Each year, millions of dollars in special fees are given to a broad array of student groups on campus. This week, the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council (GSC) will vote on a proposal to reform the process by which these funds are distributed. They should reject efforts to repeal the improvements made last year, but approve a measure to close the loophole that allows students to enjoy free services even if they request ASSU fee refunds.
Last year, seeking to lower the number of students who request a fee refund from the ASSU, both legislative bodies voted to make it more difficult for Voluntary Student Organizations (VSOs) to increase their special fees requests. Under those rules, to request any budget increase beyond inflation on the spring Special Fees ballot, a VSO would first have to collect the signatures of 10 to 15 percent of the student body. The Undergraduate Senate’s Appropriations Committee also tightened rules governing VSOs’ use of funds, for example, by restricting the use of students’ tax dollars to purchase food.
Opponents of last year’s policies have plenty of evidence to back their criticism. Some groups, having decided to take the plunge and petition the student body for a larger budget, realized that asking for a 10-percent increase was just as difficult as asking for 100 percent, and ratcheted up their budget requests accordingly. Likewise, they argue that there is no reason students who skim special fees ballots are any more likely to scrutinize petitions. As a result, student groups with the manpower to launch large petition campaigns are almost assured of securing a spot on the ballot.
Yet, by the most telling metric, last year’s policies have succeeded in serving the student body. As predicted, the number of students requesting refunds and the total dollar amount of student refund requests declined over the previous year, lending credence to predictions that stricter fiscal controls would improve voter confidence and lower the overall refund rate. Interestingly, the number of students requesting a full refund increased dramatically — that is, the number of students choosing to opt out of paying any money to student groups, rather than funding some but not others. While partial refunders by definition have chosen which groups to fund conscientiously, full refunds are likely the result of an unprecedented effort by conservative groups last year to raise student awareness about the existence of a refund policy. Since last year’s changes succeeded in lowering the dollar amount of refunds, they accomplished the stated goal of increasing overall voter satisfaction with the ASSU’s fiscal policies and the current ASSU should think twice before repealing them.
That said, all sides agree that the system is still flawed in the following respect: under current rules, a student might vote to approve a group’s special fees funding in the spring, request a refund the following quarter, and yet continue to use that group’s services for the rest of the year. Earlier this year, the Undergraduate Senate sought to reduce student refunds by shortening the refund period from the first three weeks to the first two weeks of the quarter. This was a mistake. The ASSU should lower the refund rate by rewarding financial participation, not by erecting ever-stricter deadlines. One of the proposed changes up for a vote this week would provide such a solution.
By releasing the names and SUIDs of those who seek refund requests to the groups they deny funding, the ASSU can encourage more prudent use of the refund option. While requesting a refund is any student’s right, continuing to enjoy services free of charge is not. Last year, the Undergraduate Senate suspended such releases of personal information due to privacy and legality concerns, but the University’s Office of Legal Counsel has since clarified that the policy is legal. The ASSU should reinstate this practice, as long as sufficient safeguards are included to ensure that refund request information is used only to limit services to those who pay for them, not to intimidate or harass those who opt out.
Ultimately, bringing down special fees costs and restoring voter confidence in their elected representatives will require addressing two inconvenient truths that are beyond the ASSU’s control. First, student voters are rarely diligent in their examination of the special fees ballot. Evaluating group budgets takes time and effort, and Stanford students have proven simply too busy to make informed decisions. As a result, virtually 100 percent of special fees groups are approved each spring. Second, the best defense against wasteful VSO spending is not some landmark reform, but the continual scrutiny of each year’s Appropriations Committees.
Yet, the ASSU is not powerless. It can bend the cost curve down while preserving the diverse community of student organizations that thrive on special fees. By keeping those policies that have proven successful and linking students’ financial support for VSOs with access to their services and events, the ASSU can address some of the flaws in a funding system that is essential to student life.