Proposed student activity fee changes incite controversy


Following a tense CUNY Board of Trustees committee meeting about proposed new procedures regarding student activity fees, almost 80 CUNY students were threatened with arrest while chanting and yelling about their displeasure with the proposal.

The proposed changes to the student activity fee include the increased importance of some CUNY college associations, and the elimination of certain earmarked activity fee funds. Currently, each CUNY college has a set of local fee funds that pay for different student services on campus, such as child care centers, student governments, the CUNY University Student Senate and certain organizations like media clubs.

The budgeting of the fees is decided by the student-led Budget Committee of the College Association at certain CUNY colleges, as dictated by the CUNY Bylaws; Baruch College’s equivalent to the College Association, called the Board of Directors, does not have this committee.

The proposed changes would eliminate this committee and give direct power to the student governments, with complete oversight from the college associations, which are comprised of students, college staff and administrators. Under the proposal, student government, the University Student Senate and money given to registered student organizations would be protected, but all other earmarked funds would be subject to review.

When presenting the proposal during the CUNY Committee on Student Affairs and Special Programs meeting on Feb. 26, Loretta Martinez, CUNY’s general counsel and vice chancellor for legal affairs, said that the changes would cause student activity fees to be used more flexibly.

“The College Association would have the flexibility over time to move money around to meet student needs, primarily in the programs and services side,” Martinez said, continuing with the fact that students thought the current process was “cumbersome.”

It is unknown how Baruch will be affected by the change. One of Baruch College’s USS delegate Jasper Diaz said during the Baruch Undergraduate Student Government senate meeting on March 6 that Baruch would not as impacted as other CUNY colleges. “The proposal seeks to bring other campuses in line to what we do at Baruch,” said Diaz.

Many of the students present at the committee meeting expressed anxiety over whether their organizations would be defunded, and if student voices would be eliminated in the student activity fee budgeting process.

“The proposal is a radical departure from CUNY’s tradition of honoring our students’ right to self-govern,” said Kawthar Abdullah, a vice chair in USS and a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, to the trustees during the CUNY Committee on Student Affairs and Special Programs meeting. Abdullah is a member of the task force that was assembled to give input on the proposal and help develop it. She stated that students on the task force were “shocked” that they were given only two weeks to get feedback from students at all CUNY schools, and were told by CUNY legal counsel not to inform constituents of the proceedings to “not rile them up.”

“My intentions were to let the members of the Student Affairs Committee know that our input as a task force — it was not taken into consideration. It’s really a radical change they are considering,” Abdullah said later, in an interview with The Ticker.

John Aderounmu, chairperson of USS and a student at Hunter College, said that anything other than required legal changes is an “overextension” and called the redefinition of the student activity fees in the proposal “worrying.”

The legal changes necessary to student activity fees come after a lawsuit filed two years ago in which a Queens College student’s application to the student government to start an anti-abortion club was denied without justifiable reason. Legal changes to the fees are required to make their allocation more “neutral,” said Martinez.

“We want to make sure we have adequate feedback from the students,” Aderounmu said.

Most students who attended the meeting were led to an overflow room where they were able to watch the meeting through a livestream. After the meeting, students took to the hallway outside of  CUNY’s central office to chant and voice their displeasure, leaving only when threatened with arrest for trespassing.

Haris Khan, a student government senator and student at the City College of New York called the proposal “the worst attack on student rights and student governance in CUNY since the ‘70s,” and said that “we can’t let this go through without a fight.”

“And they think we aren’t paying attention but we are paying attention,” Khan added.

Smitha Varghese, the statewide chair of the New York Public Interest Research Group and student at Queens College, said that she is frustrated with the board of trustees and the proposal. NYPIRG is a political advocacy group active at some CUNY colleges — Baruch is not one of them — where students are elected as representatives in the group. NYPIRG activities at CUNY are currently funded by student activity fees, an earmark that would be under review and could potentially be eliminated in the current proposal.

Varghese spoke of how she has been emailing Martinez for months about the changes, to no response. “They don’t want to hear what we have to say,” Varghese said of the trustees. “Now is finally [the time] where okay, let’s rally, because they don’t want to hear what we have to say, they have their minds made up.”

Shortly after students were forced to leave the building, CUNY’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Christopher Rosa came to the street to speak with students and answer questions about the proposed changes, staying roughly for half an hour.

“There is no hidden agenda. I know it’s hard for some people to grasp,” Rosa said.

“We are proceeding, we feel, in good faith and in earnest. It’s an ambitious timeline. And if we find that it all can be sufficiently resolved, then we will make the necessary adjustments. But right now, we’re trying to work in good faith to make sure that the process is open and transparent and that it is open to student input on every step of the way,” he added.

There will be a public hearing on March 12 at Brooklyn College, where the public can give its feedback to the board of trustees about the student activity fee proposal.