The Case for Public Comments at University Board Meetings

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech,” 1943.

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE: Public Comment for Virginia’s Colleges and Universities

PROBLEM: Currently, the decision to raise tuition and fees on students of Virginia colleges and universities is done without any required public input. Yet rate-setting is one of the most important and consequential responsibilities that any policy board possesses. That’s why the law gives citizens the right to address their respective city council or local board of supervisors – the stereotypical 3 minutes at the podium – prior to these policy bodies setting the local property tax rate.

But the opportunity to provide public comment to inform public decision-making goes well beyond local elected bodies. This right of citizens extends to many appointed policy bodies in Virginia.*

The fact that the affected public, including student and parent consumers, have no say in rate-setting in some of Virginia’s largest enterprises (state colleges and universities) is an exception of the law and defies basic expectation of regular appointed policy bodies in the Commonwealth and their treatment of citizens.

OPPORTUNITY: Creating the expectation that appointed governing bodies of Virginia public colleges and universities at least consider the input of the public prior to setting the tuition-rate would be a fundamental improvement in their governance and responsiveness to the Commonwealth they serve.       

This policy would align the practices of college and university governing boards with the existing requirements of other appointed boards in the Commonwealth.

In addition, at least ten other U.S. states (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington) require public comment as part of governing board meetings.

SOLUTION: Require governing bodies of Virginia public colleges and universities to adopt public participation policies that include public comment periods at board meetings. In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law (SB1376, unanimous vote in both chambers) that requires colleges and universities to notify the public about their plans to increase tuition. The next logical step, is requiring public comment prior to those decisions.

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*The legal requirement for public participation/comment includes, but is not limited to, the following appointed Virginia state boards and commissions (links to statutes):

The State Board of Elections
The Commission on Local Government
The Milk Commission
The Board of Conservation and Recreation
Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
State Air Pollution Control Board
Virginia Aviation Board
Virginia Waste Management Board
State Water Control Board
Motor Vehicle Dealer Board
Commonwealth Transportation Board
Commission of the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program
Apprenticeship Council
Virginia Workers Compensation Commission
Safety and Health Codes Board
Virginia Employment Commission
Virginia Manufactured Housing Board
Board of Historic Resources

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9 responses to “The Case for Public Comments at University Board Meetings

  1. This is a brilliant idea. I wish I had thought of it.

    As the white paper says, the public provides input when the Commonwealth Transportation Board makes transportation funding decisions. The public provides input on big utility and industrial clean-water and clean-air permits. The public provides input on a wide range of issues. But not to colleges and universities where, as tuition payers and tax payers, they are directly footing the bill?

    Boards of Visitors need to hear from students, parents, alumni and other stakeholders who otherwise have few avenues to say what’s on their mind. Right now, board meetings are tightly orchestrated affairs. For the most part, board members are dependent upon information and talking points provided by their institutions’ senior administrators. They need to hear a wider range of perspectives, even if a few of them are cranky and idiosyncratic.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree but point out that public comments are often not the overlooked wonderful insights that everyone is so glad they were able to hear.

    So I also wholeheartedly agree on the 3 minute rule and if you have more to say – put it in an email.

    I religiously watch the televised local Board of Supervisors meetings and there are times when I have great sympathy for them to have to sit at the dias hour and hour and listen to Grade A Tripe from the disaffected, NIMBYs, and some folks who just like to bitch and this is God’s Gift granted to them to scratch that itch.

    • I’m with Larry here — public comments can so easily grow from a brief exercise of the public’s right to be heard into a virtual filibuster to shut down a public meeting and block a disfavored agenda. Running a modern University board meeting is difficult enough with all the Sunshine requirements and requirements for recorded votes on specific matters and limitations on executive sessions and procedural agendas that must be dealt with. In theory I’m all for hearing from the public by open mic, but let’s not create a cure that’s worse than the problem.

      • Gee, Acbar, given your logic, why don’t we eliminate public input for the Commonwealth Transportation Board, air board and water board? Those hearings can go on for hours! What a waste of valuable board members’ time!

        • Have you ever been to Va GA committee/subcommittee meetings and listened to “public” comment?

          You’d think there would be HUNDREDS of people wanting to ‘share” their comments, right?

          So what do they do about it?

          Do they sit there for hours/days listening to public comment?

          NOPE

          VDOT took care of the CTB… used to be a succession of local officials would troop to the podium to lobby for their local pet projects to be funded but now with Smart Scale.. it’s had a wonderful effect on that aspect. The answer is the same. “Submit your project to Smart Scale and see how it scores”!!

          The guy who invented Smart Scale should get a medal.

  3. A real estate lawyer friend of mine used to be a Fairfax County supervisor. He and all of his colleagues and, most certainly their successors, hated the spring budget hearings that generally lasted from 4 or 5 pm to well past midnight. And they do this for three or four nights.

    But he was quick to add that, if you want to be a public official, you need to sit and listen to the public. Restrictions on the time granted and methods used can and are imposed. In Fairfax County, a person gets 3 minutes unless he/she is representing an organization, which gives them 5 minutes. Respectful conduct is required.

    If a public board of visitors or trustees are going to vote on a tuition/fee increase, they should listen to the public’s views. By and large, Harry Truman was right when he said “The Buck stops here.”

    • was “treated” recently to a group who was opposed to the use of Fluoride in the public water supply and they spoke as individuals ..one after another.. making the same points.. over and over..

      Is that what pubic officials legitimately signed up for??? Maybe.. but
      when I’m sitting at home listening to this … I cheering for the red light to come on and the mike to turn off..

      • You should see the groups of people asking over and over for Fairfax County to fund this, that and the other thing. It’s extremely tedious especially when one is waiting to testify.

        • That’s why you should always speak first or last and load up on the bombast (and occasional profanity). Speaking first allows you to set the tone and if the proper amount of sarcasm or condemnation is applied, it can embolden the following speakers. Speaking last allows you to summarize, tie up loose ends and go for the throat when necessary, leaving the last impression before the vote.

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