Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors took stock of a public comment plan involving tuition it approved earlier this week — and it decided to quickly make some changes.
Originally, Tech’s guidelines for public comment called for people to sign up seven days in advance of commenting and limited the comment period to 30 minutes. Now, the period was extended to an hour and people who show up can comment without signing up a week in advance.
The about-face came after some lawmakers and advocates criticized the board’s plan for collecting comment earlier this week on social media and in interviews. A university spokesman said the guidelines for comment were changed by school administrators following input from board members.
Tech’s board voted to amend its bylaws, creating the policy to accept public comment at a meeting Monday in Northern Virginia. The university also heard a series of recommended guidelines for accepting comment — the ones that have since been altered.
The public comment rules come after the General Assembly passed a law earlier this year requiring Virginia universities’ boards of visitors to allow public comment before voting to raise tuition and mandatory fees for in-state students.
Tech was one of the first to examine its policies.
The Tech guidelines for accepting public comment include a chance to comment before increasing tuition via a written process or during a budget workshop with a public comment period — days prior to the board’s regular meetings. At least three members of the board would be present for the budget workshop and it would feature a PowerPoint presentation that gives background of “the university’s tuition and fees and factors considered,” according to a recommendation from Tech President Tim Sands’ leadership team.
The board will not respond to oral or written comments — a decision approved by the board Monday and which currently stands.
The proposals as originally written weren’t in the spirit of the law, Democrat and Republican lawmakers who championed the measure said.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation, said “these restrictions have the tenor of the law upside down.”
Said Sen. David Sutterlein, R-Roanoke County: “Policies that require students to give seven-day notice and hope to be one of the first 10 people to speak to less than 1/3 of the people who make the decisions about raising tuition is not in the spirit of public comment.”
The board will have dedicated time slots for representatives of the Student Government Association and Graduate Student Assembly to speak during the workshop. The guidelines say comments from student leaders don’t preclude other students from commenting.
James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability & Public Trust, criticized the original commenting procedures, especially the one that calls for a seven-day waiting period. He said Thursday said he was pleased that Tech was re-examining the comment process. Earlier he had called the guidelines a public comment “sham.”
The public comment policies of Tech and other institutions will be reviewed by the State Council of Higher Education over the course of the year, according to agency spokeswoman Laura Osberger. The state agency will review how public commenting worked around the state and could make recommendations for changes by August of next year.
“Through that assessment, we likely would take a look at institutional policies,” Osberger wrote in an email.
Tech will continue to look at its policies and tweak them if necessary, school spokesman Mark Owczarski said.
“Because this is a new process, Virginia Tech is open to ways to improve our guidelines,” Owczarski said. “Should we find there is a better way to do this to meet the needs of our community, we would certainly be open to change our guidelines used for public comment.”