Guest column by Iris Maute-Gibson/AS Legislative Liaison

We have officially embarked onto one of the most crucial years in determining the future of higher education. To say this fall’s round of budget cuts has been tough would be an understatement. But, to say that it is the last we will see of such cuts would be a lie. Throughout recent years, students have been affected by significant tuition increases, while cuts to the budget have resulted in a decreased accessibility and education quality offered at our university. A third round of cuts in late September to Western’s budget reduced services by an additional $3.5 million, or 6.3 percent of the operating budget for 2010-2011 which funds part of financial aid, as well as academic departments, faculty and staff. In January, the Washington State legislative session will begin, faced with the daunting task of balancing a $520 million deficit.

As the Associated Students Legislative Liaison, I represent the needs of students at the local, state and national level in all concerns of higher education. My goal is to foster civic engagement, cooperation and open communication as we work to set education at the forefront of public policy as the unwavering right of all citizens, regardless of income.

Throughout fall quarter, I will be working closely with AS Vice President for Governmental Affairs Byron Starkey, the AS Representation and Engagement Programs office, the Washington Student Association and Western Votes to establish a unified front for the legislative session. I will be speaking to campus groups and classrooms, informing students about the current budget situation in Olympia and on campus. During this time, I will also be working with the Legislative Action Council, a student-facilitated committee, to create Western’s legislative agenda, which outlines our stance on issues concerning higher education. The most important thing I will be doing this fall is rallying students together around the issues which affect them.

I would like to meet with students who have stories about how they have been affected by budget cuts, so I may share your stories with legislators in Olympia. My goal is not to speak for you, but to empower each and every one of you to find your voice and use it to affect change. Start today! Voting in the upcoming November elections will ensure we are sending people to Olympia who recognize the necessity of knowledge and care about preserving opportunities for higher education. We registered almost 1,400 students to vote in September, far surpassing other state schools. But, Western has traditionally ranked unacceptably low in voter turnout. This year must be different. Let your voice ring out and vote!

During winter quarter, I will be living in Olympia, lobbying our representatives with our legislative agenda. This will involve testifying to committees and meeting with legislators to discuss how cuts and tuition increases have affected the accessibility and quality of education at Western. I will be sending weekly reports to the AS Board of Directors and communicating to you though on-campus news sources. We will be arranging a Viking Lobby Day, which will be an opportunity for students to travel to Olympia and discuss the importance of their education with legislators. We need to unite as a coalition of mobilized, active and engaged student citizens in order to let our message be heard.

Every student at Western has been in some way affected by budget cuts. If you are unsure or do not feel that the budget cuts have affected you, please, take a moment next time you are in class. Look to the person next to you. Think about the joy and privilege of education you receive by engaging in discussions with your fellow students each day. Now, imagine they were unable to attend school due to financial aid cuts. This is only one example of a myriad of ways that these cuts will be detrimental to Western if we do not stand up and advocate for our right to education.

If you would like to know how you can get involved, or have a story to share, please do not hesitate to contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.

Iris Maute-Gibson can be reached by phone at (360) 650-7349 or by e-mail at as.legislative.liaison@wwu.edu. Her office is located in Viking Union 527.