Neutral reform

As the dust begins to settle after yet another tumultuous Student Services Fees process, the convolutions and controversies seem to point once again to the necessity of reforming the annual debacle. Every year something happens that has members of this or that student group up in arms over perceived and real conflicts of interest, biases or procedural errors.

This year, students have concentrated debate on three main points: problems surrounding the Twin Cities Student Unions request, widespread funding cuts for cultural centers and the necessity of conservative student groups as a place for conservatives – who have portrayed themselves as a minority in need of support as much as, say, the Queer Student Cultural Center or Minnesota Public Interest Research Group – to gather.

Though the first two issues present equally strong arguments for the need to reform the process, debate during the public hearings involving the last question hinted at one possible solution. Jeff Dahl, a member of Students for Family Values, spoke to the committee on behalf of Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, a conservative group that was eventually granted funding under the negative checkoff system MPIRG uses. During the public hearings, Dahl posed the simple but effective argument: MPIRG gets a refuseable/refundable fee, so why can’t CFACT?

His argument obviously affected committee members, who approved $30,000 of CFACT’s request, with the caveat that students could check a box and opt out of paying for it. Though that solution works well in that it sidesteps the landmine of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding viewpoint neutrality in University fees processes – by not requiring students to pay for a group whose stated purpose is the support of a political mindset, the argument for the University’s compliance with the Court’s decision is substantially strengthened – we believe it should go further.

We propose instating a neutral checkoff option for a wider variety of student groups. Instead of taking their chances with the fees committee every year, well-organized student groups could apply to have their funding request posted on a separate Web page connected with the registration process. Students could then choose whether to fund, in addition to their mandated student services fees, groups such as Maranatha Student Cultural Center, which would otherwise have a difficult time because of their political or religious nature, on an individual basis.

We stress, however, that groups should have to apply to be added to this listing – a process which ideally would be handled by administrators and involve demonstration of a group’s fiscal viability – instead of being placed there against their will.

The University has an obligation to fund existing student groups, but to an extent they are legally barred from funding some others. This solution could help foster the marketplace of ideas without fear of misrepresenting students or undermining the court’s ruling.