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The Student Activities Fee decreased by administrators, executives; no vote in Student Government

If you’re a Carnegie Mellon student, you might have noticed that the overall cost of attending Carnegie Mellon this semester was ever-so-slightly lower than last semester. This was not due to a reduction in tuition, like what was rolled out at some other universities, but rather because the student activities fee was reduced for this semester following a recommendation from the student government executive committee, composed of Govind Menon, Student Body President; Liam O'Connell, Undergraduate Student Senate Chair; and Josh Gyory, Graduate Student Assembly President. The activities fee was reduced by 25 percent for undergraduate students and 20 percent for graduate students, a move that reduces the overall funding of student government this semester by several hundred thousand dollars.

After spring break of the last academic year, campus shut down entirely. Students began taking their classes remotely, and all events and budget items that student government had planned for the end of the school year were no longer able to be held. Both the GSA and the Undergraduate Senate decided to donate much of this leftover funding to the Tartan Emergency Support Fund and the CMU Pantry.

This predicated what would later be a dilemma for student government. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the hybrid model proposed for the Fall semester, many events and other budget items would need to be scrapped. What happens with all the leftover money?

One possible way to limit excess cash is to reduce the student activities fee at both the graduate and undergraduate level, which funds the two bodies of student government respectively. This type of change would typically start within the GSA or Undergraduate Senate, and would require a vote of a two-thirds supermajority in each body. Only then would a recommendation is made to the Board of Trustees for approval, as laid out in Article III of the Student Government Fiscal Policy. That process did not happen for this year’s reduction in the student activities fee.

On May 20, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Gina Casalegno connected with the student government advisors to “initiate discussion with the incoming student government leadership about the 2020-21 Student Activities Fee and the undergraduate Media Fee,” according to a written statement from Casalegno. This contact came around the time when “university leadership was discussing the various fees assessed each academic year to determine whether any should be adjusted in light of the pandemic,” Casalegno stated.

“Given the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic,” Casalegno said, “I went to student government to ask if they wished to reduce their fees.” She told the student government executive committee that Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian needed an activities fee recommendation by June 12.

The student government executive committee took to Casalegno’s idea to reduce the fees, and on June 11, recommended that the university approve a 20 percent reduction in the activities fee for graduate students and a 25 percent reduction for undergraduates. From there, the recommendation was “reviewed by the president, provost, and executive management team and then it was affirmed. Since these amounts were lower than the not to exceed amounts authorized by the board of trustees, there was not a need for any board action,” according to Casalegno. The Board of Trustees approved a ‘not to exceed’ number for fees late in 2019 for the academic year 2020-2021, as is typical.

As reported by The Tartan, no vote for the proposed lower fee was held in either body of student government. Even though their constitution stipulates a two-thirds supermajority approval vote, Graduate Senate Assembly president Josh Gyory told The Tartan that there was no vote on the reduction. Instead, there was a “large discussion” in the June 3 GSA meeting.

The notes from that meeting indicate that this discussion was held for around 20 minutes. Some attendees pushed back on the idea to reduce the fee.

The undergraduate senate, which doesn’t typically meet over the summer, had no general-body discussion of the fee reduction. Liam O’Connell, Undergraduate Student Senate Chair, told The Tartan that their decision came after a discussion among the seven-member executive committee of the Undergraduate Student Senate.

The lack of a vote, as well as the level of administrative involvement in what is typically a student government-spearheaded process, led Peter Tschofen, a doctoral student in engineering and public policy, to write a Letter to the Editor in The Tartan. Tschofen criticized the decision and process surrounding the fee reduction.

In the letter, he wrote that while the reduction might have been solidly supported in both governmental bodies, “the action our leaders took, while being pressured to act quickly by Dean Casalegno, were fundamentally undemocratic in nature, because they broke with one of the core tenets of democratic systems, the ‘power of the purse,’ which establishes checks and balances in government.”

Tschofen used to be a GSA representative, but he is no longer serving in that role. He’s remained interested and involved in the happenings of student government as a constituent. Tschofen told The Tartan in an interview that the reduction of the student activities fee took him by surprise. “I learned about the fee reduction when I saw the fee that I was being charged on my account… then I reached out to the people I knew [in the GSA], and started asking questions,” he said.

Tschofen sent a series of questions to Gyory and Gary Wilkins, the GSA vice president of finance. When Tschofen asked about why this decision was not taken to a general body vote, Gyory and Wilkins wrote that the proportional allocation of the GSA budget was unchanged—45 percent going to the operating budget, 30 percent to the Joint Funding Committee, and 25 percent to graduate student departments—so no vote was necessitated by Article III, Section B, even though each of these allocations would be affected by the overall reduction of money coming in.

Gyory and Wilkins also added that “in the case of this one-time reduction of student fees for Fall 2020, the discretion of the university leadership does not require the process of Section III to be followed. Under the conditions of a global pandemic, the preparation of a recommendation by the student government executive committee best reflects the common practice of student government providing input into the fee setting process, even in the case when Section III was not followed.”

Much of the disagreement about the decision to reduce the activities fee hinges on this interpretation of Article III of the Student Government Fiscal Policy, as well as the ultimate power of the Board of Trustees to approve changes. As stated in the university’s activities fee policy, “final responsibility for establishing the amount of any required fee rests with the Board of Trustees, which will consider changes only upon requests of the Student Government and the officers of the university.”

“Depending on how you interpret that single sentence, you kind of need student government's
agreement,” Tschofen said. However, Gyory and Wilkins write in their response to Tschofen that “the discretion of the university leadership does not require the process of Section III to be followed,” meaning that the officers of the university can potentially bypass the student government’s constitution.

“It's about power in student government, right? It's about who decides how they're funded,” Tschofen said, “there's a reason why we have student government: we're supposed to be an individual stakeholder that has its own voice. We're not supposed to just be the puppets of the admin.”

Tschofen took issue not just with the process that led to the fee reduction, but also the way it so greatly reduced the student government’s operating budget. “If they can't hold the social events,” Tschofen said, “there's plenty of other things they can spend money on,” including long-term initiatives and existing projects.

He continued, “I think if I were in student government, I would have tried to get leverage through this discussion, right? Saying, ‘okay, fine, we'll reduce the fee. But maybe, hey, how about tuition reduction? Or how about let's scrap the transportation fee, nobody can take public transit in Pittsburgh, right? None of these things took place. They just caved.”

Gyory sees the situation differently. In an interview with The Tartan, Gyory reaffirmed the sentiment shared by all of the executive committee earlier this month, saying, “we didn't feel pressured by Gina to do anything. The only pressure that we felt was the time, you know, we had to think about it and make a decision in a short timeframe.”

Gyory said the way Casalegno approached the issue in their communication was open-ended. There was nothing like “you must reduce the activities fee, or you should definitely consider this,” Gyory said of Casalegno’s approach, adding that the rationale she gave for her suggestion referenced the uncertainty looming around the start of the school year.

“I'm not really concerned about the university interfering with how we handle our funds. I think Student Government is still pretty independent of that” Gyory said. “I think we did the best that we could, taking in a lot of different factors that played into this and the uncertainty of this situation. I think we did a very good job, and I'm proud of what we did.”

On Sept. 21, the Student Government executive committee sent out their second campus-wide email of the school year. In it, they explain their decision to reduce the activities fee, saying, “it was our ambition to act in accordance with feedback we heard from students during the Spring and Summer, and we believe our decision reflects that…. We are confident our recommendation ensures this equity while providing our bodies, student organizations, and departments the flexibility they need to support their constituents for this semester as well.” Their email marked the first public explanation of the activities fee reduction.

The activities fee might have been reduced for this semester, but it was one of the only fee reductions students saw. Casalegno told The Tartan that university administration “maintained tuition, as previously announced, to ensure the financial stability and health of the university as we continue to deliver our educational and research missions and meet student support needs in the face of this pandemic.”