Several hundred University of Maryland students gathered last night for a candlelight vigil to demand more state support of higher education after two years of budget cuts and tuition increases.
"We are here in the dark and in the cold to plead with our governor to fund us correctly," student body President Aaron Krause told the cheering crowd. "Our university is in dire need . . . and this is our future we are talking about."
Krause said that the rally on the College Park campus marked the start of a vigorous campaign to stave off further tuition increases and persuade Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to restore more than $120 million cut from the University System of Maryland's budget since he took office.
Several state senators, delegates and university officials addressed the students, urging them to lobby the General Assembly to override the governor's veto of a bill last spring that would have capped tuition increases at 5 percent a year for the next three years. That measure, which also would have restored some of the funding, would have been partly paid for through a temporary increase in the state corporate tax. Ehrlich objected that the plan was not fully funded and that further taxing businesses risked reducing the number of jobs available to students upon graduation.
At the rally, Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said Ehrlich's position was hypocritical.
"Ehrlich had a scholarship to prep school, a scholarship to Princeton University and a scholarship to law school," Franchot told the crowd. "But he's going to deny your dream of a college education."
Krause was more focused on persuading Ehrlich to include increased funding in his next budget, which he is expected to present in December or early January.
At the rally, many students were in a festive mood, mingling to a disc jockey's mix of rap music at the start of the rally and ending it with a spirited chant of "Save our school!" But their tone became somber when asked why they had joined the rally.
"I personally know nine people who are no longer here because they can no longer afford the tuition," said Hank Rawler, 20, a junior from Philadelphia and president of the campus's black student union.
Ehrlich's cuts to the system's budget came after years of steady increases and at a time when the governor, then just elected, was struggling to close a billion-dollar shortfall in the state budget.
The cuts coincided with a major spike in enrollment. Over the past two years, the number of students at the system's 11 campuses increased by the equivalent of 5,000 full-time students -- and system officials estimate that over the next three years, enrollment will grow by an additional 8,000 full-time students.
To cope with the resulting financial crunch, administrators have cut about 700 staff positions and increased tuition by as much as 32 percent at some institutions. In-state tuition and fees at the flagship College Park campus have reached $7,410, and Maryland's public college tuition rates are now among the nation's highest.
This month, the system's chancellor, William E. Kirwan, released a plan to trim more than $26 million from the next budget through cost-cutting steps, including negotiating systemwide contracts with energy suppliers.
Some aspects of the plan -- increasing the faculty course load and charging students for taking more classes than required for their degrees -- trouble some students and faculty. But even if fully implemented, the plan would cover only about 20 percent of the expected costs associated with increased enrollment, officials project.
System administrators warn that unless the state steps in with more funding, they will have to make up the difference with further tuition increases.
Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said in an interview that the governor is committed to keeping college affordable in Maryland.
During the last legislative session, "despite the budget deficit he inherited, the governor increased funding for need-based scholarships by $13 million," Fawell said.
He said that Ehrlich's next budget may include additional increases for the system. "He's instructed his budget staff to work toward that goal," Fawell said of Ehrlich.