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PHENOM, MSU hold Lobbying Day at the State House

With the costs of text books, tuition and the general cost of public education sky-rocketing, many students in Massachusetts state college system are feeling the hurt and have had enough. On Valentine’s day, a coalition of public higher education advocacy groups attended a lobbying day at the State House in order to have some of their concerns heard. While there have always been advocacy and lobbying groups at the various campuses state-wide to deal with the issues of affordable, accessible public higher education, it is only recently that they have all united under the same banner.

The Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), started late in 2006, originally formed to put on a singular event in the form of a summit on public higher education at the Amherst campus. The event was so wildly successful and well attended, including attendance by then governor-elect Deval Patrick, that the various organization involved decided to form a permanent and lasting partnership in order to find common interests and push for all of them with one voice. Since then, they have had a few different summits, developed an organizational structure, and most recently put together an executive committee which is in charge of implementing all of their plans. On the agenda are increasing funding for higher education, removing financial barriers to public education, moving any other kind of barriers to access and making a more accessible, more democratic system all around.

Recently elected president of that executive committee, UMass Boston graduate student Alex Kulenovic, has focused his attention for this year on a few key issues that the Lobby Day at the State House event was meant to push.

“Specifically the most recent campaign we’ve been working on is pretty narrow; it’s just getting a few pieces of legislation passed that would make the most difference in student’s lives,” Kulenovic explained. “First off is the governor’s $2 billion capital bond bill; about $1 billion of which goes to UMass, about $120 million of which goes specifically to UMass-Boston. Here it would fund a new academic building and it would shore up the substructure of what we used to call the garage. On top of that there’s a proposal out there right now which needs a lot of support to pass, which is a $17 million increase to MassGrant, which is the states main need-based financial aid program.”

Kulenovic was also thrilled with the turnout at the Lobbying Day, as it featured members of all of the states public higher education institutions including the five UMass campuses, the state colleges and the community colleges. “We basically had very broad representation of the entire system”, said Kulenovic.

After a few speeches by Kulenovic and various invited officials, the group went about visiting the offices of specific committees and legislators to hand out bags of Valentine’s Day candy imprinted with some of PHENOMS key slogans.

PHENOM was joined at the event by Massachusetts Student Uniting (MSU), who staged a study-in at the meeting of the Ways and Means Committee prior to the PHENOM event. Almost forty students from various campuses sat in on the committee meeting and, at a pre-arranged time, opened their notebooks and laptops to begin studying, their only other distinction being small buttons which they were actually asked to remove before entering the committee meeting.

Tara DeSisto, one of the organizers for MSU on campus, explained the difference between the two organizations. “MSU is different from PHENOM because it is the student part whereas PHENOM is an umbrella organization made up of faculty unions, staff unions, parents, alumni… basically anyone with an interest in public higher ed. MSU is a division of PHENOM that just makes up students attending public institutions.”

With the rousing success of the State House event, Kulenovic is optimistic about where the group is going and has his sights set on some longer term goals. “Right now there’s a $309 million gap that’s the gap between what the different campuses say they need and the amount that’s actually available from current revenues. It’s obviously a huge gap and not something that can be fixed in just a couple years, but the situation we find ourselves in right now is that every time we have a bad economic situation in this state, our funding is cut substantially,” Kulenovic explained. “Then we sort of come back and recover, but we don’t even recover to the level we were at before we were cut and then we’re cut again, and it’s just been a downward spiral for the last twenty-five years or so. We really want to reverse that trend, turn it upside down and really try to close the gap.”

About the Contributor
Ben Whelan served for the following positions at The Mass Media for the following years: Editor-in-Chief: Spring 2009; 2009-2010. News Editor: Spring 2008; Fall 2008 Sports Editor: 2006-2007