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The Voices Behind the Student Activity Fee Protests

Many of the protestors outside the BC Student Center held up signs that featured messages against the trustees. PHOTO/ Samip Delhiwala
Many of the protestors outside the BC Student Center held up signs that featured messages against the trustees. PHOTO/ Samip Delhiwala

By Radhika Viswanathan

Published: March 21st, 2018

Anyone walking outside campus last Monday evening would have likely heard the protests outside the Student Center during the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees meeting.

One of the protesters’ chief complaints was surrounding the proposed changes to the student activity fee. Ever since the Student Affairs Committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees (BoT) first publicly proposed the changes on Feb. 26, a coalition of students and other members of CUNY has emerged, hoping to fight what they consider a rushed process that leaves students without a voice.

“We are mobilizing to get as many students to testify on the proposals that are being drafted,” said Haris Khan, a student at City College of New York (CCNY), a delegate of the Undergraduate Student Senate (USS), and one of the members of the coalition. In addition to organizing last Monday’s protest, Khan has organized other protests over the past few weeks in order to raise awareness about these proposals. 

All CUNY students pay a student activity fee that goes towards certain amenities and resources on campus. Brooklyn College students at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) will recognize this fee as the additional $113.40 that gets tacked onto their tuition. At Brooklyn College, these fees go towards clubs such as NYPIRG, the Student Forensics Society, and campus newspapers (the Excelsior receives $1.25 per student every semester).

The fees also go towards funding the Student Center, Health Care Clinic, certain scholarships, and more. The complete student activity fee breakdown can be found at Brooklyn College’s website.

Currently, these fees have been allocated based on a process that takes the students’ voices into account. Fees are allocated by a budget committee (which has a student majority) and approved by a full board (of which six out of 13 members are students). 

“This is a system of shared governance, a system of checks and balances,” said Fernando Araujo, executive director of the USS and a graduate student at Brooklyn College.

The proposed changes would put this allocation method in the hands of each college’s administration and eliminate the budget committee. Instead of having funds earmarked for specific organizations, each college’s College Association would be responsible for determining where the money would go.

“Why does the University decide where our funds go to?” Khan asked. “It’s our fees, so we should have the right to control where it goes.”

Both Khan and Araujo mentioned that one of the organizations that would likely be hurt by the changes would be NYPIRG. Even though the organization has chapters within campuses, it exists outside of CUNY; certain changes in the proposal would allow college administration to cut funding for organizations that work in this manner.

“Students may have issues with NYPIRG,” said Khan, “but if students want to defund NYPIRG, it should be up to them.”

The Office of the General Counsel—which counsels the BoT and initially proposed the changes—did not respond to requests for an interview. However, during discussions last semester, the BoT suggested that the rationale for some of its changes was sparked by a lawsuit in January 2017, in which a pro-life group at CUNY Queens College argued that the current referendum method was unconstitutional.

The group, Students for Life at Queens College, did not receive the requisite support from students to become a registered club and was therefore ineligible to access funding from student activity fees. They believed that the method was discriminatory, since student support in CUNY schools leans liberal. The group won the lawsuit. As a result, the BoT may be attempting to make the fee allocation process less student-centered.

One of the coalition’s main issues with the BoT’s method of passing the proposal is how quickly it is trying to make changes. 

In December, a BoT task force—consisting of students and other CUNY members—was created to review the student activity fee infrastructure. Araujo was one of the students appointed to this task force.

“There was simply no time to review [everything],” Araujo said. “There are multiple legal documents, multiple best practice recommendations [and] documents for 25 colleges in CUNY.”

According to Khan, the BoT ignored most of the feedback given by the task force. “Instead of the task force drafting a proposal, the language in the proposed changes to student activity fees come straight from the General Counsel’s office, defeating the purpose of having a task force,” he detailed. 

The task force was given the proposal in December, and the CUNY BoT is trying to put the proposal into effect for the Fall 2018 semester.

“I’m on the table; students who I’ve been working with are willing to listen,” Khan said. “Let’s have a genuine conversation, but it can’t happen in three months.” 

“The way they stand right now, it’s completely unacceptable,” he continued. “That’s unanimous across CUNY campus leadership.”

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