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More than 900 protest proposed cuts to higher education

Don Diamond, Raytheon chief among crowd talking to regents

Don Diamond, president of Diamond Ventures, urges the Arizona Board of Regents to fight proposed deep budget cuts.

Don Diamond, president of Diamond Ventures, urges the Arizona Board of Regents to fight proposed deep budget cuts.

It was standing room only in the Student Memorial Center at the University of Arizona as more than 900 students, faculty members and business leaders turned out for the Arizona Board of Regents meeting Thursday to protest proposed higher-education budget cuts.

It was the largest crowd in recent history at a regents’ meeting, dwarfing the groups of 200- to 400-plus people who protested tuition increases in the past, university officials said.

Area business leaders, including Don Diamond, president of Diamond Ventures; Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems; and Sarah Smallhouse, president of the Thomas R. Brown Foundation, vied with students and representatives of university parent groups to address the board during a public comment period that lasted more than an hour.

They were preaching to the choir, as the regents said they oppose cuts pitched by Republican legislative leaders to reduce the state’s higher education budget by $388 million – $243 million before fiscal 2009 ends June 30 and $145 million after July 1 – over the next 18 months.

In a minutelong address to the audience, Regent Fred DuVal assigned political motivations to the proposed cuts, while still accepting that universities will have to do their share to balance the state budget during difficult economic times.

“Make no mistake, this is a retribution budget that stands to strip away everything the prior governor stood for,” DuVal said to rousing applause.

The cuts, proposed by Sen. Russell Pearce and Rep. John Kavanagh, respective chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations committees, would reduce the base budget of Arizona’s three-university system by about 40 percent.

Burns and Kavanagh were not available for comment.

The base budget for the university system is about $1.1 billion, said Sandra K. Woodley, the board’s chief financial officer.

Some of those addressing the board said cuts of such magnitude would catapult Arizona back three decades both in terms of higher education and Arizona’s economy.

Diamond begged the regents to fight the proposed cuts for economic reasons, saying without strong universities Tucson business leaders are unable to recruit high-tech operations to the city.

“The businesses that are looking at Tucson (relocation) have a list they look at and one of their biggest priorities is education,” Diamond said. “We have to prove to them that our educational system is what they need.”

Lawrence reiterated the point, saying all three state universities are important to Raytheon, but having UA in Tucson is what allows Raytheon to retain employees. He said the company paid $2 million in tuition reimbursements for employees to get advanced degrees while working at the company and that parents want to know they are bringing their children to a state that values higher education.

“Raytheon is a growing business,” said Lawrence, who took the reins at the company in July. “We have 11,000 employees in Tucson and we’ll recruit nearly 1,000 more this year. We could not draw the high-quality employees without the University of Arizona.”

Hank Peck, secretary of the Northern Arizona University Foundation and a financial adviser with TCI Wealth Advisors in Tucson, said the proposal would “jeopardize any attempt at state-wide economic recovery.”

He called the universities “revenue producing assets,” pointing out that NAU’s economic impact in Coconino County is about $1 billion.

UA’s economic impact is about $6.8 billion, when accounting for the general impact of the university and the specialized endeavors out of Arizona Health Sciences Center and the UA Science and Technology Park, said Johnny Cruz, director of media relations.

Tom Grogan, founder of the UA spinoff Ventana Medical Systems, said the universities are “part of the budget solution, not the problem.”

Ventana employs more than 1,000 people, Grogan said, and the cancer diagnosis product they develop is sold in more than 100 countries.

“More wealth will come from the frontal cortex of the young people who are standing here than will be found in the ground of Arizona. . . . Cut a few toes, but please, let’s not cut off the legs we’re standing on,” he said.

He referred to the technology-based capital universities produce.

The crowd gave Grogan a 30-second whistle-filled applause.

Student leaders, faculty members and other community members spoke, including City Councilman Rodney Glassman and Ronald E. Shoopman, president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. All said they would support the regents in attempting to persuade lawmakers to rethink their proposal.

“You will have to make difficult decisions . . . but rest assured, you can count on the senior leadership in southern Arizona to stand with you,” Shoopman said.

Stephen Bieda III, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, said students will march on the Arizona Capitol on Wednesday “to ensure that the Arizona State Legislature sees the faces of the people these cuts will hurt.”

After the call to the audience, Regent Robert Bulla said the Legislature wants to resolve the 2009 budget by Feb. 1 and asked university presidents to describe what their portion of the $243 million cut would mean to their institutions.

UA President Robert N. Shelton, NAU President John Haeger and Arizona State University President Michael Crow said the cuts would most likely result in mandatory furloughs of faculty members and staffers, layoffs, increased tuition and fees, increased class sizes and closure of departments and colleges.

Shelton said UA’s $103 million portion would equate to the state support for the four colleges of science, nursing, pharmacy and agriculture and life sciences or the equivalent of 2,000 jobs.

“The University of Arizona recognizes the serious budget crisis the state faces and we’ve said before we will do our part,” Shelton said. “However, if the JLBC (joint legislative budget committee) proposals were to be accepted, it would mean the closure of departments and indeed whole colleges, creating fewer class sections and longer classes . . . tuition would rise and we’d lose some of our very best faculty who would take multiple millions of dollars in research grants with them.”

Jean Vickers moved to Tucson in 2007 and her son graduated from UA with a bachelor’s degree last May. She wondered aloud what his graduate experience at UA will be like if the budgets are reduced drastically.

“If this university in 2004 had been facing the budget cuts they’re facing now, our son would not have come here,” she said.

She said he didn’t apply to the University of California at Santa Cruz at that time because it was taking a huge budget cut.

In other business, the regents in an 8-1 vote approved a two-year increase in the limit on the percentage of out-of-state undergraduates allowed at the state universities.

Current board policy states that nonresident undergraduates cannot exceed 30 percent of the total undergraduate population. The new policy allows universities to go up to 40 percent. Student Regent David Martinez III voted no.

Shelton said even increasing the nonresident undergraduates to 35 percent would bring in about $20 million, the amount the state cut from UA’s fiscal 2009 budget last July.

The policy dictates that the number of in-state undergraduates must remain at or above fall 2008 levels.

Citizen intern Daniel Woolfolk contributed to this article.

At the Board of Regents' call to the audience Thursday, business leaders, students and others lined up to oppose proposed higher education cuts.

At the Board of Regents' call to the audience Thursday, business leaders, students and others lined up to oppose proposed higher education cuts.

Fred Boice, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, starts the meeting in which more than 800 protesters attended, some holding signs.

Fred Boice, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, starts the meeting in which more than 800 protesters attended, some holding signs.

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