Stanford’s Freeloader Problem

In May, dozens of Stanford groups petitioned students for funds to host events and provide services to campus. The results were not uncontroversial – a historically black sorority and the once-prominent Speakers Bureau were [two casualties]( – but democracy was allowed to take its course. This morning, however, we learned that 13% of the undergraduate population chose to circumvent that process. They did this by waiving their activity fees, opting out of the quarterly charge every student is asked to pay, and forfeiting their right to go to group-hosted events as a consequence. In so doing, they free-rode off Stanford’s back for personal gain and materially disadvantaged their university.

The right to waive one’s fees – opting out of paying an annual charge to fund democratically-selected student groups, and forfeiting the right to go to their events as a consequence – has always existed, with historically low take-up most likely due to student apathy and ignorance. In the last year, however, students have been made aware of the opt-out, and have used it for a $168 refund in a classic tragedy of the commons scenario: a “freerider system”, in the words of Frederik Groce, CEO of Stanford Student Enterprises.

The individual right to waive exists in theory to protect individuals’ rights to spend their money as they see fit, and not give resources to groups in which they have no interest. Such a right, however, has four problems that render it inappropriate. First, the “vast majority” of students who waive their fees do so for all groups indiscriminately, according to Groce. Thus, the theoretical scenario where a student retracts funding from one or two groups they dislike is irreconcilable with the status quo. The right students may once have legitimately been granted is now being flagrantly abused.

Second, the waiver right is wildly inconsistent with every other Stanford service. I do not obtain a refund for not using Gates when I decide not to go to CS lecture; nor do humanities students receive rebates for the fact their courses do not require as much equipment as Mechanical Engineering courses; nor are aquaphobes exempted from paying for fountains on campus, despite the fact they do not hop in them. It is unclear why student groups should be subject to more stringent funding regulations than any other aspect of university life.

The third reason the waiver is illegitimate is that, unlike buildings or fountains, student activities have had to clear multiple democratic hurdles. Winning a majority vote in elections is difficult, as the many organizations that failed to receive funding this year can attest to; obtaining 15% turnout from the undergraduate and graduate student body is even harder, and means only those organizations with the most noble causes find themselves able to receive funding in the first place. Thus, for students to opt out at this stage constitutes a clear rejection of Stanford’s consensus as to what activities are beneficial for the campus community.

Fourth, even if one were to advance an individualistic conception of rights – and contend that students ought not fund fountains, lecture halls, the CS department or the Stanford Space Initiative if they dislike these services – it must be established that the resultant freeloader problem can be suitably resolved, so as to avoid people using services for which they are not paying. Unfortunately, it is impossible for people not to enjoy the positive externalities of Stanford groups and activities: one cannot opt out of student groups in the same way as one could with, say, the meal plan. Logistically speaking, it is unrealistic that Stanford in Government can check that nobody at a special event has waived the fees that allowed the event to go ahead. Open houses and community activities additionally create a positive environment which has spillover effects on the entire community, regardless of whether they fund the specific groups helping achieve this atmosphere or not. As if to add insult to injury, SSE in fact raises everyone else’s fees almost every year, in anticipation of freeriders refusing to pay their share, to ensure a ‘buffer’ fund exists. Such a system creates precisely the environment where individuals feel they can get away with waiving fees, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of a diverse set of campus student groups.

Group funding represents less than half of a percent of Stanford tuition, or the cost of a weekly meal at the Axe and Palm. It also enables many of Stanford’s most impactful events, in science, politics, culture, the arts, business, sports, and endless other domains. The least Stanford students can do is show the decency to allow democratically supported organizations to enhance the space we all share. It is time to recognize the use of waivers as shamelessly freeloading on the Stanford community, and robbing some of campus’ most deserving recipients of university funds. Ideally, the ASSU Senate should move to ban waivers.

Failing this constitutional change, groups should take action to ensure that waiverers internalize the costs of their actions, by ruthlessly excluding those who have waived their funding for events they nonetheless attend, and raising awareness of the importance of what they do. Currently, the only organization that takes steps to is the Legal Counseling Office. Until other groups join them, the allure of instant cash with no strings attached will only continue to tempt students to make their university – and themselves – worse off.

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