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Amid budget cuts debate, university students organizing

By ThisIsReno

By Andrew Doughman, Nevada News Bureau: He looked out into the audience at the University of Nevada, Reno and said: “if lawmakers want to invest in something, we want to make sure they invest in us.”

Behind him, a Powerpoint presentation displayed tactics for talking to lawmakers about higher education budget cuts.

He is Casey Stiteler, the UNR student directing the newly-created student government Department of Legislative Affairs. After years of budget cuts, he and dozens of other students have coalesced into something of a self-advocacy group.

But their protests won’t be of their parents’ variety. Gone are the marches and megaphones.

These students speak of biennial budgets and pepper their talk with names of state Senators and Assembly members. They’re very worried about the state’s Tobacco Settlement money, which is the pot of money from which many of them draw benefits in the form of Millennium Scholarships.

They’re also very upset that Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget includes a $162 million reduction in state support to higher education.

Stiteler and ASUN Senator Jonathan Moore briefed about 40 students Wednesday night about the state of higher education before delving into what might be called a strategy talk.

They shared talking points and reviewed budget figures. A sheet went around the room onto which students wrote their e-mails so they could receive legislative updates from Stiteler.

Slowly, a strategy developed. Students said they need to show legislators the impact of the cuts on their chances for success. They’ll also need to convince legislators that the system can’t take much more strain.

Lastly and perhaps surprisingly, Stiteler and others in the room seemed resigned to higher tuition and fees. Rather than fight a reasonable increase that could keep the lights on, they called for more control.

“We need to have a promise from Carson City that we get to keep that money on campus and let it have a direct impact on education,” Stiteler said. “There are some moves we can try to make to see our dollars work for us.”

The first move will be this Saturday. Students plan to arrive by the busload at a Reno town hall meeting to discuss budget cuts.

“We can have a big impact,” Stiteler explained. “One of the lawmakers who is going to be there is Debbie Smith, and she is the chair of Ways and Means, which is kind of the money committee.”

Ben Pelt, a 22-year-old UNR student, said he’s going to shift around his work schedule to be at the Saturday hearing.

“Having educated people in the economy is going to be our future,” he said. “It depends on people going through college and getting an education.”

In such a budget-conscious Legislature, the students plan to appeal to the pocketbook.

Today, Dan Klaich, the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, spoke before a legislative committee reviewing the governor’s proposed higher education budget. During his testimony, he called students “human capital” and universities “critical places of workforce development.”

Noting that the University of Reno had already shuttered services like the career center and eliminated whole majors, the students plan to say that further reductions could throw a wrench right into the state’s biggest economic engine.

But they aren’t naïve either.

“When it does come time to cut, there’s very few things to choose from,” Stiteler said. “If anyone is going to be chosen to shoulder the burden … a lot of people come to higher education.”

So what’s the answer?

Like many legislators, they don’t know quite yet.

Part of the game, though, is just showing up.

“If we all band together there’s a very good chance that we’ll have an effect on this,” Stiteler said.