation worked together to distribute the September 2012 survey. University documents reveal the 12th Man Foundation created the survey and that Foundation Vice President of Operations Clint Dempsey and TAMU administrator Jason Cook were in frequent contact regarding the survey.

It is still unclear whether the 12th Man Foundation was involved in creating last week’s university administration survey.

The 12th Man Foundation also released two computer renderings of the east side of Kyle Field last week. Riordan said the renderings went out in conjunction with the Battalion advertisements. “We wanted to educate the students as to what they were going to be voting on,” Riordan said.

“I don’t think the 12th Man Foundation should be trying to get the student body to pay for it,” said Texas A&M student Kyle G. about the Kyle Field renovation. Kyle spoke to The Aggie Guardian under the condition that his full name would not be disclosed. “It should be their job to really work hard and get outside donor activity,” he said.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of collusion with the administration trying to get this passed through quickly,” Kyle said. “With the current administration, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Student Involvement and Transparency

Student Body President John Claybrook said he’s been to “three or four” official meetings about the Kyle Field renovation. “January 14th was the first meeting when student leaders learned of the Kyle Field renovation and were asked to set forth some type of referendum,” Claybrook said.

“We were always presented with the options of funding the student section through total student fees, an increase in sports pass price, or some type of combination,” SBP Claybrook said about the meetings with administrators.

Speaker Bowen at a Student Senate meeting.

Speaker Bowen at a Student Senate meeting.

Student Senate Speaker Scott Bowen is one of the key student leaders spearheading the push for greater transparency and accountability. Bowen explained, “There is no guarantee that the university will spend the new fee money on what it was sold to the students as, none whatsoever. There is no legal guarantee of that.”

Part of the student concern stems from the new University Advancement Fee. “We’ve had one page of information on where the University Advancement Fee is going,” Speaker Bowen said. “We’re asked to make million dollar decisions based only on that.”

When asked if there are any ways to lower student fees, Claybrook said, “I could think of ways that could happen, none realistically.”  According to Student Senator Chris Russo, there are approximately $100 million in reserves for departments funded by the UAF.

When asked by The Aggie Guardian if fees are currently too high, Claybrook said “I don’t know. I like what I’m getting, what I’m paying for.”

Still, some students have questions about the renovation plans. “It seems like this has been rushed so much that students haven’t had time to step back and decide what we want,” said Kyle G. “I think the administration has done a very poor job of letting us know what’s going to happen.”

“We never even really got the plan until they were leaked to donors; they weren’t shown to students until they went viral,” Kyle said.

SBP Claybrook said that the renderings were “something that was kept within those meetings for some time, then the public got to see them last week.”

Mark Riordan of the 12th Man Foundation said, “We want as little out there from the rendering standpoint.  We want to be very controlled with what we are doing”

But most concerns about transparency come back around to the University Advancement Fee.

“The university has been very unwilling to provide any information on where [the UAF] money is actually going, and I think the burden of proof is on the people spending the money to prove they are using it responsibly,” said Bowen. “Until that is proven, I don’t think it is right for them to ask for more”

Many student share Bowen’s sentiments.  Sophomore Business major Joshua Dunegan said, “If the university has known that Kyle Field has needed renovations, shouldn’t it be their responsibility to have built up funds, allocated for this purpose over an extended period of time?”

Students aren’t the only ones questioning the direction of the Kyle Field renovation project. Internal emails obtained through a Public Information Act request reveal that Steve Moore, TAMU System Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications, resigned from the Kyle Field Study Group on August 28, 2012.  The details of Moore’s resignation were discussed via non-written communications, which cannot be obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.

Steven Moore was contacted repeatedly by The Aggie Guardian this week; however, he did not return requests for comment before the time of publication.

Members of the Kyle Field Study Group included the 12th Man Foundation administrators, Athletic Director Eric Hyman, university administrators, and the Board of Trustees of the 12th Man Foundation.  The Aggie Guardian is not aware of any student positions on this committee.

“I think the amount of information that has gone into the decision being made is not nearly enough as it should be compared to the amount of money being spent,” Speaker Bowen said. “With the amount of information given…I think everyone involved in this has been somewhat reckless in pursuing it.”

Take the Money and Run?

Some upper classmen might remember that increasing fees to fund athletics is not a new proposal.

In March 2011, the university administration had a bill filed in the state legislature that would have authorized a $60 per semester athletic service fee.

The Eagle reported that then current “Student Body President Jacob Robinson said he likes the idea. He said that very few people know about the idea of raising fees, but the few student leaders who have heard about it have expressed support.”

However, not every student was as supportive of the proposed fee as SBP Robinson. Justin Pulliam, class of 2012 and current medical student, led a group of students to Austin to lobby against the HB 3741, the bill that would authorize the student fee.

“The university administration had just laid-off dozens of instructors and tuition was on the rise, it just wasn’t an appropriate time to make college more expensive for students, especially for a non-academic purpose,” Pulliam said.

HB 3741 eventually died in committee.

After the bill died, A&M Spokesman Jason Cook told The Eagle in June 2011, “We are at a point right now where we are exploring other methods of financing the renovations.”

After learning about the new push for student fee funding of athletics, Pulliam said, “I guess Mr. Cook never got around to exploring other financing options, but I’m not surprised, since the administration sees students as cash cows full of easy money.” Pulliam continued, “It’s likely that the legislative defeat spurred the administration to come up with the University Advancement Fee, which bypasses legislative checks.”

The real old timers might even remember how the current chapter in the saga relates to the MSC renovation chapter.

Pulliam reported on the MSC renovation in The Anthem, a now-defunct student publication.

“In 2007, the university administration framed the issue so students believed they were voting on whether a phased renovation of the MSC should occur,” Pulliam said. “In reality, students were voting on whether to approve a $60 per semester student fee increase.”

According to past reports, the “phased” renovation meant that at least part of the MSC complex would remain open throughout the project.

“After students approved the fee increase, the administration changed its tune,” Pulliam said.

The MSC was closed for nearly three years while renovations occurred.

In February 2009, The Eagle reported that Jason Cook said, “I can’t speak to the perception that students had, but there haven’t been any promises by the administration dating back to the Gates administration through now that the construction would be conducted in phases.”

“Whatever perception you may currently have about the Kyle Field renovation, I hope you will take the time to thoroughly research the issue and come to your own conclusion,” Pulliam said. “After the administration has your money in their hands, they get to decide how to spend it.”

IMG_08243rd and Long

The fate of Kyle Field and student fees hasn’t been finalized yet. The university administration’s proposals still have to be approved by the Board of Regents. These issues will be deliberated at the May 2013 Board of Regents meeting.

Some students agree with the administration’s plans.

“If you want to attend Texas A&M, you should pay the increase in student fees,” said David Lewis, a post baccalaureate studying geology. “Even though some students may not attend football games, they still support this university, and the athletic program is part of this university.”

Still, many students think it is a long shot to gain a say in the future of the stadium.

“The university administration is dead-set on incorporating yet another student fee into their funding plans for Kyle Field, placing the financial burden not on the 60,000 non-student game attendees, but on the 50,000 students who never really had a chance to have a say,” said Senior Finance major Michael Ariza.

“We see the administration taking the easy way out, ignoring potential funding options that would limit the burden on students, in favor of those that offer administrators greater financial flexibility,” he said. “Not exactly shocking, but still nothing that should be condoned or supported.”

“Last year I really struggled to make sure that I had everything I needed paid for,” said Heather Taylor. “And I really had to save money to make sure I could really pay for the sports pass, but I [bought one] anyways because I love football.”

“I really wish that they would try to find a way so that the burden does not fall on the students to pay for the renovation,” Taylor said.

Carrie Verwers said she’s talked about the renovation with her friends and family and that she’s “really fired up.” She plans to write letters to Loftin and the Board of Regents opposing the fee increase.

“While teaching about interest groups today, my Political Science professor told us that if we really cared about this, we would take action to change it,” Verwers said. “I’m going to encourage all of my friends and family to write letters as well.”

“I don’t know if it is going to work, Loftin might ignore us, but I’m going to try anyways,” she said. “I’m not going to give up.”

Perhaps Verwers will get her third down conversion.

 The Aggie Guardian vigorously sought comment from the Athletic Department; however, the Athletic Department administrators did not comment, talk to AG reporters, or return multiple phone calls from Aggie Guardian reporters.

 Austin Springer, Katie Paulukaitis, and Kelsey Magliolo contributed to this report.

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