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CUNY Board of Trustees Questions Referendum Process

The CUNY Board of Trustees approved a $200 tuition hike back in June, and is now looking into the current referendum process. PHOTO/ Free CUNY - Twitter
The CUNY Board of Trustees approved a $200 tuition hike back in June, and is now looking into the current referendum process. PHOTO/ Free CUNY – Twitter

By Zainab Iqbal

Published: November 15th, 2017

Every year, the City University of New York Board of Trustees (CUNY BoT) discusses the issues of tuition and funds. Tuition hikes are decided amongst the Board, which essentially regulates all of CUNY, and is also involved with distributing funds. But should it be involved in deciding how students choose to spend their own money?

According to the College of Liberal Arts and Science (CLAS) Student Government, the CUNY BoT is questioning the process of running a referendum.

The CUNY BoT is a group of 17 members. Ten of these members are appointed by the New York State governor while five are appointed by the New York City mayor. For the remaining two, one of them is the chair of the University Student Senate (USS), and the other is the chair of the University Faculty Senate. The Board itself has standing committees, including Committee on Audit, Committee on Fiscal Affairs, and Committee on Student Affairs and Special Programs. 

A referendum is a general vote on a single question which then results in a direct decision, usually occurring during the student government elections.

CLAS President Nissim Said believes the Board has decided to look into the referendum process because of the controversial issue surrounding the pro-life club in Queens College. According to the Daily Beast, the Students for Life club at Queens College filed a federal lawsuit “claiming college officials violated the constitution in refusing to grant them ‘registered’ status among more than 80 officially recognized student organizations, including religious groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, Chinese Christian Fellowship, and Muslim Students Association.”

Many of the referendums that have been voted on in the past involve the Student Activity Fee. The Student Activity Fee is a breakdown of where each BC student’s total student fees go. For example, $32.50 from every student goes to the Student Center, $2.50 goes to the student newspapers, and $20 goes to the Health Care Clinic. Each and every fee was once voted upon by a referendum during student government elections, which means, as a whole, students have voted to pay for everything on the list.

For example, the BC Health Clinic once ran a referendum to have students pay $20 for its services. This means that funding for the clinic is on the Student Activity Fee, and this funding was approved and voted for by students.

The issue of the Student Activity Fee was brought up after the Queens College incident, and it posed a significant question: should students’ money be distributed to clubs they don’t agree with? Should those who believe in pro-choice have to pay for anti-abortion supporters, and vice versa?

According to Said, the choice belongs solely to the students—the ones who voted and the ones who pay.

“I don’t want our right to run a referendum be taken way,” Said said. “We have the ability to come together, make changes and do something to help the campus body. We voted for this. We should be able to make the decision ourselves.”

Said does believe the process of running a referendum should be reformulated. He’d rather the petitions be online and easily accessible.

“The election process should be simplified and easier. We don’t need a long process to get into Web Central and click on a bunch of different things to be able to vote,” Said said. “The more clicks it takes for students to try and vote, it’s going to deter them from voting. And then CUNY BoT is going to say we just didn’t get enough votes.”

The Excelsior reached out to CUNY BoT member and student trustee John Aderounmu for comment, but has not received a response in time for print.

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  1. From what I understand, it is illegal for recognition of a club status or funding from general student funding to be withheld on the basis of the viewpoint of the club in question. So the idea of a referendum on whether to fund the health clinic makes sense, but a referendum on whether to fund specific clubs cannot be acted on (if the result is negative) without breaking the law. I don’t think Nissim is right about it being up to the students in the way it sounds. Am I missing something?

    • Yes you are. You are missing the most recent lawsuit, Almengor v. Schmidt, which was brought by a Brooklyn College student alleging that NYPIRG’s (largest student activist group in the state) funding mechanism in CUNY constituted preferential treatment and that the use of referenda to
      impact funding student groups was in violation of the Amidon decision. Given the Amidon decision that
      referenda may not be used as a tool for students to express their support for funding a group, all referenda questions that include funding are unconstitutional. In conclusion, the Southern District Court ruled that referenda, when paired with a refund mechanism, were constitutional. The Southern District was affirmed in its entirety by the Second Circuit. The ruling affirmed the constitutionality of referenda when combined with a refund, which is the current system in CUNY, Syracuse University and Pratt Institute. In other words, we aren’t breaking the law so long as a refund is offered

  2. Great article Nissim! Sad that you’re literally the only school writing about this

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