University of Virginia Rotunda

DAILY PROGRESS FILE

This week, the University of Virginia will become the latest public institution in the state to consider adding a public comment policy.

A new law, initially sponsored in the last General Assembly session by Sen. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax, requires state universities to offer public comment before considering a tuition increase. Public comment is the norm at local governing bodies and school boards, and some state agencies and commissions also host sessions.

UVa's Board of Visitors does not currently have any public comment policy, according to spokesman Wes Hester. Meetings are typically conducted around a conference table at the Rotunda, and university staff, journalists and members of the public must squeeze into a limited number of seats around the edge of the room. Members of the public must arrive early enough to claim a card that lets them sit in one of four or five seats. Meetings are sometimes livestreamed to an overflow room, but video of the meetings is not otherwise made available to the public. 

The board is scheduled to consider the issue on Friday, during its regularly scheduled meeting, according to a meeting agenda. Two members of the board who chair the student life and the finance committees will be tasked with developing a policy.

The rector of the university, Jim Murray, also noted in an email Tuesday that UVa conducted several meetings last fall after giving notice of a planned tuition increase. University officials hosted three sessions with students; Murray attended one session in October.

"I would only add that last fall, before there was any legislative requirement to do so, we conducted [open] public meetings and allowed for transparent and robust discussions of tuition policy," Murray wrote. "I would expect no less this fall."

In November 2018, the university posted its planned tuition increases for the 2019-20 school year and requested feedback to an email address. UVa approved the increases in December 2018 and then rolled back some increases in April after accepting a deal from the General Assembly. At the December meeting, Murray described the efforts to solicit input as going well beyond usual endeavors, but student Tanner Hirschfeld told the Progress that he still believed it was necessary to hold an in-person comment session at the actual meeting.

In some previous years, UVa allowed some students who passed a screening to speak at board meetings.

"It's important, when we talk about public comment in higher education, that this is not the first sector in American history to enact a policy," said James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. "This is something that should long have been embedded in Virginia, and it's time to put it in its place in this forum."

At its most recent meeting, Virginia Tech's board considered the issue. The university originally required people to sign up seven days in advance of commenting and limited the comment period to 30 minutes. Lawmakers decried the strict limits and the university decided to broaden its guidelines, according to The Roanoke Times. The public now will be able to comment during an hour-long period and can speak without signing up in advance.

Toscano's organization recommends an in-person comment session held before the full board without restricting speakers to a signup period. 

"Any student and any Virginia taxpayer or Charlottesville resident who wants to show up and make a comment about the rate of tuition should be able to do so," he said.

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