Often disputed, sometimes unfair, always controversial

Student groups battle it out in the annual fee-for-all

Elizabeth Cook

Of the 31 student groups that applied this year for student services fees, only the Black Student Union has consecutively had funding slashed two years in a row. This year’s cut will most likely result in BSU canceling its planned high school mentoring program.

A decrease can severely hurt an organization’s programs, but next year looks promising for most groups, with steady or increased funding across the board.

Every year student groups attempt to prove their worth to the University in order to receive student services fee funding. During spring semester, a student majority-based committee decides their financial fate.

Some groups luck out as their popularity on campus grows. Voices Merging, a multicultural spoken-word group, could have its current budget more than doubled.

If the current recommendations pass, students will pay an additional $38 next year, for a total of $324.

History of fees

The student services fee isn’t a new phenomenon; rather, it has historical roots dating back to 1869 in handwritten minutes when the Board of Regents decided all students should pay $1.

The next known mandatory fee of similar stature was in 1912, also charging students $1 for what is now known as Coffman Union. In 1918, students could pay an optional fee for The Minnesota Daily.

Now, 138 years later, in the 2006-2007 academic year, students paid more than $300 per semester for seven different administrative units and 25 student organizations.

To determine how much each group receives, a Student Services Fees Committee listens to justifications from all organizations.

To obtain fees, a student organization must be registered with the Student Activities Office for at least one year prior, be a nonprofit organization and be able to present all financial records.

The fees committee formed in the late 1970s when students petitioned to expand the fees for more services, said June Nobbe, Office for Student Affairs director of student engagement and leadership.

The process today

Now fee-receiving organizations go through a formal process, which entails filling out a request describing past and planned budgets, along with descriptions of events and future strategies.

This year the committee listened to the 31 groups that submitted fees requests out of the 637 registered student groups on campus.

The committee is split into two sections – administrative and student groups – but each side contains a student majority.

The committees started reviewing budgets and listening to presentations in January, before sending final recommendations this month to Jerry Rinehart, the provost for student affairs.

Now that they have been approved they will be placed in the University’s budget for Board of Regent review in May and approval in June.

A controversial year

The 15 student committee members bring an array of backgrounds, interests and ideas.

Students range from 18 to 26 years old with homelands including the United States, Nigeria, Argentina, China and Somalia. Majors span from mechanical engineering to addiction studies to journalism.

While some students said they wanted the experience of working with budgets, others said they wanted to give legitimacy to the process.

“My previous three years here, there was always a lot of controversy,” said Martin Phillips, a chemical engineering junior and committee member.

In 2005, committee members drastically cut some organizations, including The Minnesota Daily and Radio K, based on personal interests, according to a letter Rinehart sent to Robert Jones, senior vice president for system administration.

Rinehart overturned these decisions when he realized what happened.

Since the actions of certain members of the committee were unacceptable, a task force was created to determine how the fee process could operate more efficiently.

Rinehart said he hasn’t had to intervene since 2005, but would again “if it looks like a decision that would really damage or have a significant impact on student life.”

One way to improve the process is to increase the pool of applicants to the committee, said Amelious Whyte, the Office for Student Affairs chief of staff.

In 2005 hardly enough students applied to fill all the committee positions, but, in 2006, when a stipend was introduced, 74 students applied for the 23 positions, Whyte said.

Other changes since 2005 included adding another opportunity for groups to answer questions or add comments before final deliberations, and a formal appeals process, Whyte said.

Cut could hurt BSU

An organization that’s been a part of the University since 1967 might be the only group to see funding cut two years in a row.

The Black Student Union, existing under various names, was formed to give voice to students of color on a predominately white campus.

For the past year, BSU has been trying to start a pilot program to help struggling high school students, but couldn’t due to a lack of funding.

The 2007-2008 recommendations allot $43,915, which is $5,385 less than they received for 2006-2007. This was $4,593 less than 2005-2006.

Ruth Adu-Gyamfi, an officer of the student group, said they wanted to have struggling high school students come in on Saturdays to get help from college students on a variety of topics, including math and English.

This type of program is important to the community because it encourages more students to continue into higher education, said Trumanue Lindsey, the principal office and administrative specialist at the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence.

“Students in the community need to see people that look like them achieving and excelling,” he said.

Adu-Gyamfi said members are confused because the initial recommendations suggested they receive $50,000, but when the committee announced final recommendations in early April, it turned out they could be cut again.

Double vision

If Voices Merging gets the increase requested, programming will improve and members will buy new equipment.

For 2007ñ2008, the group is expected to receive $11,000, which is the full amount they requested and $5,622 more than 2006-2007 funding.

The organization was founded in 2002 and since then has consistently grown, said Matthew Mixwell, 29, a group member. Open mic nights used to only attract 19 people, and now 125 to 300 people pack into their events to listen and participate.

“No one’s really doing anything on campus like we’re doing,” he said.

The group’s funding requests will also fluctuate from year to year due to the Biennial Voices Merging Poetry Conference, which requires room rentals, advertising, facilitators, a guest speaker and payment to performers.

Students for a Conservative Voice, a publication that publishes monthly newspapers, could see their funding double.

For 2006ñ2007, the first year the group applied for funding, they received $25,500. The final recommendations for 2007-2008 suggest funding of $52,650.

Andy Larson, the editor-in-chief of the publication, said this increase would allow for higher stipends to attract more employees. Current writers make $20 to $30 a week.

“That’s really been one of our biggest challenges,” Larson said. “Trust me; no one’s getting rich off the stipends.”

Funding could also allow the group to purchase a computer. Currently, they use one student’s personal computer for all page layout and design, but since he’s graduating, a centralized computer and software will be needed.

The paper is printed an hour away, Larson said, and the increase in funding will also allow drivers to be reimbursed for gas.

Administration

Most administrative units ask for millions of dollars instead of thousands, and make up the biggest percentage of the fee students pay.

For example, in 2006-2007, administrative units received 93 percent of the student service fee.

Carl Anderson, the chief financial officer for Boynton Health Services, said a student advisory committee helps present the request to the committee.

Boynton will most likely receive about $7.3 million next year, which is $200,930 more than this year. The increase will help fund a year-round insurance fee.

All students will pay about $9 more in the fall and spring semesters so those with University insurance can use Boynton in the summer.

But those who don’t have University insurance still receive benefits from their $108 payments, Anderson said.

For example, when students use their insurance, they don’t have a co-pay, he said. All students also have access to sex and public health education.

“The University is like a city in and of itself,” Anderson said. “And we’re providing public health for it.”

Eric Butz, an accounting senior and chairman of the administrative units, said even though he doesn’t use the services, he can still look at the requests from a student perspective.

“I’ve been to the Rec (Center) like once, I’ve never been to Boynton, I’ve never studied abroad, I might have used the Student Conflict Resolution Center Ö but I was able to look at it from a student point of view,” he said.

Andy Post, first-year marketing and political science student, served on the administrative side and said every year the units get increases in funding.

“It’s kind of hard to break the precedent,” he said. “It’s kind of like (the committee is) indirectly becoming a rubber stamp, and I had a problem with that.”

Post said he voted many times knowing the requests would go through.

“I knew it would pass anyway, so some of my votes were very symbolic,” he said.

What now?

The final say on which groups get funding is up to the Board of Regents.

on the web

To look at the Student Services Fees Committee rational, past decisions or group’s requests, go to the Student Unions and Activities Web site.

“The rationales of the committee were solid and the process worked,” he said. “The student voice was heard.”

In May the recommendations will be placed inside the larger University Budget for review, Whyte said.

In June, the regents will vote and groups can continue, start or cut programming and events accordingly.