Friday, November 4, 2011

Let PLU students vote on tuition

By Daniel Drake, Online Editor

Why shouldn’t Pacific Lutheran students be allowed to vote on tuition rates?

I asked my friend this question one night as we were settling in to watch a movie. She gave me a puzzled look.

PLU is basically a very small city, I told her, and tuition rates are the taxes we pay to live here. Shouldn’t we, the citizens, have a say in our own tax rate?

“It’s not the same thing,” my friend said. “PLU is a private company, not a city. We’re just the customers.”

Actually, PLU is more like a city than you might think.

All city governments share three core characteristics, said professor of political science Maria Chavez-Pringle.

They all provide services such as security, low-income housing, food programs and education. They also generate revenue by collecting taxes from citizens. Finally, they regulate behavior through city ordinances.

PLU meets all of these criteria. Here, you can enjoy the protection of a local security force, live and eat through a housing and meal program and get an education.

In return, you pay a set amount every year to cover city expenses — essentially a fixed tax. You also must obey the local laws defined in the Student Code of Conduct.

But unlike in other cities, you have no control over government at PLU.

In the City of Tacoma, all services, taxes and regulations are enacted by council members elected by the people. If citizens don’t like how things are run, they can elect someone new.

In the City of PLU, things are not so democratic. Tuition rates are decided by an unelected Board of Regents and the Code of Conduct is revised by the President’s Council.

Student representatives do serve on these government bodies, but they don’t vote. Why do we accept this so readily?

My friend was unconvinced.

“Students can’t set their own tuition,” she told me. “Almost nobody bothers to even vote.”

Ouch — she got me there.

You can’t have democracy without participation, and PLU’s voter turnout is depressingly low. In 2011, approximately 12 percent of students voted in ASPLU senate elections and approximately 16 percent voted in last spring’s presidential election according to statistics provided by ASPLU.

Compare that to the City of Tacoma where approximately 40 percent of registered voters took part in the 2009 mayoral election according to official results from the Pierce County Auditor’s Office.

Maybe my friend was right. Maybe Lutes can’t handle the responsibility of governing themselves. Then again, maybe students don’t vote simply because they’re given so little authority. ASPLU works hard to advocate student views to the administration, and PLU does listen. But that’s not the same as self-governance.

I pondered this as the movie began. No, I said to myself, my friend was wrong. If PLU gave its citizens control over a mere portion of the tuition rate, students would rise to the challenge and act with thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care.

I say give students a chance. For one year, give them control of part of the tuition rate, and let them feel the burden of democracy.