By Peter Likins
Commentary on Communications and Consequences
In my recent Inaugural Address, I began with "Hang on folks! We're going to take a little ride". Last week's overwhelming defeat of the Student Union Fee Referendum certainly illustrated my point! I want to share the lessons that I learned and some thoughts about the future of this project.
Initially, I tried to stay out of the debate because I saw it as an opportunity for students to decide whether they wanted an improved Student Union sufficiently to impose a fee upon themselves that might go as high as $40. Student leadership rightly framed the debate in terms of a choice between the only two alternatives. One was to limit ourselves to basic infrastructure improvements (repairs, construction code violations, health and safety issues) and pay for them through building renewal funds, or the sale of academic bonds. The second was to aim at a much-improved amenity, with better programs serving student life and learning, and meet those greater costs through a combination of building renewal funds, academic bonding, and fund raising and student fees.
A positive vote would have set the stage for me to invite the support of the Regents, and to challenge our alumni to step forward with financial support. A negative vote would have been a clear signal to abandon the larger project.
Unfortunately, the debate became murky when someone introduced a third and totally unrealistic proposal that major redevelopment should go forward on the basis of alumni gifts that have yet to be raised, without either burdening tuition or adopting a student fee. The slogan "Union Yes- Fee No" had an obvious popular appeal but, unfortunately, this is not and never was an option. Yet it became a determining consideration for many voters, even though it is simply not feasible to raise sixty million dollars for Student Union redevelopment.
In retrospect, it would have been wiser for me to have participated in the debate earlier, to make it clear that the choice was between two, not three, alternatives. Unfortunately, when I belatedly entered the fray, I tried to communicate complex ideas through well-meaning reporters, but the representation of my views in the Wildcat was disappointing to me and discouraging to many students. I should have done an earlier and better job of sharing my views with Wildcat reporters, or communicated them personally in writing.
So what should we do now? One option is to give up on the grand plan, and conduct an engineering study of the cost for infrastructure improvements that meet only health, safety and building code issues. This smaller project might be funded through a bond issue to be retired over time with such general revenues as tuition revenue, with perhaps some help from limited building renewal funds that the state provides. Infrastructure improvements are essentially invisible and rarely, if ever, appeal to benefactors.
A second option is to seek the Regents' permission to proceed with a preliminary design that would let us estimate costs more precisely for the larger plan. This would allow us to explore the potential for private donations, estimate contributions from an improved bookstore and food service providers, and determine with greater precision just what student fee would permit total revenues to meet projected costs. A second student vote could then provide students with a choice between two quantified alternatives.
I cannot pursue this second option without the approval of the Regents who may interpret last week's negative result as a vote against Student Union redevelopment, and be unwilling to address anything beyond the requirements of health, safety and code considerations.
In any event, even if the Board agreed to a study, it now may be difficult to persuade potential benefactors that the Student Union is a student priority. Why should they commit a gift when the students themselves have declined to contribute? The campus is in a most awkward situation, with no easy escape short of settling for an outdated Student Union.
For my own part , I intend to take some time to ponder the situation. The most helpful thing might be for the debate within the student body to continue, but on a realistic basis, so that student preferences might be clarified. Whatever comes, I remain committed to working with students, regents, faculty and staff members as we continue to shape the future.
Peter Likins president of the University of Arizona.