Conservative student groups see bias in fees committee funds allocations

by Tom Ford

Anthony Reel, a University senior, said he received e-mailed death threats after expressing his conservative views in an Oct. 1 Minnesota Daily opinion article.

Reel said right-wing views are generally not tolerated on campus or in classrooms.

But for the past two years, Reel participated in Students for Family Values – a group that advocates socially conservative values and provides Reel with a forum to discuss his ideas.

After being denied funding last year, the two-year-old group is again requesting money from the Student Services Fees Committee.

While Reel said many SFV members don’t believe the group’s politics affected their request last year, an attorney who has repeatedly challenged the neutrality of the fees process, said biases exist against right-wing student groups and cause funding disparities.

But a former University fees committee member said preferences don’t factor into funding decisions and said the process is objective.

Dan Nelson, a University senior who organized Students for Family Values, said one of SFV’s main goals is to balance against the predominantly liberal viewpoints on campus.

Nelson said students and professors have ridiculed him in classes for voicing his opinions, and he created the group to foster awareness of conservative values.

In the past year the group organized a rally around the flag after Sept. 11 and sponsored presentations and debates on stem cell research and gay marriages.

The group is requesting approximately $48,000 in fees this year.

Reel, the group’s executive officer, said that figure is the minimum amount needed to execute all of the group’s objectives.

Without student fees, Reel said, the group has no central location for weekly meetings except dorm rooms, restaurants and classrooms, and no consistent funding source.

He said the group would use fees committee funding to rent office space, purchase office equipment and employ staff.

Reel said the funding would help legitimize the group as a more professional organization, so it can attract nationally known speakers for monthly events, it hopes to schedule.

In its recommendation, the fees committee last year denied funding for SFV because it wasn’t an established group. The committee recommended SFV seek grants before fees income.

But Jordan Lorence, an attorney who has represented students with fees process grievances before the Supreme Court, said schools across the country consistently refuse funding for right-wing groups.

“There’s a huge ideological skewing of funding,” he said.

Lorence said he wasn’t surprised by last year’s University recommendations, in which three groups advocating traditional and conservative views – Maranatha Christian Fellowship, Habitat for Humanity and SFV – were all denied funding.

Student fees processes have existed for approximately 100 years. But in the 1960s, funding shifted from supporting non-political entities such as student unions to primarily liberal political groups, such as Public Interest Research Group chapters.

Lorence said the fees process is flawed because a system requiring students to judge which groups have value encourages subjective decisions.

More balanced funding would resolve some of his concerns, but Lorence said systems should change so groups meeting certain organizational standards could receive grants and not go through a long hearing process.

But Brian Wiedenmeier, a former fees committee member, said the current process is the best way to ensure groups spend money effectively.

He said committee members subscribe to a range of political views. While few right-wing student groups receive funding, he said, it’s not the fault of previous committees.

“There hasn’t been a student organization with traditionally conservative viewpoints that presented itself as a viably funded group for a while,” he said.

In the case of SFV, he said, the conservative stance of the group did not affect the funding decision, and the committee decided the group would provide a needed voice on campus.

But because the group was new, committee members questioned whether the group had sought other funding sources, had the ability to maintain programming and could prove financial accountability.

“I think the committee decision this year will be whether they’ve done that,” Wiedenmeier said.

The fees committee’s initial recommendations will be published Feb. 20.