LANSING – Student delegates from 13 Michigan universities lobbied state representatives yesterday to increase funding to higher education, but the event was marred by the fact that fewer than half of the state legislators who were invited actually attended.

The night before, the state Legislature had unexpectedly been called into session, and many senators and representatives who had originally promised to attend yesterday’s event said they did not have the time to spare.

The Association of Michigan Universities, a nonprofit organization that represents Michigan’s 15 public universities, organized the event and invited 15 state senators and representatives, as well as students from every state university. While most schools did send students – some even postponed exams to come – only six of the legislators were able to attend. Those who did stayed only for their 30-minute lunch break.

The conference was intended to focus on the increasing financial burden that students face because of high tuition rates that are a direct result of state funding cuts to public universities.

In the past 25 years, the state’s universities have increased expenditures by 311 percent, while state funding has increased by only 134 percent, according to Ellen Jeffries, the deputy director of the Senate Fiscal Agency. Tuition has increased by 526 percent.

Because the state is in the midst of a financial crisis, the Legislature has cut funding in the past few years in many areas, including higher education.

The University has also felt the pain of these cuts. Appropriations to the University will be reduced by $4.3 million next year, a cut that is likely to impact students heavily, said Julielyn Gibbons, the director of legislative affairs for the student government at Michigan State University.

Timothy Wiggins, the University’s delegate at yesterday’s conference and vice chair of the Michigan Student Assembly’s External Relations Committee, said the event was not at all as effective as he had hoped it would be. “It would have been very useful if the legislators had had more time to answer questions,” he said. But as it was, students had no time to speak directly to legislators.

Instead, the six representatives were asked a series of three vague questions about how higher education can be improved. “The questions are not meant to criticize, scrutinize or blame for the past, but to improve the future,” Gibbons said.

However, the legislators did not have time to do much more than declare their support for more funding to universities. They were unable to point to anything concrete that the state is doing to help the situation.

Mike Forster, chair of MSA’s External Relations Committee, was the University’s other representative at the conference. While he said he was impressed with the concept of the event, he was not pleased with the format. “I didn’t feel the questions were too great. The last one was confusing, and the legislators didn’t know how to answer it,” he said.

Representative Stephen Adamini (D-Marquette), suggested that if Michiganders want better funding for universities, they should stop lobbying for lower taxes.

“If the message we are getting from people is ‘cut our taxes,’ then that is what we will do,” he said. People cannot ask for both lower taxes and better funding, because there simply isn’t that much money, Adamini said.

State Rep. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) said it is up to students to improve their financial situation. She said campus grassroots organizations are the best source of change, and that students should take every advantage to contact their representatives. “It is up to students to drive the decisions being made here,” she said.

But the sparse attendance from representatives and senators caused some to question how seriously legislators take students’ calls for better funding.

Rep. Scott Hummel (R-DeWitt) assured students that he believes the issue is in fact very important. “I made a commitment to be here, and I take it very seriously,” he said.

Wiggins said MSA has plans to send another set of delegates to Lansing in the coming months to repeat this attempt to reach legislators.

“This was a step in the right direction,” Wiggins said. But students have a lot more work to do, he added, before they see any changes to the state’s funding.

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