Virginia’s FOIA council wants university boards to allow public comment before tuition changes

By: - October 18, 2018 6:05 am

Creative Commons- Jeff Auth via Wikimedia.

Boards that govern public universities and colleges should allow students and other stakeholders to speak at meetings when the cost of attendance may change, the state’s Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council said Wednesday.

But it’s not a change that needs to be codified in law, the council decided. For now, public comment at colleges’ governing board meetings will be considered a “best practice,” and institutions can choose if they want to abide by it.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, proposed the change as part of work the council is doing on a bill that was left in committee in this year’s General Assembly session on public comment periods.

He called the practice of raising tuition without public hearings a “real issue of transparency in the commonwealth.”

Currently, college governing boards have to issue public notice that a meeting will be held, allow people to attend the meetings and post a price range of potential tuition changes 30 days before a vote on the topic takes place.

The boards don’t have to allow public comment.

Last spring, the issue of governing boards operating without public input came to a head at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Stacie Gordon, the state advocacy manager at Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust.

The national organization works on the issue of college affordability and created a petition for VCU students to sign in opposition of what ended up being one of the largest tuition hike among Virginia’s schools.

VCU held a forum, but members of the Board of Visitors weren’t required to be there, Gordon told the FOIA Council. And on the day the board took a vote — the last day of exams before graduations started — there was no discussion of the change after a presentation that lasted roughly 10 minutes, she said.

“For a multi-million dollar budget, you can’t do it in a few minutes,” Gordon said.

Last session, Del. Jason Miyares, a Virginia Beach Republican carried a bill that would have required governing boards of public colleges and universities to offer public comment before approving tuition increases. 

It passed the House 99-0, but failed in a Senate committee.

Some colleges and universities are already working on including public comment periods in their board meetings, said Chris Whyte, a lobbyist for the University of Mary Washington.

He said his client has already started discussions on allowing public comment at its Board of Visitors meetings. A policy opinion may be all the FOIA Council needs to do to get other colleges on board, he said.

“I think the institutions are getting the message,” Whyte said.

The council agreed to revisit the issue next year with a recommendation for legislation if there isn’t a move toward including public comment in college governing board meetings.

“You guys highlighted a really big problem,” said state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, chairman of the FOIA advisory council. “I had no idea they didn’t allow people to speak when they’re really affecting people’s futures.”

CORRECTION: According to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia, James Madison University, Christopher Newport University and Radford University had higher tuition increases than VCU.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.