Montana students press Regents, in different directions, on vaccination mandate

Board approves budget items, building upgrades, postpones student fees policy

By: - November 19, 2021 5:39 pm

Montana University System

Fees account for a large portion of the cost of college, and Montana students want more work done on a policy that deals with those dollars.

With a push from the students, the Montana Board of Regents postponed action Friday on an agenda item to clarify the definition of “student-driven fees” in its policy.

Regent Joyce Dombrouski suggested the board hold off on a vote until the regents do more work on the policy, and Regent Bob Nystuen said he would like to be sure the fees can withstand an audit or a check that ensures they’re being used as students intend them to be.

“We take very seriously, at least from my vantage point, the request of the students,” Nystuen said.

In the past, fees flew under the radar compared to tuition, but their rising costs have caught the attention of higher education leaders as the overall price tag of a degree escalates. The policy on the agenda aimed to clarify the definition of “student-driven fees” as ones proposed by student government with revenue managed by student government.

But Regent Amy Sexton agreed the policy deserved more work and input. The agenda item noted fees driven by students are exempt from biennial approval and can be brought to the Board of Regents annually.

“Given the public comment that we received, I think there’s really a great opportunity to collaborate with the students,” Sexton said.

Otherwise, the Regents approved the other budget and academic requests on their agenda on the second and final day of their November meeting on the University of Montana campus. Among other items, the Regents approved labor contracts, facility upgrades, and campus bids for new programs, including a cybersecurity bachelor’s degree at UM.

During public comment, student leaders asked the Board of Regents to deal with other pressing matters, such as a COVID-19 vaccination mandate and the cost of education. 

Jacob Kunze, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana—Western, said textbooks and other materials can cost students $1,200, and a 2019 study showed that 63 percent of students don’t make the purchases because of the financial impacts.

This week, he said the Montana Associated Students passed a resolution presented by the Associated Students of the University of Montana urging the Board of Regents to prioritize initiatives that lower the cost of education, including the use of Open Educational Resources, or shared resources available at no cost, often under a Creative Commons license.

“It is our hope that through the use of Open Educational Resources, that we may help lower the cost of the financial effects that our courses have on our students,” said Kunze, also president of MAS.

As for COVID-19, Sen. Ahna Fox, of UM-Western, said she believes students deserved to understand the thinking of the Board of Regents when it came to a vaccination mandate. She said she understands leaders are in the “hot seat,” but students need to know which way the Regents lean so they can either have peace of mind or figure out how to make their case on an issue that impacts them greatly.

“I find the amount of interest and involvement on this issue (by students) to be a spectacular display of their initiative and drive to make their voices heard,” Fox said.

The Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education has not recommended a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for campuses, nor has the Board of Regents considered one. As of Nov. 19, the Chronicle of Higher Education had identified 1,134 campuses with some type of vaccination requirement in place for students or employees.

But Sen. Garrett Yeager, also of UM-Western, said students at Western opposed a mandate by 80 percent, and the student government followed suit with a resolution opposing such a requirement. At the same time, he noted the student government at UM did the opposite, favoring a mandate. As such, he said the campuses have different cultures and values and deserve to be treated as unique.

“The magnitude of a vaccination mandate is not something that can be summed into a one-size-fits all solution across the Montana University System,’’ Yeager said.

This story has been updated to correct Yeager’s name.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”