Refusable/refundable option eliminated

Students have lost their ability to choose whether they wish to fund state or national organizations.

At the end of another academic year, the University administration has made another below-the-radar decision that will affect every student’s pocketbook in the coming years. On April 11, Jerry Rinehart, vice provost for Student Affairs, decided to eliminate the refusable/refundable fee mechanism that has been in existence for more than three decades. The refusable/refundable option is part of the Student Services Fees process where students are able to choose whether to fund certain student groups or ask for a refund.

The real issue here is not the level of funds, but the undermining of student governance. Before Rinehart decided to eliminate the refusable/refundable mechanism, he commissioned a committee to consider the question. This student committee overwhelmingly endorsed keeping the refusable/refundable mechanism.

As a member of that committee, I strongly endorse the idea of maintaining the refusable/refundable funding option for certain student groups. Currently, two groups utilize nonmandatory funding, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and Collegians For A Constructive Tomorrow, for a combined $6.45 if a student chooses to pay for both groups. Both of these groups are part of state or national organizations that seek to engage University students in their own particular type of activism. But only one group and one member of the student committee supported Rinehart’s decision to eliminate the refusable/refundable option.

The MPIRG representative complained that fewer students were choosing to pay the nonmandatory fee, which meant their funding was less fruitful and predictable. MPIRG was the lone opponent of the refusable/refundable mechanism. In contrast, last year the MSA forum voted to preserve the refusable/refundable mechanism. Meanwhile, CFACT prefers that students who do not wish to pay its fee have the option not to do so.

After deciding to retain the refusable/refundable mechanism, the committee carefully developed criteria as to whether a group would be eligible for mandatory or nonmandatory funding. These criteria had a strong bias toward protecting students from having to pay for student groups that are fronts for state or national organizations, student groups that do not spend their fee money on campus-related activities, or student groups that spend an excessive amount of their money on staff. This likely gave Rinehart the motivation for eliminating the refusable/refundable mechanism altogether, because it would mean that there were clear, objective standards for the nonmandatory groups, but ambiguous and subjective standards for those groups receiving mandatory funding. The lack of standards is a persistent problem in the fees process.

The reality, now, is that MPIRG and CFACT will seek mandatory student services fees next year. Students have lost their ability to choose whether they wish to fund these state or national organizations. Rinehart seemed to adopt the rationale that if fewer students are willing to endorse these organizations through a nonmandatory funding mechanism, the solution is to make every student pay for them. There is not a compelling reason why the University must eliminate this funding mechanism. This decision does not expand the marketplace of ideas, because MPIRG and CFACT would still remain part of the University community through the nonmandatory fee process. Instead, Rinehart’s decision to eliminate the refusable/refundable mechanism compels student support of outside groups that are using the pretense of student activism to fundraise on campus.

Jesse Berglund is a third-year law student at the University. Please send comments to [email protected].