April 8, 2003

Article Questions Student Activity Fees

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For many organizations within the Cornell community, funding is a must in order to host activities and events. Yet while some groups are able to generate ample funds necessary to meet their needs, other organizations have to rely on outside sources which may, according to a recent article, have political goals.

By charging each undergraduate a mandatory student fee, the University is able to fund many groups through the Student Assembly Finance Commission (SAFC). Graduate students pay a separate fee set by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.

Cornell’s system of student funding differs from several other State University of New York (SUNY) schools, whose students are billed by the state’s public interest research groups (PIRGs). For example, SUNY-Binghamton students are billed by the school’s PIRG chapter, which then funnels the money into the New York PIRG (NYPIRG) chapter, a “nonpartisan, not-for-profit group whose aim is to effect policy reforms in a variety of different causes,” according to the NYPIRG website.

According to a March 13 Fox News article, the money is then distributed to a wide variety of groups, which may result in funding causes that are politically oriented and do not directly benefit the school.

Cornell’s funding remains separate from the NYPIRG chapter, however. Catherine Holmes, associate dean of students at the Student Activities Office, confirmed, “NYPIRG attempted to get byline funding via the student activities fee several years ago but failed.”

Instead of funneling money into an outside interest group, money raised by the mandatory Student Activity Fee is used to fund student groups on campus. According to Erica Kagan ’05, vice president of the SAFC, the Student Assembly set the fee last year to $124 per student per year.

According to Hope Mandeville, director of the Office of Assemblies, $55.49 of the $124 activity fee was allocated to the SAFC for the 2002-2004 funding cycle. The remaining funds are allocated to byline-funded organizations, including the Cornell Concert Commission, Cornell University Programming Board, Cornell Cinema and Cornell’s counseling and walk-in service, Empathy and Referral Service. Money is also used for University-wide activities such as athletics and Slope Day.

Non-byline-funded groups can be supported through money allocated to the SAFC. The SAFC’s website states, “Our commission is the primary funding source of the majority of Cornell’s undergraduate organizations.”

While many students may be unaware that they are being billed this fee, “because the fee is administered and set by student-elected representatives, the students do give their tacit consent to such a fee, though no one is allowed to opt out of paying it,” stated Christopher Crump, co-chairperson of the SAFC.

The Student Activity Fee is charged to students on their bursar accounts in increments of $62 per semester.

Because all the money stays within the University to fund campus groups and activities, controversies surrounding funds used to support PIRGs’ politically oriented causes are avoided.

Many students see the benefits of the SAFC’s mandatory fee to support student groups.

“I recognize the practicality of a mandatory student fee and I can’t be picky about where the money goes,” said Janina Wong ’03, a member of Chinese Bible Study. “As part of a student group, we’re funded by the University, so I can’t complain.”

Archived article by Michelle Kang