Carisa Nietsche

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about the legislative student organizations at UT and their transition to new leadership over the next few weeks. The quotes of the incoming leadership came from their applications for their positions and interviews.

Former Senate of College Councils President Carisa Nietsche spent the past year trekking across campus to represent students in her size eight shoes. Months later, Senate president-elect Michael Morton is taking the reins. Despite wearing a size 14, he said Nietsche leaves him big shoes to fill.

When she first took office in fall 2011, Nietsche pledged to focus on technology, academic integrity and student retention. Nietsche’s last day in office was April 5, and she leaves behind a series of policy initiatives reflecting the promises she made last year. Nietsche will spend the next few weeks transitioning Morton and his executive board to their positions.

“There is so much information to pass on,” Nietsche said. “I’m going to be helping [Michael] build trust with the administration. It’s a really fun process.”

Over the next year Morton said he will continue work on some of Nietsche’s initiatives. Morton also said he plans to increase outreach to students not involved in Senate. Morton said he will focus on increasing student representation at the Capitol for the 2013 legislative session through “Invest in Texas,” an initiative co-sponsored by Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly advocating for adequate higher education funding.

Former SG President Natalie Butler said she worked with Senate when communicating with the UT System and on tools like MyEdu. At the moment, Butler said, she and Nietsche have a good relationship and are currently serving on a committee to refocus student orientation this summer. Butler says she plans to meet with Morton to discuss plans for both organizations.

Hank Dugie, former Liberal Arts Council president, said he felt Senate faced problems due to a disconnect between internal Senate and the college councils. Dugie said within the councils some members tend to focus on what they can get from Senate rather than what they can give.

“I really want the organization to realize what they’re doing and what they’re here for,” Dugie said.

This year, some of Senate’s initiatives included the creation of a Career Services Working Group; an honor code task force; including College Tuition Advisory Committees in the tuition conversation; a Senate election code; an electronic course instructor survey and creation of informal student forum SenateTea.

Nietsche said she considered engaging the College Tuition Budget and Advisory Committees, which happen within each college council the administration’s biggest accomplishment. This year, the CTBACs submitted their recommendations on the tuition increase to the deans and provosts offices around campus. Out of the 20 councils, only Liberal Arts Council voted against a tuition increase.

Nietsche said although she listened to concerns from groups against the increase, it was difficult to satisfy everyone, and the tuition-setting process was one of the biggest challenges she faced.

“Tuition Policy Advisory Committee was the hardest table to sit at,” Nietsche said. “It was hard for me as a Senate president because I lean more to the CTBACs. It was difficult because this was how a small student activist group [Occupy UT] thinks versus how CTBAC thinks.”

Melinda Sutton, deputy to the Dean of Students and Senate’s adviser, said Senate members often spoke to her on the challenge of making sure the student voice is heard in the conversation on the role of the University as a research institution.

“I don’t know how students feel about all legislative student organizations, but I know from working with them that senate leaders spend countless hours on behalf of their peers,” Sutton said.

The Senate of College Councils has launched a campaign to increase student outreach to Texas legislatures, said President Carisa Nietsche.

The Senate is working together in conjunction with Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly on the Higher Ed at Home initiative. It aims to get students in contact with their local state legislators to explain why higher education matters to their constituents even if there is not a university in their district.

Higher Ed at Home is the first initiative of the 2012 Invest in Texas campaign, a non-partisan student-led campaign focused on lobbying the state legislature for issues that students care about.

“Higher Ed at Home was designed to make the issues of higher education a local issue,” Nietsche said. “It really shows that constituents care about higher education.”

Despite the fact that it is not a legislative year, the Senate is still working to prepare for the next legislative session, said Invest in Texas campaign spokesman Michael Morton.

“I hope that students take initiative over spring break and go talk to their legislators,” Nietsche said.

The efforts of the campaign have not gone unnoticed by the state legislators, Morton said.

“We have had really positive responses,” Morton said. “Especially with the voter ID issue. Representative Dan Branch has been very helpful in getting this changed.”

Even though 25 organizations and many students have been involved in the endeavor, the Senate is always looking for more people to participate, Morton said.

“A lot of the efforts are going into outreach to different organizations and just not politically oriented ones,” Morton said. “We even tried a postcard campaign to get more students involved.”

Although the campaign fought to reduce budget cuts, the University was still affected, receiving a $92 million cut from the legislature.

“There have been cuts in staff and some faculty reduction, but the University has tried to limit academic cuts so as not to affect the students,” said Mary Knight, associate vice president and budget director for the University.

“Anytime the students carry the message to their legislature, it is very effective because legislators listen very carefully and take both sides into consideration,” she said. “Last session, students from many organizations went to campus and spoke both for and against the issues.”

Printed on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 as: Senate advocates for student involvement in Texas legislature

 The Student Government president expects to start appointing representatives this week to fill four available graduate student seats in an organization lacking in graduate student members.

The student presidents of SG, Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly said they must work together to best confront graduate student concerns. As GSA’s influence grows, SG and Senate leaders look to improve representation for graduate students.

SG President Natalie Butler said she does not know if all four seats will be appointed at once, but the appointed graduate students will serve out the rest of their term until this April. These appointments would add to the two current graduate student representatives for the School of Law and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Butler said she believes recruitment for the positions has been difficult because of the rigorous workload graduate students have. She said discrepancies between undergraduate and graduate representation is to be expected.

“The undergraduates are the culture of UT,” Butler said. “Undergraduates drive tradition, capacity and the number of bodies that you see on campus more than graduate students.”

Butler said SG positions, including her own, still represent graduate student concerns despite being filled by undergraduate students.

“I take my job in representing graduate students very seriously,” Butler said. “I think I need to be held accountable for them.”

Senate President Carisa Nietsche said there are a few graduate councils in Senate, but the representation distribution is not ideal.

“It’s really a representation nightmare,” Nietsche said.
Nietsche said other issues include Senate’s disproportionate focus on academic affairs that often apply to undergraduate concerns.

“Graduate students feel like they’re voting on legislation, but it doesn’t pertain to them,” Nietsche said.

She said Senate is discussing whether to increase graduate student representation or to continue sending graduate issues to GSA.

“We’re working on seeing whether we should go all in or all out,” Nietsche said.

Last year, the University officially recognized GSA as a legislative body affiliated with the Office of the Dean of Students.

GSA President Manuel Gonzalez said UT graduate students are often an afterthought.

“I would not say that this marginalization is intentional,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s a byproduct of being a smaller subset of the University.”

Gonzalez said graduate student engagement in student governance is increasing and can elevate awareness of the issues graduate students face.

The election process for GSA representatives is up to the graduate advisor of the department. About 65 representatives form the assembly that has room for a total of 119 representatives. Some departments have more representatives depending on the number of graduate students.

“The reality is being a graduate student can be a completely different experience in another field,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why it’s important to have as much representation as possible.”

However, about 30 out of about 100 departments do not have representation, Gonzalez said. Despite the openings, he said the current size of the assembly can hinder progress.

“We have such a large assembly size that sometimes it can be difficult to get all graduate students on the same page and holding them accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said there will always be disputes about which organization should cover certain issues, but the strength of the three organizations is that they are structured to foster collaboration through legislation and resource sharing.


“Graduate students should know that they have the opportunity to voice any concerns they may have and suggest solutions to issues that may arise,” Gonzalez said.

President William Powers, Jr. asked the UT System Board of Regents for the largest tuition increase the UT System will allow over the next two academic years.

The regents will meet in February or March to finalize tuition costs for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, UT System spokesman Matt Flores said. Powers sent his recommendation to the System on Dec. 15.

This year the System required all increase requests be tied to improving four-year graduation rates. Flores said the recommendations are subject to change as the UT System chancellor meets with the UT institution presidents to polish their recommendations to best reflect campus needs.

“There’s still latitude,” Flores said. “It’s how well does each institution make it’s pitch.”

If the regents follow the recommendations, in-state undergraduates will pay $127 more each semester during semesters in the 2012-13 academic year and $131 more each semester during the 2013-14 year — a 2.6 percent increase each year. Out-of-state students would face a 3.6 percent tuition increase, which would mean an increase of between $560 and $642 more each semester during 2012-13 and between $580 and $665 more each semester in 2013-14. All graduate students would also pay 3.6 percent more in tuition. The UT System gave Powers several directives, including restricting tuition-increase requests to no more than 2.6 percent for in-state undergraduates and 3.6 percent for all other students.

The proposed figures are the same as those recommended by the University’s Tuition Policy Advisory Committee on Nov. 28. After reviewing reports from each of the College Tuition and Budget Advisory Committees, members discussed the needs of each of the University’s colleges. Student CTBAC members and their college deans spent the fall semester gaining student feedback about tuition rates and college priorities. The Liberal Arts CTBAC is the only committee, out of a total of 16 CTBACs, that opposed tuition increases.

The proposed increase would provide $30.6 million worth of academic funds from 2012-2014, but the University would still lack $30.5 million to fund initiatives set to increase graduation rates, according to tuition recommendation documents. The University is also facing a $92 million cut in state funding from the last legislative session.

Carisa Nietsche, TPAC member and president of the Senate of College Councils, said she thinks Powers’ recommendation is a good decision for the UT Austin campus.

Nietsche said before she became a TPAC member, she did not firmly understand how the University budget worked and believes students can benefit from more guidance about the budget.

“I would love to see the CTBACs have an educational piece at a college level to better educate the student body on that issue,” Nietsche said.

Nietsche said in the future she would like opportunities for student feedback to begin earlier in the semester, but CTBAC meetings and TPAC forums hinge on how quickly the System provides directives. She said there is a disconnect between the CTBAC student feedback and the student opposition at the TPAC forums.

“Their voice wasn’t really heard in the CTBACs,” Nietsche said. “I encourage them to get more involved.”

Plan II sophomore Bianca Hinz-Foley stood with fellow Occupy UT students in opposition for tuition increases at the last TPAC forum.

“I’m absolutely against the tuition increases because it will further marginalize lower-income families,” Hinz-Foley said.

Hinz-Foley said University administrators did not adequately consider the burden of tuition increases for students who do not get much financial aid or parental support. She said the TPAC process did not give students adequate opportunities to participate in making decisions and said TPAC’s student representative at large is a position which fails to provide students with a voice.
 

Each party in the Texas higher education debate presents their plan as the correct answer. But are the plans really that different? The Daily Texan compares the three plans meant to enhance the efficiency of higher education.

The final report from the Commission of 125, one of the plans discussed, is a UT Austin document created in 2004 which established goals “for the purposes of reinvigorating UT’s aspirations for the next 25 years.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, published Seven Breakthrough Solutions for Higher Education to “strenghten higher education for Texas’ future.” Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the Seven Solutions played a part in invigorating a public debate last Spring about the role of research at state institutions.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa presented his Framework for Excellence Action Plan in August in partial response to the significant cut in state funding. The framework is an effort to increase efficiencies at each of the UT institutions. Zaffirini said many of the initiatives in the framework touted as innovative by the UT System were presented in the Commission of 125’s report.

“These are not new ideas in the action plan,” Zaffirini said.

Thomas Lindsay, new director for the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the think tank fully agrees with the efforts in the framework.

President of the Senate of College Councils, Carisa Nietsche, said Senate does not move forward with anything contrary to the Commission of 125, which points to quality of education as the end goal.

“I think that’s why there is some flexibility — to allow for task forces to follow up on those recommendations,” Nietsche said.

She said the framework has broader objectives than the Commission of 125.

“I think there is some flexibility in the framework so that the recommendations can be applied different at the system schools,” Nietsche said.

Both the “Commission of 125” and the framework emphasize the improvement of four-year graduation rates. The Commission of 125’s report states low four-year graduation rates can partially be blamed on the fact that UT students “take, on average, just 13.1 semester hours, which is unacceptable.”

“In the framework they talk about the pathways for students whereas, the commission puts a lot of the blame the students,” Nietsche said. “It asks students to step up.”

One of the main commission points is that “the quality of the educational experience must be the primary factor in determining the size of the student body.”

“I don’t think the framework is particularly explicit there,” Nietsche said. “It doesn’t talk about the quality.”

One point shared by the framework and the 7 Solutions is the establishment of quantitative measurements to evaluate faculty performance and to compensate professors based on their performance. According to the 7 Solutions, professor bonuses should be based on the results of student evaluations.

“The overall goal there is very much in line, but the framework doesn’t say which criteria it will use to determine who’s a good teacher,” Nietsche said.

Number two of the 7 Solutions is to “publicly recognize and reward extraordinary teachers.” The UT System Board of Regents started an awards system for teaching excellence which is outlined in the framework. UT System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell described the initiative at a meeting a few weeks ago.

“None of us in higher education have taken care of great teachers,” Powell said. “We’ve taken care of our researcher but not our great teachers.”

Nietsche said there are similarities across the three documents.

“A lot of people are describing the same problems, but approaching them in different ways,” Nietsche said.

The College Tuition and Budget Advisory Committees proposed by the Senate of College Councils for all 16 University colleges are scheduled to be fully formed by the end of September, said Senate president Carisa Nietsche.

The Senate of College Councils began developing plans for advisory committees in April 2010, Nietsche said. She said they developed in response to the state-mandated budget cuts to allow students to become directly involved in the allocation of their college’s budget.

Nietsche said last spring, six college advisory committees were formed including the colleges of natural sciences, liberal arts, business, fine arts, public affairs and the information school. She said the remaining 10 colleges will form their advisory committees by September.

“We are waiting to see what the other CTBACs’ relationships with deans will be like,” Nietsche said.

Nietsche said the Senate of College Councils is forming an advisory committee roundtable next semester that will bring together the chairs of every advisory committee in one meeting to encourage more Universitywide trends. She said the roundtable will help new committees get fully formed and ease them into the process of working directly with administrators.

“As of now we have a designated chair for almost every CTBAC at the University,” Nietsche said. “I think it’ll be surprising to see how many commonalities there are between colleges. I want to see if they are prioritizing research or merit increases for faculty members.”

Former College of Natural Sciences advisory committee chair Justin Price said the importance of an advisory committee is both to advise administrators on how students decipher budget spending and to provide transparency to students on how the budget is spent.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about how funds are being used,” Price said. “Students don’t understand how we can build new buildings but can’t pay faculty. We need to educate students on the fact that we have state building funds that are separate from academic funds. The same goes for athletic funds.”

Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl said the advisory committee for the college was an extremely helpful asset to the budget process last spring despite being newly formed. He said he supported the forming of a CTBAC from the beginning.
“I had very good discussions with the Liberal Arts Council and Student Government about the role the CTBAC could play,” Diehl said. “I found the committee to be particularly helpful. Their approach was thorough.”

Diehl said the committee gave detailed recommendations about the proposed budget cuts and reallocation, especially with the discussions about how to allocate money to ethnic and identity studies centers, a controversial challenge last academic year.

Diehl said it is important for administrators to embrace the work of advisory committees and to provide newly formed advisory committees with the background information needed to be informed on the budget process specific to their college.

College of Natural Sciences advisory committee chair Houdah Abualtin said the most important part of forming an advisory committee is focusing on recruiting dedicated members and creating a strong team unity.

Abualtin said once an advisory committee is formed and functioning, it is crucial that all members of the committee begin making connections with the college deans and administrators. She said in order to do this, committee members must play off of the personalities of the people they are trying to meet with.

“What gets done always depends on the administrators,” Abualtin said. “Some are already willing to work with students and others have to be eased into it. You have to be humble when working with them and show them you’re serious about what you want.”

First-year students may gain peace of mind with the option to drop a course after the last class day if the administration accepts a Senate of College Councils resolution.

The University Academic Policies and Procedures’ current policy only allows a student to drop courses after the mid-semester mark for non-academic circumstances, such as severe illness or mental stress following a family member’s death.

The new resolution will permit first-year students, including transfer students, to drop a course up until the final exam.

Senate of College Councils president-elect Carisa Nietsche said Faculty Council is currently discussing the resolution and will have to approve it before it is implemented.

“It could potentially mean that a student could drop a course after a class has already ended, as long as they haven’t completed the coursework,” Nietsche said.

She said although the administration has already begun discussing the resolution, implementation will depend on how they prioritize it. The policy may go into effect as soon as the fall semester, she said.

The policy prohibits students from using the exemption after they have completed all of the coursework because it is not meant for students whose final exams will determine whether they will fail the class, said resolution co-author Ashley Adamo.

Radio-television-film junior Rhea Fluker said she could have benefited from the policy as a second-semester transfer student. She said she realized too late that she needed to drop one of her courses or she would fail it.

“At this point, I couldn’t handle the course load anymore, but by the time I realized that, there was little I could do to not fail the class. It was the Friday after the Q-drop date,” she said.

Fluker said she checked with her advisers and met with her professor multiple times to see if there was any way she could have dropped the class to “salvage” her grade point average, but there were no options.

“If I could have dropped it last minute, I definitely would have benefited because it would have eased the blow to my GPA and stress levels,” she said.

The College of Natural Sciences, the School of Architecture and the School of Nursing are currently the only schools with the one-time exemption policy in place, and each has their own implementation guidelines.

The one-time exemption policy could be especially beneficial for first- or second-year students in a five-year program such as the one at the School of Architecture, said Jeanne Crawford, assistant dean for the school’s undergraduate programs.

“There are those times when something is going on in the student’s life, and they might not be aware of drop policies or they forget them, so we always allow them that one exemption during their time at UT,” Crawford said. “I would say for those students, it certainly helps when it comes down to dropping or receiving an ‘F.’”


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The first competitive Senate of College Councils presidential race elections in several years ended Thursday with the former executive director winning the highest office.

The Senate serves as the official voice for students in academic affairs by passing resolutions and working as a liaison with the
administration.

This is the first time in years there have been two presidential and vice presidential candidates running, said Senate spokesman Michael Morton. Senate elects its officers internally.

“It is unprecedented for Senate as far as I’ve heard, so campaigning has definitely been intense,” Morton said.

President-elect Carisa Nietsche, a Plan II honors senior, said she will focus on finding a way to engage every student on budgetary issues. She said she is confident the College Tuition and Budget Advisory Councils will help Senate give every student the opportunity to have a voice in the budget-setting process.

Senate developed the budget councils last April in response to potential University budget cuts. The budget councils advise college deans about student concerns in the budget-cutting process.

In addition to getting students involved in the budget process, Nietsche said as president, her vision for Senate is to elevate the councils’ impact on campus.

“Senate will have succeeded when there is manpower in Senate resources and every single programming initiative we have and when CTBACs are at the forefront of the discussions about budget cuts,” she said.

When nominated for vice president after his loss in the presidential race, advertising graduate student Blake Baker declined the nomination because of a previous promise to other candidates.

Finance senior Bhargav Srinivasan will take Baker’s place as the council’s financial director, but Baker said he would continue to be instrumental in the councils’ financial realm. Srinivasan defeated finance and history senior Josh Fjelstul.

“I plan to stay around and to continue to support the Senate financial director next year in building upon this foundation,” Baker said.

Vice President-elect Emily Van Duyn said she will make sure the full college councils have the same opportunity and resources as Senate committees to write legislation.

“Senate representatives and even councils in general should have policy-writing resources available to them, encouraging council participation and authorization,” Van Duyn said.

Van Duyn defeated journalism and government senior Jordan Humphreys.

Current Senate president Chelsea Adler said her work on the executive board with each candidate made her confident that the progress Senate made this year would continue.

“Blake was the financial director this year and he’s done a great job, and Carisa was our executive director, which was a new position and she’s really taken that and laid a strong foundation,” Adler said. “I knew that regardless of who won, [Senate] would be in good hands next year, and that’s a great feeling.”

Adler said starting Friday morning, they will have an intensive four-week transition period to prepare the president-elect for next year.

“A lot of it will revolve around the fact that next year is a tuition-setting year, and we need every CTBAC up and running by May, so they can be involved in that tuition-setting process,” she said.