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FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS, state education officials have been learning to groan inwardly with each passing revelation about the size of the state's massive budget deficit.
And as they contemplate the future, public college administrators and students are seeing a picture that looks ever bleaker. By far the biggest blot on the educational landscape this fall, they say, is the Citizens for Limited Taxation petition--Question 3 on this fall's ballot--to cut state taxes back to their 1988 levels.
Across the state, students have been rallying this fall, fists clenched defiantly in the air to show their opposition to the ballot initiative's sweeping tax cuts. Spurring them on has been an array of college administrators concerned that the cuts might cost them as much as 20 percent of their already shrunken annual budgets.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for example, stands to lose between $25 million and $30 million in state funds from the petition, according to the Board of Regents. Other colleges face similar cuts.
And with education officials already predicting a 19 percent cut in education budgets, several student leaders are saying that Question 3 goes too far.
"If CLT passes, public universities and higher education and all education [in Massachusetts] will be severely hampered," says Richard B. Ragney, an undergraduate at UMass/Amherst.
CRITICS, HOWEVER, CONTEND that the widespread student opposition to CLT is fueled less by personal fear than by domineering faculty members trying to advance their own political causes. Rather than standard bearers in a battle to support education, CLT backers say, these students are simply stooges for an entrenched group of academic leaders.
Francis Faulkner, a spokesperson for CLT, says that the Boston headquarters for the petition has been receiving more than 20 calls a day from parents complaining that teachers have been encouraging their students to vote against the ballot initiative.
In addition, officials at UMass/Boston held a training session on Question 3 last week at the university's Arlington Street campus. And according to Faulkner, a professor at the University of Lowell "cancelled regularly scheduled classes...just to have a bull session on CLT."
Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, who opposes CLT, nonetheless agrees that university administrators may have a personal interest in seeing the petition fail. He points to numerous Massachusetts state college administrators who he says earn more than $100,000 per year, as well as a new $22 million telephone system and a $500,000 cable television system at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"All these fat cat administrators and college professors are manipulating these college students," Faulkner contends.
But even if students are sincere, Carr suggests that many of them may not have all the facts at their disposal. Carr says he bases that assessment on an experience he had last spring when he invited UMass/Amherst activists to call him during a radio show he was hosting on WREB in Holyoke.
"I asked them who their state rep and state senator were. The vast majority of them didn't know," said Carr. "How can you go to the State House to lobby when you don't know whom to lobby?"
PRESSURE AGAINST CLT has undeniably been coming from the highest levels of the state's educational establishment. Two weeks ago, for example, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM) held a press conference to announce its formal opposition to the initiative.
The gathering attracted high-ranking officials from several local public and private schools, including President Derek C. Bok of Harvard. Citing Massachusetts' lack of natural resources, Bok said that the state needs to focus on cultivating student intellects, which he called "the most valuable resource of all."
"Massachusetts is already heading in the wrong direction," said Bok, warning that private institutions could not afford to stand idly by watch their public counterparts be crippled.
Other private university leaders expressed deep misgivings about the tax rollback plan. "We're certainly tuition-driven," said Boston College Vice President Margaret A. Dwyer, who was fearful that the college could lose many potential students if the state shut off the scholarship tap.
"[With] the loss of state aid...it would be an enormous loss to a number of students to have a chance to an attend an independent institution," said Dwyer. "The effects are going to be far ranging."
And even Carr acknowledges that some students may be concerned about the referendum's effects, although he stresses that many are misguided.
And regardless of the motives, the campaign has been going strong. Instead of confining their protests to the campus bounds, anti-CLT activists have even taken their movement to the streets, hoping to engender opposition to the plan in local communities.
Angus G. McQuilken, a member of the UMass/Amherst student government has spent much of his time working at "Vote No on 3" headquarters in Amherst, and has even debated CLT spokesperson Paul Nicolai head-to-head in Springfield.
"We've been focusing on our region," McQuilken explained. "We're trying to come at it from a sophisticated political [perspective]."
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