Confusion reigns across CUNY as the proposed changes to student activity fees are revised, leaving unclear what the consequences of the changes will be to student organizations.
Even leaders at Baruch College are unsure what the proposed changes will bring in the coming semesters as the board of trustees attempts to pass the changes this year.
Across CUNY, each student pays student activity fees. The fee is different across the campuses, as each campus’ students can vote to increase or decrease it under the current guidelines. The fees go toward student services and activities such as the student government, athletic teams, the health and childcare centers, clubs and organizations and media.
The allocation amount toward each of these services was decided by a student referendum, where the general population of students voted to increase or decrease the funds for each student program or activity. When the funds are voted on and passed, it is called an earmark, or a yearly reservation of money for that particular activity.
While some CUNY colleges have more complicated allocations with their fees directly going to certain media groups and clubs on campus, the earmarks at Baruch are more streamlined. There are separate allocations that group all clubs and organizations, all student media and all of the Undergraduate Student Government’s money into their respective earmarks and so on.
The student activity fee must be revised after a legal case in which a student from Queens College sued the CUNY Board of Trustees after the student government at Queens College denied her proposal to start a pro-life club at the college without sufficient reasoning. She won the suit, and to be in compliance, student activity fees must be allocated with “viewpoint neutral criteria,” meaning that funds cannot be earmarked for student “speech activities,” like clubs and organizations.
The proposed changes were revised through the Student Activities Fee Task Force, a group of trustees, student leaders and CUNY staff and faculty.
The CUNY Board of Trustees’ Student Affairs Committee spoke about the proposed changes during its April 16 meeting after receiving input from the task force about the changes. Issues discussed within the meeting included a new proposal to grant student government the ability to pass referenda to change student activity fees through a supermajority vote, in addition to the current process of having 10 percent of the student population sign a petition to create a referendum. The committee also discussed no longer allowing external groups to be paid through earmarks in CUNY. This would mainly affect NYPIRG, or the New York Public Interest Research Group, a political group that receives $1.3 million in student activity fees to have students participate in its organization across nine CUNY campuses. Baruch does not have NYPIRG on its campus and would not be affected by this change.
One of the most contentious changes was dissolving all earmarks for all activities funded by these fees, but now the proposal recommends that students still be able to earmark funds for what is called “non-speech activities,” or for programs that are viewpoint neutral, such as the student governments, athletics and childcare centers. Earmarks for clubs and organizations and media would be dissolved and funds will be allocated in the future without an earmark. The language in the proposal does not explicitly say how funding will be decided for organizations that have their earmarks dissolved, only that they will be allocated money through the use of viewpoint neutral criteria that is outlined in CUNY’s Fiscal Handbook for the Control and Accountability of Student Activity Fees.
“There is currently no transition plan,” Fernando Araujo, executive director of the University Student Senate, a body of elected students from across CUNY that is supposed to advocate for students, wrote in an email to The Ticker.
Araujo is on the task force, and is also a graduate student at Brooklyn College. He explained that there is currently no plan to ease students into the transition if these earmarks were to be eliminated.
“There has been no discussion of a transition plan by the committee. The effects of this proposal on the local campus have not been given serious consideration at the task force or board committee. It will likely be a shock to the system. Especially considering that the associations are allocating those funds now, in the Spring semester. Does this mean that the funds allocated by the college association during this semester will, in turn, be dissolved? When do referendum organizations that were previously referendum organizations, such as The Ticker, get their budgets?” Araujo wrote.
In an in-person interview, Araujo argued that the situation for student activity fees is complicated and differs from campus to campus. “I don’t know what the breakdown on your campus is like. You don’t know what the breakdown on my campus is like. These people don’t know what the breakdowns on the individual campuses are like because they’re here in a corporate building in the middle of Manhattan.
“You can’t tell me that the students understand what’s about to happen,” Araujo said.
Araujo said that at Baruch in particular, the student government would absorb the earmarks of student media and clubs and organizations. Currently, student media, such as WBMB and The Ticker at Baruch, do not have to appeal to USG to receive their funding, instead going directly to the board of directors, a group of students and administrators who approve the allocations for all budgets funded by student activity fees. Clubs at Baruch appeal to USG, who then take it to the board of directors, akin to what other CUNY schools and the CUNY bylaws consider a College Association. He presumed that USG would now have to allocate funds to media directly.
Repeated attempts to get in contact with Francesca Royal, a USS delegate who is on the task force and who agreed with Araujo’s in-person assessment of how fees would be allocated after the change, went unanswered.
Baruch student leaders and administrators, however, are unclear if this would be the case.
“It doesn’t seem like that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Baruch USG President Isabel Arias in regard to the effect the proposal will have on student media and if that would mean that media’s funds would be allocated directly by the senate table during the April 24 senate meeting. “It really doesn’t seem like that. We’re waiting for confirmation when Dean King is able to talk to CUNY Central,” she said.
Damali Smith, director of Student Life, said during the April 24 meeting that CUNY is modeling the new proposal after Baruch, with a comprehensive college association and process. She heard this information from Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Art King. Because of Baruch’s comprehensive process, she said, the school actually has a surplus of student activity fees. The difference potentially could be that media would still go to the board of directors for funds, but that they would not be restricted by how much their earmark currently allots.
It is unclear who is correct on these points. The Ticker contacted both CUNY media relations and the legal office for comment on the specific questions being raised about what these changes will mean and if students are being adequately prepared for them. While the legal office did not respond, CUNY media relations gave a general statement from Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Christopher Rosa, describing the task force and stating that the task force, the Office of the General Counsel and the Central Office of Student Affairs were actively seeking input on the issue from all key stakeholders. When pressed to speak further on the issue, the media relations office sent a video and transcript of the student activity fees being discussed at a prior board of trustees meeting. When pressed twice more, no office responded.
The CUNY Board of Trustees organized a website devoted to the proposal that explains why the changes are necessary, the proposal and other relevant documents. Find it at http://www2.cuny.edu/current-students/student-affairs/student-life/student-activities-fees/.