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The $2,000,000 Question

The MIT administration announced an increase in next year’s tuition for all students, with $200 of this increase designated as a “student life fee.” The Tech finds this decision hard to explain, and questions whether it bodes well for students.

Over $1 million of the projected $2 million the fee will raise is earmarked not for any student life initiative, but for maintenance of the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center. The administration justified this by saying that the Center has a large operating cost. There are several obvious questions to ask: What sort of planning led to the necessity of making students pay extra -- over $100 per student -- for the building’s maintenance? Did the administration forget that the building would not run itself once built? Why create a fee to maintain the athletic center rather than the Student Center, which gets just as much student use as the Zesiger Center will, or Walker Memorial, which is in dire need of renovation? The administration’s apparent failure to plan for the Zesiger Center’s upkeep makes one wonder whether MIT students should expect more fees once other projects like the expensive Stata Center come online.

We can already see that the student life fee will become a permanent institution, and will likely rise in several years. Is the fee just an attempt to re-introduce a mandatory athletics charge?

The very notion of an earmarked student life fee seems to be a combination of accounting trick, interdepartmental budget squabbles, and public relations ploy. Why earmark these particular budget items under the name “student life?” Of the $600,000 allocated for student activities, much of it will go not to ASA groups, but to campus-wide programs such as Weekends@MIT. The remaining money will go to discretionary funds for the Chancellor and Provost. Since so little of the money goes directly to students, the “student life fee” is something of a misnomer.

It is nice to see more money going to student activities, but the $200 fee is not the best way to bring the money in. Given that MIT can find donations worth tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars for new buildings, why not build an endowment of $10 to $15 million to provide as much per year as the fee would, assuming a five to six percent return? Sadly, we suspect -- judging from the Capital Campaign’s lagging student-life donations -- that activities attract less money than buildings because it is harder to slap a donor’s name on them.

The administration should reconsider this new fee, and students should question the budget processes which led to our funding of building maintenance in the name of student life. A new endowment, not a new fee, is the best way to pour more money into ASA groups and campus events.