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UA Activity Fee Puts Funding in Hands of Students

Column by David Hogg

Guest Columnist

Currently, several members of the Undergraduate Association, myself included, are proposing a change in the funding of student activities. The idea is to make student activity funding a separate line item on each student's bill, separate from tuition. The amount of this item would be set by the student body by referendum.

The Undergraduate Association funds approximately 95 activities, including the Assassins' Guild, the Bridge Club, the Black Students Union, the MIT Science Fiction Society, Share a Vital Earth, Roadkill Buffet, Chamber Orchestra, Counterpoint, The Thistle, and women's rugby. The total allotment is $74,800, although $282,026.67 is requested. Currently the allotment works out to about $17.40 per student.

Right now, to get its allocation, the UA makes an annual request to the Institute, in competition with all the academic departments, research groups, and administrative programs. The allocation is set in a most undemocratic manner: MIT considers lobbying by a few members of the UA Council and UA Finance Board in competition with all other lobbiers. If we had our own separate fee, then we would not be in competition with these other groups. We could set it ourselves, by referendum. Having our own student activity fee would allow us to fund more activities and fund existing activities at higher levels. With our own fee, we could supply athletic cards to everyone on campus or expand the services of A Safe Ride. However, I am not going to press these points.

My purpose here is to convince you that even if you do not think that student activities need more funding, even if you aren't willing to pay another cent to MIT, even if you want to reduce the allocations made by the Undergraduate Association, then you should support the student life fee proposal. Here is what will happen if the student life fee proposal is accepted. Tuition will be reduced by $17.40. A new line item will be added to your MIT bill which will be the student life fee. The amount of the fee will be set by a student referendum. The student life fee need not cost students any more than the current funding of student activities costs us. It simply removes the administration's control over our funds.

There are several possible objections to the student life fee. One such argument is that each student should only pay for the activities that he or she actually uses. I disagree, because I think that the campus benefits from a wide variety of funded activities. I am glad that if I want to try out a new student activity, I do not have to pay dues. However, this objection goes nowhere because it applies equally to the current system and the proposed student life fee. If anything, it is an argument for the student life fee, since in the student referendum, we can vote to set the fee to zero, and have all activities fend for themselves.

Another argument says this is simply another thing we will have to pay for. No. Tuition will be reduced by the current student funding allocation ($17.40 per student), and if we want to set the fee to exactly the same figure, we can. If anything, this too is an argument for the student life fee, since if we think we are paying too much for our activities, we can vote to reduce the amount we pay. The idea of the student life fee is to put the decision in our own hands.

A final argument says that administrators are better at making student funding decisions than students are. I sincerely hope that no one believes this. Students request the funding, a student committee distributes the funding, student groups make use of the funding, and students make use of those groups' activities, so students should set the total allocation. The more control that we have over the amounts we pay to the Institute and get back from the Institute, the better.

The student life fee proposal does not involve changing the way available funds are distributed. It just gives us the power to decide how much is allocated in total. The student life fee will put funding decisions in the hands of the students. If you think that the current funding system is perfect, the student life fee system will be no worse. If you think that the current system needs to be changed, the introduction of the student life fee will give us the power to change it.