Sarah Tewksbury, Staff Writer
Student Activity Fees
$110. That is how much a full-time USM student pays each year to support the student activity fee.
Over a century ago, students at universities and colleges across the U.S. self imposed student activity fees in order to fund extracurricular activities and additional services. In the beginning, the additional services included having electricity and hot water in dormitory buildings. At the origination of the concept of these fees, they were collected and distributed by students.
The first time that mass controversy arose about student activity fees was during the 1960s when the argument was made that political action and advocacy groups could be given preference based on their ideological affiliation. On one hand, students argued that this increased the quality of student life because campus groups were able to increase their presence and action items with monetary backing. On the other hand, it was argued that students funneling money into the activity fee pool were essentially supporting causes they did not believe in.
Once the lid was removed on funding being split among all groups on campuses and the controversial effects that funding all politically motivated clubs had on students, it has been difficult to contain the issue. Numerous legal actions were filed following the politicization of student activity fee funds. In 1985 students at Rutgers University sued the university for the right not to pay student activity fees that would fund groups they did not believe in. The courts ruled in favor of the students. Following the major Galda v. Rutgers suit, the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) was sued by students, who made the same arguments as the students at Rutgers, eight years prior. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of UCB continuing to impose mandatory student activity fees but also found that it was an infringement on students’ rights to allow their money to go to groups they ideologically disagreed with.
Through the courts rulings, the precedent has been set that viewpoint neutrality will influence student activity fee dissemination. However, this principle only applies to public universities and colleges because they are government entities. Private colleges and universities are not held by the same rules and have more authority on how mandatory fees are collected and distributed. In turn, students have less autonomy on governing their own fees at private institutions.
In the case of Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, the Supreme Court found that students using referendum voting to decide how public universities distribute funding to campus groups to be unconstitutional. According to the conclusion delivered by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in March 2000, the “First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral.” However, the conclusion also included that public universities may not favor certain groups over others based on their viewpoints.
The management of student activity fees across throughout the U.S. varies, depending on the type of institution. Private universities have become accustomed to having official administration offices for the university govern student activity funds. Applications for funds processes are often filtered through campus activity offices and student affairs departments. At private institutions, administrative governance of student activity fees leaves more autonomy for the university to redirect funds to support projects that benefit the administration’s goals and plans, rather than support student groups and the best interests of students.
A majority of public universities distribute their student activity fees through student run governance. Student government associations and student led boards often respond to requests and determine the dispersion of the fees. Most do not set the percentage of the fee charged to students and that is left to the discretion of the student activities office.
At the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) a commission of students and faculty members converse each fall to discuss and recommend fees to the university Chancellor. After ample opportunity for public input on the fees, the Chancellor then turns to the UNCG Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors to determine exactly what will be charged to the students.
Having students govern the student activity fee is common for public universities. By having the system set up in this way, students are given full autonomy to self distribute the funds to campus groups and projects, thus entrusting that a fee collected for the students is truly going towards student based projects.
Arguments have been made that should a student body lose control of their student activity fee funds, the administration at the university level would have the power to limit the accessibility for groups to obtain funds based on ideology. A major concern is generated from student run media organizations. Should a college newspaper report unfavorably, yet truthfully, on university administration, an institution controlling funding could re-assign monies to other groups.