Students and leaders from Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities gathered in Harrisburg to make their voices heard regarding state funding for Temple, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and Lincoln University.
“Lest ye forget to water the garden where your seed is, ask not in 10 years where your tree is,” Michael Stewart repeated a number of times, standing before a podium in the Capitol Rotunda.
As a poet and MC, Stewart, a senior history major, performed his poem, “Sins of the Father,” for bypassing state politicians and legislators. Stewart was just one of approximately 250 college students who attended the Rally for Higher Education yesterday, Feb. 15.
The rally was organized by the Pennsylvania Association of State-related Students, an organization forged by the student governments of Temple, Lincoln University, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University.
Together, students from the four universities rallied on the steps of the Rotunda, for one purpose: funding.
The rally began with addresses by the presidents of each of the student government organizations from the universities.
“I’ve been through my fair share of struggles not only to get into Temple University, but to stay here for four years, standing here as the first Latina student body president,” TSG Student Body President Ramos-Castillo said in her address.
“Standing in front of you, sitting in classrooms at our four-year universities and around the world, and working countless hours to earn a degree; these are your constituents. We voted for you, our families voted for you,” Ramos-Castillo said. “The future of Pennsylvania is in your hands.”
Throughout the rally, students from the universities took the podium to sing, perform rehearsed poems, start chants, and, mostly, share their personal stories and discuss how paying for college affects their lives.
For the current academic year, almost 17 percent of Temple’s operating budget is made up of state-appropriated dollars.
In late October, the university sent its annual appropriation request to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for the 2011-12 fiscal year. In the request, the university requested a 6.4 percent increase in state funding, which would total roughly $189 million.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal will be released March 8, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article. Because Corbett has promised to not raise taxes, some have predicted he may cut the $690 million in subsidies to the four state-related universities.
But student tuition costs aren’t the only factors at-risk as a result of possible cuts in state appropriations to higher education.
Temple, the Inquirer reporter, has notified between 20 and 30 non-tenure-track professors that their contracts may not be renewed in the academic year, as a result of possible cuts.
“This protest is much different from previous protests because this time every student in the whole state feels this is a problem,” said Mohamed Raouda, president of Penn State’s Council of Commonwealth Student Governments.
An onlooker at the rally, State Representative Florindo “Flo” Fabrizio (D-Erie) of the Second Legislative District, called himself a “longtime advocate” of higher education funding.
“It’s a tough funding year, but I’ve always been supportive of state-related funding,” Fabrizio said. “It’s an absolute investment in Pennsylvania’s future. I’ll continue to fight for level funding.”
While Temple and Lincoln students were excused from class for attending the rally, not all students had it quite so easy.
Molly Stieber, president of Pitt’s Student Government Board, said her board was not inaugurated until recently, and the organization only had two weeks to plan for the rally.
As a result, Stieber said she distributed letters to students who attended the rally to request that instructors accommodate the students for missing class.
Christian Ragland, president of Penn State’s University Park Undergraduate Association, said the students from his university were not excused from class for participating in the rally.
“We tried [to get excusals]…that was the sacrifice students made to come,” Ragland said. “I wish we had excuses, but at the end of the day we made sure students didn’t come if they had academic priorities.”
Although students either sacrificed possible unexcused absences or missed class work, most seemed to agree that the time spent rallying was an investment in the long-run.
“[I came to] work for the betterment of the future,” Darah Doubt-Swinton, a sophomore pre-dental and biology major at Lincoln, said.
Director of Student Affairs Gina D’Annunzio credited Ramos-Castillo with the success on Temple’s end.
“Natalie taking this on with all of her energy and enthusiasm is what made this happen,” D’Annunzio said.
At the end of the rally, students and TSG members said they thought the rally was a success.
“I think [the response] was good,” Senator for the College of Education Monica Rindfleisch said. “Around the Rotunda, there was a balcony, and you saw a lot of politicians standing there watching for several minutes. The lieutenant governor was standing there watching. It was really nice to see that they cared.”
“A lot of the younger politicians were watching, I also saw a lot of the aides walking around,” Rindfleisch said. “I strongly feel they know we were there, they know why we were there. I’m hoping it makes an impact on them.”
AN ONGOING BATTLE
Although Corbett’s proposal will be released in just a few weeks, the deciding factor for the state’s appropriations will be in June, when the budget is voted on.
Presidents from the universities discussed continuing to demonstrate for state funding in the months to come, and Raouda said students from his school will be excused from class on April 5 for Capitol Day.
A familiar Philadelphia face in attendance at the rally came in the form of John F. Street, former Philadelphia mayor and Temple alum.
Sporting a cherry-colored Temple hat, Street said he thought the rally was well thought-out, and encouraged students to continue fighting for funding.
“This will hopefully cause the legislatives to be more careful when looking over the papers,” Street said. “I think it is essential for students to take social media and send a message to everyone; even with just a goal of 2,000 to 3,000 messages and forward it to each representative in PA.”
But, despite the positive vibes of the rally, Stewart said it was ultimately “distaste” that brought him to Harrisburg.
“Cutting funding is a step backward in an already broken education system,” Stewart said. “Like I was saying in the poem, it’s already elitist. The undergraduate [programs are] fundamental, it’s what high school should be. I don’t think anyone should be negated from learning what they want to [study].”
Angelo Fichera and Siena Mazero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.