The fees committee misinterpreted its role

By Tom

Why should the campus community care that the Student Services Fees Committee is dismantling the Council of Graduate Students? After all, isn’t COGS just for graduate students? Apart from a few cranky teaching assistants in your classes for the next few years, why should you care? To quote the fees committee members: “It is not the end of the world.”
The reason you should care is the student-led fees committee is misusing its authority. The fees committee exists to make organizations accountable to students and to provide oversight to prevent fiscal mismanagement. It’s a big job, because millions of your dollars are involved. While not an official goal, the fees committee has also responded to pressures to keep the student fees increases at the rate of inflation.
However, the fees committee also has made commitments to raise fees to get more money for Coffman Memorial Union, the Saint Paul Student Center and Recreational Sports. For example, the fees committee has an obligation to increase the annual student contributions for the Recreational Sport Capital and Deferred Maintenance Fund from $250,000 to $750,000 by the year 2000. The fee increase will not reduce locker rental fees or intramural sports surcharges at Recreational Sports. This fund is being generated to build new facilities for students, as well as staff and faculty members (who don’t contribute to this fund). This year Recreational Sports, with a current budget of $2,809,135, saw a 29 percent increase in its budget. How is the fees committee going to keep the total fees increase under 3 percent while continuing to increase funds for these behemoths? Simple, it’ll cut other services.
Last year, the fees committee successfully merged the Student Advocacy Service and the Student Dispute Resolution Center. The fees committee members felt that these two student-benefiting organizations had overlapping services, so it removed all funding for SAS and forced the merger. Total savings to each student per quarter for the merger: $35. The total fees increase last year was $10.26 per student per quarter.
This year, the fees committee has decided to dismantle COGS. The Fees Committee feels that COGS and the assembly representing both graduate and professional students (GAPSA) are duplicating services. This is not true. COGS works closely within the Graduate School while GAPSA represents nine different student government groups to the entire University. This structure was created by graduate, undergraduate and professional students trying to create reasonable distinctions between governance groups. The structure has been approved by the regents and the University Senate. This distinction, however, was missed by the fees committee. Darwin Hendel, one of the administration’s representatives for the fees committee, said it is a bother to have to consult with both COGS and GAPSA. According to him, it is a bother to have to justify administrative decisions to all the people affected. If he was consulting with COGS, it was about an issue directly relevant only to the Graduate School. If he went to GAPSA, the issue included professional students (i.e. law, medical and veterinary students) and graduate students.
COGS should not be penalized because the fees committee is ignorant of the difference between COGS and GAPSA; the fees committee wants it changed. In Hendel’s case, it is to streamline central administration’s decision-making time and accountability. The merger of SAS and SDRC was designed to fix a problem identified by students and agreed to by the administration. The students served by COGS have not identified any such problem.
During the deliberation about the funding for COGS, the committee strongly resented it when COGS reminded it that the budget for COGS, as a representative student government board, had graduate student approval. In the words of another student member, “Any group could make this claim.” This student member is wrong. Only three fee-requesting groups are governing boards. Each of these groups request a special fee only charged to the students represented by those governing boards. If those students don’t like the fee, they can go through these governing boards to get it changed. It is much easier for a student to affect the decision making of COGS and MSA than for the fees committee. The implication seems to be that the fees committee is not accountable for representative student government groups or the wishes of their constituents, specifically the students.
If the fees committee recommendation to take power from graduate students gets approved, over 7,000 graduate students will lose a long tradition of strong representation through COGS. In exchange for this representation, each graduate student would save $38 per quarter this year, despite a total proposed increase in fees this year for all graduate, professional and undergraduate students of $5.77.
But this story isn’t finished yet. The fees committee needs to raise even more money for the administrative units funded by student fees (Recreational Sports, the unions and Boynton) next year. So what student groups are next in line to get the ax?
The Minnesota Student Association should worry. Its budget was cut by $10,000 at the last fees committee meeting. I overheard student fees committee members laughing in the hall about “sticking it to MSA.” Furthermore, the $10,000 cut could only be voted on by four of the 13 fees committee members because of conflicts of interest. Do students want the budget for MSA decided by people with a gripe against MSA? If students don’t like MSA, they should get involved and change it from within. Don’t let demagogues try to change it in a backhanded way.
The Disabled Student Cultural Center should worry. At the fees committee meeting, there was concern that services provided by this organization might be duplicated by Disability Services. There might be a lack of understanding regarding the mobility issues faced by its constituency. It should learn from COGS, and clear up this confusion by next year for its own sake.
All the student cultural centers should worry (ie: Africana; American Indian; Asian American; the Association of Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Transgender Student Organizations and Their Friends; and La Raza). To avoid conflicts of interest, the fees committee is broken down into subcommittees, each with no obvious conflicts. This inevitably means that the subcommittee to which each of the centers presents its budget may have very few allies in it.
Here are the implications for next year’s fee-receiving units. If the fees committee follows its plans of increasing funding for the administrative units (unions and Recreational Sports), students will be asked to pay increasingly higher fees, escalating faster than inflation, strictly for those fee-receiving units. To increase the Recreational Sports Capital and Deferred Maintenance Fund from $250,000 to $750,000 will require an additional $5.40 per student per quarter. The increase in fees necessary to renovate Coffman is unknown, but this year’s increase was $1.97 per student per quarter. The total increase in quarterly fees for only these units would be (conservatively) around $7.50 per student.
However, an inflationary increase (3 percent) in next year’s student services fees is only $4.95 per student per quarter. The other student services will be asked to bear the brunt of the cuts to keep the total fees near inflation. If each of the student cultural and government groups, mentioned earlier, gets cut completely, the total savings to each undergraduate would be $7.07 per quarter. Cutting these groups would go a long way toward helping the fees committee balance its budget.
Finally, students should worry. A group of students you did not elect is making decisions that seriously impact your experiences here at the University. It is making these decisions insulated from students and indifferent to student input. It is making decisions based on misconceptions and incomplete information. Students must make them accountable. It is students’ money.
Public hearings to address the fees committee will be held this week. The schedule for these hearings are as follows: Feb. 26, 4-6 p.m., Nolte Library; Feb 27, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m., Northstar Ballroom Lounge, St. Paul Student Center; and Feb. 28, 1 a.m – 1 p.m., Mississippi Room, Coffman Union. Go to the hearings and support your favorite student organization.
Outraged by the entire process? Contact MSA [email protected]>, or GAPSA [email protected]>, and ask your student leaders to work with the administration to remind the fees committee what its true role is. Those members have critical jobs, and they need to do what they are there for. Your phone calls, letters and e-mails would give MSA and GAPSA the support to make the necessary changes.
Now is not the time to be apathetic. It might be too late for COGS, but it is not too late to support other student groups.
Tom Foster is the current president of the Council of Graduate Students.