No Free Lunch: Not So Special Fees

Opinion by Zack Hoberg
April 4, 2011, 12:27 a.m.

No Free Lunch: Not So Special FeesAs we mentioned last week, ASSU election season is already upon us. Good news is, one issue has pretty much been decided: what groups will receive additional funding from the undergraduate or graduate student populations — Special Fees.

For almost all of the organizations on the ballot, the hard part is already over. They’ve waded through the paperwork, gone before the ASSU Senate Appropriations Committee and had their members forward a plea to every mailing list on campus. If they’re lucky, they managed to rally 10 percent of the student population if the Appropriations Committee approved them or 15 percent if they weren’t, and for the most part, the fight is over. Simply put, they’re across the approval threshold for fees.

The election is structured so that a specific organization must be approved by a simple majority of those who vote and at least 15 percent of the student body as a whole.  Last year, not a single organization had less than half of the vote. In all, 89 percent (49 out of 55) of requests were approved. The six that weren’t can blame the low voter turnout that kept them from getting to the 15 percent absolute mark rather than any actual negative voter sentiment — overall average approval was 68 percent. In 2009, a single student organization failed in its bid, and on a technicality at that. In 2008, only one organization dropped below the then more stringent 60 percent approval of those voting. What does this tell us about Stanford students as voters?

First, we don’t show up. If more than 30 percent of students or 2,100 people had voted on every Special Fees issue last year, all of them would have passed. Second, inferring from the data and just talking to people, some huge number of students simply votes yes on every single petition. Perhaps most vote no on one or two organizations which really bothered them that year, but how many people do you think actually go line by line and ask themselves if their Stanford experience is improved because Mock Trial (the organization with the lowest approval that still received funding) can fly some of its members to Atlanta for a tournament? We’d guess that there is a small group of people who actually think about who they don’t want to give funding to, and then there is probably another, smaller population who just vote ‘no’ on everything. All in all, it seems fair to say that when it comes to Special Fees, Stanford students aren’t a very discerning lot.

But maybe that’s because we don’t have to be. Everyone has the right to request a refund at the beginning of the quarter from any groups they don’t wish to personally fund. This would be a great way to vote with your feet, but with our ‘yesyesyes’ Special Fees system, no one bears the burden of ‘no.’ If someone refunds the portion of their fee that goes to Flicks or the Stanford Concert Network, they can still go watch as many free movies or concerts as they want. Flicks and SCN have no recourse for free riders. This is probably the rationale for why student groups aren’t docked when someone or everyone request a refund. Instead the ASSU general fund is left to take up the slack. This wasn’t much of a problem when no one knew about the refund system, but thanks to some flyering by the Stanford Review, it seems that everyone does now.

The Special Fees system was designed to let the student body make tradeoffs to decide how to distribute a limited pool of money to a big group or worthy student organizations. Instead it’s become a set of hurdles, where everyone gets great services, but anyone can opt out of paying. Socialism and Libertarianism don’t mix well — it’s simply bad business.

So how do we fix it? First, we could start by doing the obvious and closing the refund loophole. No one seems to be willing to allow the ASSU to distribute a list of those who requested refunds to the groups they requested them from, so the refund system should be junked entirely. Second, we could tweak the election process to do what it was intended to do, let the students decide. For starters, the barrier to getting special fees should be significantly higher than getting on the ballot — by at least double  — meaning that 30 percent of the student population should have to approve of a group getting funding, in an absolute sense. An unintended upside to this is it would get every group invested in turnout, not just spamming for petitions.

So until then, go vote in this election. And spend the two minutes it will take to actually go through and think about whether each group that is asking for your money is actually serving the Stanford community and actually improving our university. And future ASSU senators and executive: this is something that actually needs fixing. We need a consistent policy that allows special fees to simply and clearly do what it is intended to: provide funding for organizations that make this place great.


To refund the money you paid to make the Special Fees system dysfunctional, contact us at [email protected] and [email protected].


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