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U. of Oregon Courts Hard-Hitting Tactics in Persuading Students to Raise Fees for a Renovation

Lately, the University of Oregon has had a little trouble getting students to go along with its plan to renovate Erb Memorial Union, the university’s dilapidated student-union building. The sticky part of that plan: getting students to vote to raise their fees to help pay for the $135-million renovation. In two referenda in the past year, students voted down the university’s plans, which would have raised fees by $100 per term.

That has led the university administration to some desperate measures—which may lead to more trouble. Students have learned that the university hired a Denver-based research-and-strategy firm, which specializes in political campaigns, to try to push the students to a yes vote in yet another referendum in October. That fact alone has irked some students who have been active in the student-union debate.

But it’s the language of the proposal from RBI Strategies & Research that has really angered them. A section of the document lays out “what we say about opponents” of the university’s plan, ticked off in talking-point bullets: “narrow‐minded,” “stuck in past,” “stubborn,” and their “opinions are based in misconceptions and misinformation.” The damning last bullet: Students “don’t care.”

The document proposes a campaign slogan— “Our Legacy. Our Pride. Our Union. Vote YES.”—and discusses ways that supporters can build support for the referendum. It recommends talking about “legacy,” “pride,” and “sustainability,” and recommends against talking about the “length of bond payments” or “administration support.”

And it outlines a plan to attack: “There should be a group of dedicated and campaign trained volunteers whose mission is to immediately counter any misleading or wrong information posted online about the measure,” the proposal says. “This group must hit back using the same message tool/s used by the opponent to disseminate the falsehoods.”

“It’s manipulation,” said Lamar K. Wise, a junior and political-science major who is a senator in the student government, the Associated Students of the University of Oregon. “They are forgetting why students voted it down, which is the price. Students can’t afford it … and they are completely neglecting the student voice in that manner.”

A special committee of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education met on Friday to discuss financial support for the Erb Memorial Union renovation, and committee members voted to include the project in a capital-construction budget request—provided that students vote to raise their fees in October.

At the meeting, the committee also learned about the proposal from RBI Strategies & Research. “The board members expressed some concern about the proposal as it exists right now—that it seemed more like a political campaign than an educational campaign,” said Diane Saunders, a spokeswoman for the board.

Robin Holmes, vice president for student affairs at the University of Oregon, has led the renovation project. Her office released a statement Friday night, following the meeting.

“We have heard the concerns that the manner of contracting with the communications services firm was a misstep and we agree,” the statement said. ”The UO will not implement all of the recommendations made by the communications firm.”

Ms. Holmes did not respond to requests for an interview.

But the language of the proposal was only one concern. The proposal also outlines a budget of $20,000 to $30,000 to spend on T-shirts, drawstring backpacks, banners, table tents, stickers, and other items designed to spread the message and win over 3,000 voters.

“They are basically spending $10 a vote, which I think is ridiculous,” Mr. Wise said.

Ben Eckstein, who was the student-government president last year and worked intensely on the student-union project, said the latest developments were part of a pattern with the university’s administration. “There is a statewide precedent and a precedent on our campus that student-union projects are led and envisioned by the students on the campus,” he said. “What is happening at the University of Oregon is that a very ambitious division of student affairs is seeking to change that precedent.”

In the two times that the students have rejected the project, he said, they have cited concerns about costs and the level of student involvement in the project. “In the amount of time that the two referenda have taken place, not a single change has been made to the project to address the concerns of the students that voted against it,” Mr. Eckstein said. “But every effort has been made by the administration to push the project forward as it is.”

(Flickr photo of Erb Memorial Union by rfducks.)

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