Supporting Student Groups Means More Than Voting Yes

On Thursday and Friday, chances are that you’ll vote yes on all (or almost all) Special Fee groups. Your noble intent is to support student activities at Stanford. To truly support student activities, however, requires much more than just that. Since it’s unlikely that groups’ funding requests exactly match your assessment of their effectiveness, next year some groups will get less than you think they deserve (and less effective groups will get more than they deserve). That is clearly not the optimal way to support student activities. It’s a reasonable approximation for busy Stanford students. But if you’re reading this, you probably want to do better.
First, decide for yourself how much money each group deserves as a proportion of the total. The Bridge, for example, is a valuable campus institution that improves the lives of many students and is requesting $9,310. KZSU is requesting $81,338, almost eight times more than The Bridge’s request. No matter how much you love KZSU, is it eight times more valuable to campus than The Bridge?
To take another example: is Sunday FLiCKS ($59,350) really worth as much as three other groups combined: Jewish Student Alliance ($25,550), SHPRC ($14,088), and Stanford Women in Business ($19,520)? Or another: are three groups that operate primarily off-campus, Mock Trial ($21,579), Model UN ($19,400), and Stanford Students in Entertainment ($8,452), more valuable to students than four on-campus performance groups with the same total request amount: Wind Ensemble ($13,725), StanShakes ($13,900), Jazz Orchestra ($13,380), and Los Salseros ($10,552)?

In determining how much a group deserves, we need to consider marginal utility: would we actually improve campus by funding The Bridge better and giving less to KZSU? I think so. Most groups, if given extra money, could scale up their value to campus fairly well. You might argue that The Bridge would have no use for an extra $20,000 because it has always budgeted for much less. But in the current Special Fees system, it is precisely the most important, longest-lasting groups that are the most conservative with their requests. It’s very difficult for them to gauge the maximum amount that 50% of voters are willing to pay, and nobody wants to be the Financial Officer who killed The Bridge. So, we can’t interpret The Bridge’s past budgets to suggest that the organization would have no use for extra funds.
Likewise, many groups could survive on less money, although they wouldn’t admit it. KZSU could probably survive as an online-only radio station for $20,000 per year, thereby freeing up $61,338 to distribute among other groups. The Stanford Daily could halve its print distribution in a crunch and free up $89,500 for other groups. While we all would feel bad “taking” money from these groups, we should be comforted by knowing that StanShakes and Jazz Orchestra, for example, would benefit immensely from a few thousand extra dollars, just a small portion of these savings.
You may disagree with me on particular examples, but that’s precisely the point. We all have different ideas of what’s best for campus. No single person or group of people knows best. That’s precisely why funding is decided by us students — so that our campus activities scene reflects what the student body actually wants, not what well-intentioned Fos and ASSU senators guess we want.
So, you’ve made a list of groups and rough estimates of how much money they deserve. These amounts are probably different from what the groups themselves are requesting. That’s to be expected. You have imperfect information about groups’ capabilities, and the groups have imperfect information about the actual value they provide to campus. If anything, your guesses are better. You’re more likely to consider what groups can realistically do with extra money than groups are to accurately assess which of their activities are the best use of students’ money.
Now, vote however you want. That isn’t important. Then next year, refund from groups that got more than they deserve, and donate to groups that deserve more so that each group gets exactly what you think it deserves. But to really make this work, we must transition to a voucher-based funding system, such as the Activity Vouchers scheme I have proposed in the past. In the meantime, however, doing this will let you say you truly support student activities.

Quinn Slack ’11 is a Computer Science major and was the 2009-2010 ASSU Elections Commissioner. Email him at sqs@cs.stanford.edu.

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