Fair Funding for Student Activities

We Stanford undergrads this year will pay $333 each, or around $1.5 million total, to fund student activities. This is no charitable donation. Student group leaders and members have a moral obligation and fiduciary duty to spend our money wisely to serve the whole campus, but many have neglected this commitment.

It’s hard to imagine a student activities funding system more conducive to waste than ours. Other people’s money seduces even the stingiest penny-pinchers, and group leaders have much to gain from planning extravagant events for a select few and little to lose from wasteful spending. Then there are the easy rationalizations: that students willingly voted to approve each budget, that students can request refunds, and that each expense is at most a few bucks per student. Plus there’s little accountability and high leadership turnover.

But a bad system doesn’t exploit itself. People do. No doubt the vast majority of student group leaders and members are well intentioned, but we deserve more than good intentions when we entrust $1.5 million to student groups.

Stanford Mock Trial asked for and got $29,030 to fly and drive its 16 members around the country to prepare for an exceptionally lucrative profession. That’s $1,814 per Mock Trial member, with zero benefit to campus. Just 15.3% of students voted yes on this group’s budget (and it barely passed), which is certainly no popular mandate with which to rationalize this.

Fake lawyering isn’t the only expensive off-campus hobby that we subsidize. Stanford Outdoors got $60,600 to pay for expensive leisure activities (like skiing and windsurfing) for certain students, and Stanford Club Sports got $23,000 to care for polo horses that most of us have never ridden nor seen, and another $18,000 for equestrian horses. You and I wouldn’t ask our friends to pay for our hobbies, and obfuscating such a request through the Special Fees system doesn’t make it right.

Another drag on the system is plain old wasteful spending. You gave $65,269 to KZSU 90.1 FM, including $30,900 for salaries and $5,790 for telephone service. Few students have even heard about KZSU; most listeners are probably alumni or community members who should be paying instead of students. The Green Living Council got $5,100 for posters and $1,315 to make birdhouses. And the ASSU Student Services Division got $9,100 to run airport shuttles, even after a Stanford Review investigation showed last year that it would have been cheaper to send each student individually in a taxi.

For more examples of waste, just read through Special Fee budgets at elections.stanford.edu. Even though this wasteful spending isn’t as bad as subsidizing affluent hobbies, these groups’ leaders will personally benefit by gaining experience (and resume entries) doing things only made viable by free student money. So, running a little-known radio station on the students’ dime is only slightly less bad than having students pay for your polo horses.

You might argue that voter approval of a budget absolves the group from any further duty to the student body. But then surely you at least find the inequity troubling, with some students with certain hobbies getting tenfold returns on their activities fee and others getting nothing in return. Not all student taxpayers can be net recipients of government largess. Or you may be worried about student groups dying without public funding because their own members wouldn’t pay enough dues to support them. But why should other students who don’t even benefit from them have to pay?

Another counterargument is that the student activities funding system optimizes overall utility by transferring money from apathetic students and scholarship funds, whose marginal utility for the fee is low, to other students whose marginal utility for some extra money is high. After all, any student who needs the money can refund their fee. But this utilitarian argument fails because it relies on your conflicted assessment of other people’s utility functions and on most students remaining ignorant about the system.

So, what should members of student groups do? If you personally benefit from student activities funding more than you contribute, then pay more into the system yourself or seek outside donations. All student groups can accept member dues and donations, and it’s not right to tax other students for your personal benefit. The upside of this is that many groups have already learned that paying student members are much more committed to the group’s success. Student group leaders, in particular those who created their own budgets, must pay their own way and not personally benefit at all from any public funds they spend. Group budgets must only request student funding for activities that primarily benefit the student body as a whole.

More broadly, those who trust in a large technocratic government to provide for all citizens fairly ought to be frightened by the glaring counterexample of our present student government. The ASSU is ideal by many people’s standards—it has, by definition, a highly educated constituency and political class, little (if any) illegal corruption, and a high degree of transparency. But we still have a few politically savvy students siphoning literally thousands of dollars from the system and others who get nothing, and tons of waste. So much for this small-scale experiment in big government.

*Quinn Slack ’11 (Computer Science) is an opinion editor for The Stanford Review and the former ASSU elections commissioner. Email him at sqs@stanford.edu.

Clarification: This op-ed refers to a Stanford Review investigation into ASSU airport shuttle expenses. That investigation was conducted last year but examined the Spring 2009 shuttle, not the more recent Fall 2009 airport shuttle, which was more efficient.

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