Fletcher’s absence unfair to students attending UK forum

While our generation is often criticized for political apathy, it was refreshing to see a strong turnout of students at the gubernatorial forum hosted by Student Government last Friday.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and presence of the students and of the Democratic candidate for governor Steve Beshear was not echoed by one critical party: the Republican candidate, Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Fletcher’s absence from the forum, which his campaign communications director Jason Keller said was because of “unavoidable scheduling conflicts” in a Sept. 27 Kernel article, at best downgraded a healthy debate to a one-sided forum. At worst, it severely hurt Fletcher’s pull among students and further antagonized those already cynical about the political system.

A scheduling conflict is one thing, but Fletcher’s campaign knew for months that SG wanted to set up a debate between the candidates.

“We’ve been in contact with both these offices since this summer, and that’s more than enough time,” SG President Nick Phelps said in a meeting with the editorial board on Monday.

We agree with Phelps. A candidate running for the highest executive office in the state should not have to be persuaded to speak at that state’s flagship university, particularly in a re-election year.

The governor should make it a priority, if not an obligation, to visit Kentucky’s public universities if he expects this state’s youth to have faith in him as a leader.

One reason college students feel disenfranchised from politics so easily is that they don’t always realize how government actions affect them. The physical presence of these decision-makers speaking directly to students on issues that directly affect them is an invaluable opportunity, not only for young people, but also for the politicians to provoke interest and support in their policies and in the democratic system.

It is truly a shame Fletcher’s actions show he does not agree.

Whether his head or his heart was in the right place makes no difference. His person was not on UK’s campus Friday at noon. And whether Beshear didn’t see the value of such an interaction is also irrelevant. He showed up.

What’s more, Fletcher did not issue a personal explanation to why he could not attend but let his staff explain his actions and exude his confidence that mysteriously pervades despite turning away from meeting with young citizens.

“Gov. Fletcher is very focused on postsecondary education,” Keller said in the Kernel article. “We are confident that voters at UK will decide he is the right man for Kentucky for the next four years.”

We, as an editorial board and as citizens who truly wanted to see the governor last Friday, are not so confident for Fletcher.

In a time of increasing tuition costs when UK is mandated by state government to reach top-20 status by 2020, and when Fletcher’s original budget proposal in 2006 denied UK’s full funding requests to help our school reach that goal, Fletcher has a long path to walk before he proves his focus and concern for students and for postsecondary education. A simple appearance would have gone far to show this, but scheduling got in the way.

Phelps has said he will continue to work to bring Fletcher to campus before the Nov. 6 election, saying SG would welcome him “any day, any time.” It won’t be an open debate, which would have been the ideal scenario so voters could directly compare each candidate, but it is better than nothing.

The door is still open for Fletcher to show his focus on postsecondary education, and unless the governor thinks confidence alone will prove his worth to students, he should walk through it before it shuts.