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Administrators Discuss New Activity Fee

By Kevin R. Lang


Last week, MIT announced a new $200 fee as part of the regular yearly tuition increase. While students will now be specifically contributing toward their own activities, they will also be footing the bill for the annual operating expenses of the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center.

In an MIT News Office press release, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 said, “The fee is expected to generate almost $2 million,” of which more than $1 million will go towards the new athletics center.

President Charles M. Vest said that although the construction of the Zesiger Center was financed primarily by donations, the center will have significant staffing and operating costs that must be paid through MIT’s operating budget. These costs include maintenance, purchase and replacement of athletics equipment, and staffing, including lifeguards for the new swimming pool.

“Some level of support through tuition and fees for students and other users is necessary,” Vest said.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine said that using money from the new fee for something like the Zesiger Center is not unusual. “I don’t think it’s at all unheard of,” Redwine said. “These sorts of things have been built into the total of tuition anyway.”

Redwine did not know if MIT would introduce similar fees to supplement the operating expenses of other facilities in the future, but he said, “You don’t want to have a bunch of optional fees. ... It’s just confusing for everybody.”

Clay could not be reached for comment.

Graduate Student Council President Dilan A. Seneviratne wondered why MIT needed to specifically allocate the fee. “Why did they choose to specify now that there’s a special allocation for student activities?” he asked. “What was the allocation before?”

Seneviratne said that if MIT did this simply to exercise budgetary restraint and ensure the money would be used for student life, “there’s no reason they needed to brand it differently.”

“I don’t think it was necessary for them to split it up,” Seneviratne said. “I don’t think student money should be used for maintenance of a community building.”

Admins tout student life funding

MIT refers to the “$200 fee” in a recent News Office press release, but Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict said that the $200 should not be considered a fee. “It’s not a fee -- I think that’s one of the misnomers that’s causing a lot of flap on campus,” he said. Benedict said that this is actually part of tuition, but that it is specifically set aside for student life funding.

“It’s a very positive step by the president and the senior executives of the Institute to underscore the importance of student life on campus,” Benedict said.

Administrators have been quick to point out that the fee specifically allocates money for activities and for the Zesiger Center, whereas regular tuition is not specifically designated for anything.

“The fee is a way of firmly segregating substantial funds for enhancing student life,” said President Charles M. Vest. “Treating the $200 as a required fee rather than part of tuition results in an additional $600,000 being available for undergraduate and graduate student activities.”

Activities funds to roughly double

Roughly $60 of each student’s fee has been dedicated to student activities. The full $600,000 is expected to be spent on student activities each year, roughly doubling the current total of undergraduate and graduate activities funding. However, administrators said they did not yet know how the fund would be specifically allocated.

Redwine said that a number of other universities had similar fees allocated for student life funds. “We really want to be able to increase the amount of money that goes to student activities,” Redwine said.

Benedict said that some of the $600,000 will be set aside for increased funding for class councils, large events funding, the Weekends@MIT program, club sports, and graduate activities, among other things.

In addition, discretionary funds will be set aside by the Chancellor and Provost for “special initiatives,” Benedict said.

While administrators said that the $200 fee could potentially change in the future, MIT did not want to drastically adjust the fee each year.

“I don’t think the fee is going to be raised for several years to come,” Benedict said.

Seneviratne said he was concerned that if students request more activities funding in the future, MIT would simply increase the fee. “Because it’s a mandatory fee, next year they could say $400 and you’d still have to pay,” he said.

Activities endowment unlikely

One possible alternative to funding student activities through an annual fee would be for MIT to use income earned from an endowment fund. Redwine said that MIT would like to endow activities, if enough funds could be raised. “I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t think that’s a wonderful idea, if we can do it,” Redwine said. “We would have to find a donor.”

“It would require an endowment of approximately $40 million to produce this level of support,” Vest said. “We do have a fund raising goal for more endowment for student life, and have begun to make some modest inroads.”

However, as of the end of January, MIT had only raised 50 percent of the $100 million targeted in the Capital Campaign for “undergraduate education and student life.” Other campaign goals, such as raising money for faculty chairs, research, and scholarships, are currently at or above 90 percent.

Tuition hike not tied to class size

Several administrators said that the 4.7 percent tuition increase was not related to MIT’s smaller target class size for next year. “That really isn’t related to it,” Redwine said. He said that next year’s target class size, 980 students plus 20 transfer students, was “not really that much lower than what we’ve been aiming for before.”

Clay said the tuition increase is in line with percentage increases from peer institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, and Cornell.

Seneviratne said that graduate students were concerned about where, exactly, the fee would come from. “There’s a little confusion as to where this $200 is included,” he said. “For the graduate students, it matters.”

If the fee is part of tuition, it would be covered by research grants and fellowships, Seneviratne said. However, if the fee is on top of tuition for graduate students, it would have to be paid out of pocket. He said he had contacted several top administrators for a clarification, but had not received one.

“I’m rather disappointed that no one has stepped up to answer the question,” Seneviratne said. “You don’t know what to expect.”