The item on this year’s spring ballot with the potential for the greatest and most enduring impact on students isn’t a contest between slates or individual candidates. Instead, a constitutional amendment under consideration aims to almost completely overhaul the current student activities funding system – and has prompted controversy accordingly.
The Student Activities Fee (SAFE) Reform proposal reflects efforts by this year’s ASSU officers to rein in out-of-control increases in student activity fees, in a project that first began last spring. If the measure is voted on by at least 15 percent of the undergraduate student population and two-thirds of that population votes in favor, the new system will go into effect for the 2015-16 academic year.
“Nobody told us, ‘do this project.’ It developed really naturally from us going to Senate meetings and seeing problems we wanted to fix,” said Justine Moore ’16, who co-authored the bill with her sister Olivia Moore ’16.
Justine and Olivia researched the funding process throughout the spring and began to work with ASSU Executive Cabinet members Viraj Bindra ’15, Najla Gomez ’14 and Hunter Kodama ’14 over the summer.
“One of the things we did a lot during the spring was look into how other schools did funding,” Justine said. “And they all had way lower fees. We didn’t think there was a reason for us to be paying more than students at other schools did.”
Although Stanford’s quarterly student activity fee has increased by $100 – practically doubling – over the past 15 years, previous attempts at financial reform have floundered. ASSU Executives Dan Ashton ’14 and Billy Gallagher ’14 made financial reform a major point of emphasis for their term after an initial attempt to pass financial reform on last year’s ballot did not succeed.
“[The biggest difference] is that Justine and Olivia have spent a lot more time working on the reform,” said Stephen Trusheim ’13 M.S. ’14, assistant ASSU financial manager, who also framed this year’s effort as more data-driven than previous attempts.
The new grants
If passed, SAFE Reform will effectively dismantle the current system and replace it with one intended to lower the student activity fee and make the funding system more efficient.
The proposed system ultimately makes three major changes: the elimination of the distinction between special fees and general fees groups, the introduction of a Funding Board to oversee and recommend budgets, and the freezing of the reserves of special fees groups.
Instead of special fees and general fees groups, there will be three types of “grants” for which any group can apply: major, minor and quick.
Major grants are for groups applying for more than $8,000 per year, and to some extent, are most similar to special fees in that they will be voted on by the student body in the spring elections. Minor grants, on the other hand, are more analogous to general fees. They will be awarded once a month, with a soft cap of about $8,000 per group per year.
“A good thing about minor grants is that bigger groups don’t have to budget as far in advance,” Olivia said.
Currently, groups that receive special fees are not eligible to receive general fees funding, limiting their flexibility.
“Groups have to plan more than a year and a half in advance to get their funds [as of right now],” Trusheim said.
The introduction of quick grants, the aspect of the reform perhaps most crucial for decreasing the student fee, has no real comparison in the current system.
Quick grants would be evaluated on a weekly basis and have no cap on the amount that can be awarded.
“If you have a cool last-minute opportunity to bring a speaker to campus, you can apply for a quick grant,” Olivia said.
The real purpose of quick grants, however, is to act as a reserve for all student groups. The current system allows each special fees group to have a reserve and each general fees group to draw from the general fees reserve. The size of groups’ individual reserves – which currently average over $61,000 – is a principal driver of the increase in student activities fees. According to ASSU data, only 70 to 80 percent of the total money collected by the student fee is being spent by student groups each year
The second component of SAFE Reform calls for the freezing of most groups’ reserves, with the idea that groups can use quick grants to fulfill last minute needs.
The reform initially called for the elimination of reserves completely, but that proposal faced pushback from many groups across campus.
“One of the biggest [problems] [initially] was reserves,” Bindra said. “Talking to student groups, we realized [cutting reserves] was a major concern because they felt like the money was their own and students expressed that they had chosen these groups to receive the money.”
Some groups, like Stanford Concert Network and Stanford Speakers’ Bureau, will be able to apply for the ability to replenish their reserves.
“For Frost [Music Festival], we spend money based [on the assumption] the concert sell[s] out and if it does not sell out, we still have to pay everything, which is why we have our reserves, as like a safety net,” said Christophe Auber ’16, financial officer of Stanford Concert Network.
The new Funding Board
The final major component of SAFE Reform deals with the approval of budgets and the distribution of money. Currently, the Senate’s Appropriations Committee reviews budget requests for both special fees and general fees groups. The seven-person Appropriations Committee then recommends budgets to the entire Senate, which typically approves them. Special fee budgets are then sent to the student body in the spring election for approval.
The Senate, though, has dealt with issues of high or complete turnover in recent years, leading to a decrease in institutional knowledge – particularly about how funding works, which is the Senate’s foremost responsibility.
The SAFE Reform proposal initially called for an independent Funding Board (with no Senators) that would review and recommend budgets to the Senate. After conversations with current Senators, the makeup of the seven-person Funding Board now includes four Senators and three members of the student body well-versed in the ASSU funding system, such as former financial officers or ASSU peer advisors.
“The Funding Board was the biggest change [from the initial proposal],” said Senate Chair Ben Holston ’15. “I think a lot of what [the Senate] should do should be centered on funding. I still wanted to have good Senate representation on the Funding Board.”
The non-Senate Funding Board members will be nominated by the outgoing Funding Board and approved by the Senate.
Opposition to the measure
In the run-up to this week’s elections, a number of students have expressed opposition to the SAFE Reform proposal, charging that the measure would restrict student group flexibility and responsiveness to unexpected events, subject the funding process to the scrutiny of unelected representatives and generally constrain access to funding.
“[The Funding Board] concentrates so much power in the hands of the few,” said Kevin Sunga ’15, co-president of the Asian American Students’ Association. “A group of people, whom I may or may not know, have the power to fund my group and cut my budget – it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable.”
“Although it is a valiant attempt towards funding reform, this bill is not the answer and is certainly unsafe,” read an email signed by the influential Students of Color Coalition that was broadly disseminated to University mailing lists on Tuesday. “It’s impetuous and will threaten the vibrant, diverse lives of all students on campus.”
This year’s elections will take place on April 10 and 11.
Contact Andrew Vogeley at avogeley “at” stanford.edu.