SCS Refund Campaign Forces Special Fees Reforms

The special fees refund that is available to students upon request is the best kept secret on campus.  Or was.  If a cheerful flyer proclaiming, “The Stanford Conservative Society reminds you that tomorrow is the last day to get your Student Activities REFUND,” prompted you to visit, you weren’t the only one: hundreds more requests than last quarter have flooded the office of the ASSU.

Typically, student groups could care less about a rise in the refund rate—oddly enough, their funding was historically not contingent upon it.  The ASSU keeps a “buffer fund” from which it reimburses student groups who must honor refund requests.  Students do not wish to pay for “Genderfuk,” the Queer/Straight Alliance’s show of half-nude drag performers?  Not to worry: the ASSU in its foresight has set aside money so that students who request a refund from the QSA can still fund Genderfuk.

But this quarter is different.  Due to limited resources and a newly discovered clause in the ASSU Constitution, the ASSU caps its reimbursement to each student group to 10% of that group’s special fees budget.  For the first time, SSE reports that the refund rate for most groups has exceeded ten percent.  Horror of horrors: organizations that students have no desire to support will have to return the balance.

While some lament the “adverse impact on the vibrancy of campus life,” I am grateful to SCS for inducing some transparency into a deeply problematic system.  The fact is, before this year, many (probably most) students had no idea how to opt out of special fees for any group they do not wish to fund, or even that it was possible.  This lack of transparency has led to a host of problems.

The most obvious problem, of course, is accountability.  One popular member of a group spams a few e-mail lists asking for signatures, a low-turnout selection-biased vote is held on the proposed fees in April, and lo! the ASSU slaps a tax on the entire student body and the group has free cash to spend on its whims.

The result?  Stanford Students in Entertainment spends thousands to send twelve students to L.A. during spring break to network with media moguls. The Stanford Concert Network dishes out over $100,000 in subsidies for a few students’ concert attendance.  The Black Student Union has in some years spent in excess of $12,000 on food.

Don’t get me wrong: I am nothing but supportive of students networking in Hollywood, enjoying live music, or using food as a lubricant for building racial solidarity.  But why exactly are their fellow students footing the bill?  In economic jargon, where is the externality to justify the subsidy?  It’s like the federal government taxing you to buy me a car.

And those are the “harmless” examples.  Search YouTube for “Genderfuk 2007” or “Genderfuk 2008” to discover truly R-rated uses of student money (be forewarned that the videos may be offensive).

I have to imagine my conviction that the student body should not be taxed to fund these expenses is generally shared, which means that transparency about how special fees are spent and how to request a refund will lead to drastically more refund requests.  But don’t just take my word for it—simply look at what happened this quarter: SCS raised awareness about the refund option and refund requests hit an all-time high.

The sudden spotlight of transparency has caught the ASSU like a deer in headlights.  In previous years, a group that managed to win special fees one year was quietly guaranteed a ten percent increase (plus inflation) in their budget for every year they continue to receive fees.  Faced with the bankruptcy of their buffer fund, the ASSU has been forced to change the rules; now groups must petition the student body if they want that ten percent raise.

Furthermore, with the buffer fund unable to cover the flood of refunds, groups that were common targets of refund demands might actually see their budgets slashed.  The message is clear: if their programs do not benefit the community as a whole, the community will be wanting its money back.

Ultimately, I support transparency in the special fees process on the grounds of fairness and good economic sense—not ideology.  It is true that much of special fees programming has a liberal skew (e.g., the SHPRC or the Progressive).  It is also true that most right-leaning student groups, including this paper and SCS, do not enjoy special fees funding.

But I want to emphasize that even if they did, I would be equally vigorous in defending what would be liberal students’ right to withhold funding from such groups on the grounds that they derive no benefit from them.

Special fees should be reserved for truly public goods—goods that have community-wide benefits but cannot be funded except with a broad-based tax.  The Band and the Bridge Peer Counseling Center are good examples.

But don’t ask a tone-deaf engineer to buy other students’ concert tickets or a conservative Catholic to buy other students’ condoms.  Once special fees are reformed to include only true public goods we can discuss how to discourage free riding—until then the least the ASSU can do is manifest transparency about the process.  The student community owes the Stanford Conservative Society its thanks for making a start on what the ASSU should be doing already.

Charlie Capps is an officer in Stanford Students for Life and a member of the undergraduate leadership board of the Catholic Community at Stanford.

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