After months of public hearings, protests across several campuses, and demands for board members to scrap a plan that would consolidate control over $37 million in student activity fees, City University of New York students earned a major victory when Board of Trustees chair Bill Thompson announced on May 9 that the new plan would ensure that student groups would not be at risk of losing funding.
“To all of the students at CUNY, we hear you,” Thompson told a crowd of about 100 protesters who had gathered to rally for the protection of student groups.
The fee—a moderate sum that varies by campus—allows students to fund extracurricular activities and is instrumental in everything from student activism to campus journalism. If the administration had not explicitly protected student-group funding in the proposal, certain organizations could have suffered a drastic cut in their budgets, which, according to Harris Khan, a City College student and member of its student government, would have been used instead for administrative and college operational costs—what he called a form of “mini-tuition.”
The proposed change came from a lawsuit filed in late January 2017. A Queens College student sued the university board members after her club, Queens College Students for Life, was denied funding without explanation from her campus’s student government. Her attorneys demanded that Queens College, and CUNY as a whole, create an equitable, viewpoint-neutral process when distributing funding to clubs. That November, a judge sided with the student and ordered a revision of the student activity fee process.
In October, the university created a task force that included students to improve the student activity fee procedure. At a March 12 hearing at CUNY’s central headquarters, Loretta Martinez, general counsel and vice chancellor of legal affairs, compared the “complicated” process to a worn-out car that required upgrades.
There are two methods to obtain a budget from this revenue source. The most common way is by requesting funding from the student government each academic year. The second option is through referendum. This demands more resources and time, alongside a series of steps to institutionalize the program or club on campus. A person or people must first obtain petition signatures from at least 10 percent of students on campus before being granted approval by the Board of Trustees. This ensures an allocated amount from the fee each year.
Programs and clubs funded through the referendum process were worried about the proposed fee change, including the New York Public Interest Research Group, a political-advocacy group present on several CUNY campuses since 1973.
Smitha Varghese, a Queens College student and chair of the Board of Directors at the New York Public Interest Research Group, told The Nation that she had found the discussion around the student activity fees puzzling. She explained that the previous vague rules “may well jeopardize [NYPIRG’s] existence on campus.”
More than 150 clubs, organizations, and student governments across CUNY formed the Coalition of Student Rights to prevent CUNY’s vision from happening. Their actions were seen at a March 30 public hearing held at LaGuardia Community College, where over 100 students testified against the proposal.
“From the very first draft proposal of the student activity fee policy, it has been clear that the intention of the administration is to hamper student control and limit political speech and activism on campuses,” said Hunter College student and Student Senate vice chair for fiscal activities Francesca Royal at a rally before the hearing. “The scope of the changes being proposed by the Office of the General Counsel far exceeds those mandated by the Queens College settlement, which prompted this discussion.”
The reforms attracted the attention of the attorney general’s office. The only student representative on the Board of Trustees, Hunter College senior John Aderounmu, submitted a letter to former attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s office. In it, the student highlighted his concerns with CUNY’s plan and inquired about cases pertaining to the university’s student activity fee.
In a letter to the trustees, the attorney general’s office distanced itself from the administration’s argument and clarified misunderstandings as a result of the Queens College case.
“To the extent that CUNY’s Board chooses…to amend…Bylaws governing the manner in which such organizations are funded, it does so at its own discretion, rather than at the behest of OAG or in response to the QCSL settlement,” Kent Stauffer, executive deputy attorney general, wrote.
It isn’t just students who are concerned. At a rally outside the May 9 meeting, Brooklyn City Councilmember and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Jumaane Williams linked the proposal to Governor Andrew Cuomo, considered a proponent of austerity toward CUNY. The governor appoints a majority of the university’s board members.
“The governor is not a real progressive,” Williams said. “He is the reason that we’re still thinking about taking away activity fees and the power of the students.”
While the board must vote on the new amendments at its upcoming June meeting, the change is viewed as a victory for the students. Nevertheless, as Aderounmu told The Nation after the hearing, there is still work to be done.
“It is victory, but then we have to keep on addressing other issues that affect CUNY,” he said. “From the lack of funding from the state government to funding that gives professors and adjuncts a livable wage.”