By Hugo Fernandez and Emily Tai
Last fall, the CUNY Board of Trustees convened a Task Force to examine the structure of Student Activity Fees at the City University of New York. The rationale for convening this Task Force, which is in the process of reviewing both Article XVI of the CUNY Bylaws (which concern Student Activity Fees and Auxiliary Enterprises), and CUNY’s Fiscal Accountability Handbook, was a need to introduce “changes into this system in compliance with prevailing law and best practice” on a tight timeline, that would allow these changes to be implemented by fall, 2018. The Task Force, jointly chaired by University Student Senate President John Aderounmu and York College President Marcia Keizs, is being assisted by a working group, lead by Vice Chancellor of Legal Affairs Loretta Martinez; Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Christopher Rosa, with participation from several members of the Student and Legal Affairs Chancellery Staff; Francesca Royal, University Student Senate Vice Chair for Fiscal Affairs; and representatives from the University Faculty Senate.
Lawsuits and CUNY and beyond
The immediate catalyst for this re-examination of Student Activity Fees at CUNY was a lawsuit introduced by a student group at Queens College, Queens College Students for Life, alleging that they had been denied support as a student club, based upon ideological criteria (the rationale for initial denial had been that the organization duplicated the charge of other organizations on campus). Last October, Queens College Students for Life filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Federal Court with the assistance of Alliance Defending Freedom, a national organization of religious rights attorneys. More generally, the Task Force seeks to work with the CUNY Office of Legal Affairs to bring CUNY’s Student Fee structure in compliance with recommendations that emerged from a 2002 Supreme Court case, Southworth vs. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, in which two students, Scott H. Southworth and Benjamin Thompson, objected to the allocation of funding of Wisconsin’s branch of the United States Public Interest Research Group, a national political advocacy group that supports various progressive causes, from their mandatory student fees.
Viewpoint Neutrality: The New Requirement
The plaintiffs Southworth and Thompson objected to the University of Wisconsin’s use of their money on the grounds that it violated their rights under the First Amendment, arguing that any monies distributed from Student Activities Fees should be distributed in a manner consistent with viewpoint-neutrality: the requirement that no one speaker’s message might be favored over another. The requirement of viewpoint neutrality would mean that colleges and universities can no longer allocate Student Activity fees through referenda that essentially allow one “popular” organization to secure more support than another. Instead, all student organizations should enjoy equal support, in keeping with the open dialogue that should be part of a collegiate experience.
Reviewing the Student Fee Structure
In support of the charge of the Student Activities Fee Task Force, the CUNY Office of Legal Affairs has undertaken a close scrutiny of the allocation of over $37 Million dollars in Student Activity Fees, collected across the City University of New York. Different colleges may apply their fees in strikingly different ways. Student Activity Fees are used to fund entities and services as diverse as Student government, clubs, and athletics; childcare, health and wellness centers; food pantries, and even the building maintenance expenses of a student center! Nine campuses in the CUNY system also allocate fees to New York’s branch of the United States Research Interest Group, better known as NYPIRG.
In a best-case scenario, the implementation of “view-point neutral” criteria in the allocation of student activity fees will strengthen robust discussion of any number of pertinent issues across CUNY’s campuses, and improve the quality of undergraduate education. Student leaders nonetheless have concerns about new, proposed procedures for the allocation of student fees, which would be determined, in a viewpoint-neutral fashion, by college presidents, albeit in consultation with student leaders. There is also worry that these new standards might negatively impact funding for NYPIRG, which advocates heavily for students, particularly in opposition to the rising cost of public higher education, as a similar scrutiny of student activity fees led to significant decreases in funding for NYPIRG on SUNY campuses, after a 2007 lawsuit, Amidon vs. Student Association at State University of New York at Albany challenged NYPIRG funding on grounds similar to those introduced in the Southworth case.
As of this writing, members of the UFS Executive Committee are initiating a review of the most recent versions of the proposed amendments to the CUNY Bylaws and the CUNY Fiscal Accountability Handbook, while representatives to the University Student Senate, many of whom oppose these changes, are planning a series of “town halls” to solicit student views that can be brought back to the members of the Task Force and Working Group. Faculty Governance Leaders may wish to attend these town halls as well.
After all—expressing opinions on the value of NYPIRG and the allocation of Student Activity Fees are consistent with participation in shared governance—and the First Amendment.
Hugo Fernandez is an assistant professor of Art and Photography at LaGuardia Community College and the UFS Representative to the CUNY Board of Trustees Committee on Student Affairs; Emily S. Tai is an associate professor of History at Queensborough Community College, and the UFS Alternate to the CUNY Board of Trustees Committee on Student Affairs. Both serve on the UFS Executive Committee and represent the UFS at University Student Senate Plenaries.
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Photo: CCO Public Domain