By Rae Hodge–
Justin Brandt, former intern to Senator Mitch McConnell and newly elected student body president, is responsible for bringing student voices to the influential governing bodies of the University of Louisville.
Brandt sits as an active member on the University of Louisville Board of Trustees “I think that’s my number one responsibility,” he says, “All the other board members are appointed by the governor but we serve a year in that position.”
The Louisville Cardinal recently sat down with Brandt for an interview and asked him to speak to some of the largest concerns of students, ranging from the privatization of university funding to his stance on the Chick-Fil-A debate.
Q: For the first time since the University of Louisville became public in 1970, private funding has eclipsed public funding. How do you think this will impact the Student Government Association’s role, and their ability to effectively represent the interests and voices of students?
A: In some ways though it’s good because if the private investments weren’t there, not only would tuition be going up, but we would be losing services and faculty, and we wouldn’t be able to do things like the new recreation center. So, I wouldn’t say that those private investments are having any kind of bias or impact or influence on the university so much. I’m not afraid of that. I mean, it could get bad, but you have like Brown Forman donating and having the Brown Scholars Program. That’s an incredible opportunity, you know? A lot of students are travelling and have free tuition. I don’t think Brown Forman is using that to push any thing relevant.
I do think it’s sad that the private sector has had to step up so much because, like I said, we’re a public university; It seems a little backward. And also because in this state we spend more on corrections than we do higher education, and that raises a serious question about where the priority is because higher education should be viewed as an investment.
Q: Tuition increases show no signs of slowing at the University of Louisville. For well over 10 years, tuition has increased substantially every year. With many students worried about the eventual collapse of the student loan market and the overall inability to afford college, what kinds of actions can the SGA take to voice these student concerns to the administration and defend the affordability of a degree?
A: I’d love to say that we can stand up and fight for this—and I will continue to fight for it when I can—but I have to be realistic about what I can and can’t do. As student body president at U of L, I will obviously be saying that the university has to stop this trend, but I’m only in this position for one year, so I have to temper that and look at some realistic expectations for what I can do.
The board did approve that raise in tuition, and I’m pretty sure that Kurtis [Frizzell, SGA President 2012] voted for it. At that point, once the state already makes that cut, the university is kind of forced to raise tuition because if they don’t, financially the university would just be in a terrible situation. So, the Provost asked all the departments to cut their budgets by three percent. If we didn’t raise tuition what the university would have to do to make up that cost would severely jeopardize the academics of the university, and then the services that can be provided to students.
Say the state makes cuts again, but at the University of Louisville we all say, ‘Yeah, there’s cuts but students can’t afford it anymore, and we’re not going to raise tuition.’ All that would do is we would have to start laying off faculty members, housing cost would probably go up, food costs, all the things that are now considered an important part of the university. They’d have to find savings elsewhere, to a point where I think it would be bad.
One thing we can do is advocate. If the university has this money to spend on things, how can that be brought to students? For example, last year President Ramsey gave an additional $200,000 to help with student programming. So the Student Activities Board allows for organizations to apply for travel funds, to throw events, and that’s some way. So, if we’re going to see a raise in tuition, more of that money should go back to students through student initiatives.
Q: More frequently, students have been voicing concerns over the continual raises in pay that President Ramsey has received. There has also been public concern over the hiring of James Johnson, as chief of staff to the executive vice president for health affairs, starting at $220,000. What is your position on the issue, and in what way can you represent the interests of students on the matter?
A: In regards to his pay, the thing about President Ramsey is that he is generating more. Because of him being paid, he’s raising a lot of those private dollars and keeping the university kind of afloat. A lot of his time he’s mentioned that he’s travelling trying to fundraise, so he’s actually why.
Also, even though there’s a pay raise there (I know which consultant you’re talking about) in the big scheme of things that amount of money wouldn’t offset some of the state costs when you really look at the amount of money we would have kept if tuition where it was.
After tuition increase, what is that increase derivative? I don’t know if it’s quite 9 million but it’s quite a lot, and it’s hard to make up in other places, if that makes sense. Specifically, about the consultant the board has a good explanation for why they did that.
Q: Students have been asking for years: what possible reason could the University of Louisville have in charging additional money for online classes? With the tension created by tuition increases, the question now insists on an answer. Is it fair to charge more for online classes when there’s virtually no overhead? What can the SGA do to help students here?
A: I’ve asked a few people. One it’s to cover the initial cost of developing course but to me it doesn’t make sense that you have to pay additional money on top of tuition to take an online course, especially as we see in the national media about how schools like Harvard and MIT are starting to focus more on their online learning. We have to think, as a university, how we want to adapt to this moving forward.
I also know that a lot of the departments are using online course a lot. So they’re actually making profits from their online classes, which is good for them because it helps them with their budget shortfall, but it’s bad for students I think. One thing that I am going to look into and try to push for is that if the class is in your major, the charge should at least be reduced or ideally eliminated. For me, that’s hard because I’m going to have to convince departments to say no to something that’s making them a lot of money.
Q: Where do you stand on the Chick-Fil-A issue on campus?
A: When it came out, the Provost’s statement that they won’t be eating there anymore, I thought ‘That is a personal decision.’ Since then, the Provost has met with top leaders. I have talked with the Provost. She had a meeting with LGBT students which I was there for, and I understand where that group on campus is coming from.
I have to represent all students, but ultimately I believe that everyone has the freedom to expression. We’ve done some research and we found out that just because you’re on the mandatory meal plan, you do not necessarily contribute to Chick-Fil-A. You only contribute to Chick-Fil-A if you eat there, which I think is a good question to have answered. So now I think that students have every right to eat there or not eat there if that offended their personal beliefs. Ultimately, if we were to close Chick-Fil-A just because it offended people, that would be like the university playing the thought police, and we need to really respect the freedom of expression and the freedom of choice to eat there or not.
So I encourage students. If they were offended by that, don’t eat there and tell your friends not to eat there, and if Chick-Fil-A loses enough revenue, it will be gone. And I actually think that is a more powerful message than just to shut down Chick-Fil-A because then it will show that this is really not something you can be saying or advocating for.
But I also say that if students can say ‘I don’t really care what he said I just like Chick-Fil-A,’ I think that’s a decision that needs to be decided in the free market and through dialogue and free discussion. I think it’s hard to make a decision as a university because you’re going to have such a wide variety of views. And then where does that end? Should we not offer birth control at campus health because that offends religious groups?
Photo courtesy John Turner