Queens College junior and chair of NYPIRG’s board of directors Smitha Varghese told the CUNY Board of Trustees that her group was being ‘singled out’ by the proposal.
UPDATE: Because of continued organizing, student activists were able to push the board to postpone the controversial revisions to student activity fees. At the May 9 Board of Trustees meeting, Board Chair Bill Thompson said that they would revisit the proposed changes in the fall.
A proposal before the CUNY Board of Trustees has forced student groups and newspapers to speak out about how the changes would restrict their ability to direct their activities and function independently. Students are continuing to fight what they see as an assault on free speech and organizing.
For months, students across CUNY have spoken out against proposed changes that would diminish student control, and threaten the existence of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), one of the largest student-governed groups in the state and an organization that has existed at the university for decades. CUNY students who have been organizing around the issue have called the proposed changes “targeted,” “unjustified,” and “proposed in haste.”
For campus media, the potential revisions would require that funding be approved annually by the student government. For student press, the conflict is obvious.
ELIMINATION OF NYPIRG
“If the student government does something corrupt and a campus paper exposes it, what is going to stop the student government from saying, ‘We’re going to decrease your funding?’” said Anthony Viola, a junior at City College and the editor-in-chief of The Campus, a student publication at the college.
CUNY officials say that the board is considering changes as part of a legal settlement and in an effort to bring CUNY in compliance with existing law. But those opposing the changes say missing from the legal analysis is one of the most recent and relevant court cases, and the settlement requires broad changes instead of the very specific changes that seem to be aimed at eliminating NYPIRG.
“NYPIRG has been central to campaigns against tuition increases and increasing public investment, particularly state investment in the university,” PSC First Vice President Mike Fabricant said. “Since NYPIRG was the only group singularly identified by the counsel [to be dramatically affected], I’m left to question the motivation for the change.”
NYPIRG is a nonprofit advocacy group whose core mission is to promote civic engagement in the student community. It’s a student-governed organization and is partly funded through money collected from a portion of the student activity fees at nine CUNY campuses. Every year, NYPIRG receives more than one million dollars in funding from student activity fees. Students can request a refund of the money collected by NYPIRG, and every year the group publishes an extensive accountability report to CUNY Central and each of the colleges that it collects money from. NYPIRG officials say that their most recent report, submitted in November, was accepted without any concern from CUNY officials. The proposed changes have perplexed NYPIRG and their repeated attempts to meet with CUNY officials have gone unanswered.
“NYPIRG is being singled out because we’re effective. We are a student-run organization that works for the public – not private – interest,” said Smitha Varghese, a Queens College junior and the chair of NYPIRG’s board of directors, a majority of whom are CUNY students. Varghese and several other students who talked to Clarion think the proposed changes come from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office and are aimed at punishing NYPIRG for advocating for college affordability and adequate funding for public higher education.
“This semester alone we sent hundreds of students and faculty from all across the state to Albany to tell legislators that Cuomo’s proposed budget would negatively impact CUNY students,” said Varghese.
As a result of student organizing against the proposal, the Board of Trustees’ chair, Bill Thompson, set up a communications and outreach plan to keep all sides informed about the process.
“CUNY and this Board of Trustees is committed to continuing the long-standing tradition of students shaping the ways in which student activity fees support student life and essential student services,” said Thompson at a March 19 board hearing, where dozens of students testified against the revisions. A CUNY spokesperson contacted for this story referred to the transcript from the board hearing, and did not comment on specific questions about the proposed revisions.
Currently, a majority of the board’s voting members are Cuomo appointees, including Robert Mujica, the state budget director. After stating that it wanted to address “legal compliance issues” and “best practices” last year, the board offered an initial draft of proposed changes that caused intense student opposition, and since then CUNY officials have walked back some of their initial proposals. But the ability for students to fund their own student groups from the fees that they elect to pay will not be in their control.
“It’s reminiscent of Pathways. The Board of Trustees had the right to change the curriculum, [but] they usurped faculty purview over curriculum,” said Hugo Fernandez, who is the University Faculty Senate representative to the CUNY BOT Committee on Student Affairs, a committee overseeing the changes. Fernandez attended student town halls and supports the students’ desire to direct how student fees are being spent.
“This is between students, their funds and what oversight they feel that they’re entitled to and to what extent the administration needs to oversee that process,” said Fernandez.
One of the major changes that CUNY General Counsel Loretta Martinez proposes is creating a “viewpoint neutral” funding system that would replace the current student referendum process to fund student groups that engage in political work.
In CUNY’s view, funding based on student voting would favor majority opinions and thus not be neutral. The changes are aimed at student groups that engage in speech activities – this could be anything from a veteran student group to campus media that report on issues important to students. Another major change is ending the practice of sending money from student activity fees to external organizations, which would only affect NYPIRG.
Martinez cites several court cases to support the revisions and argues that it’s “settled law” that public universities may collect mandatory student activity fees, and in doing so there needs to be “viewpoint neutrality” as established in a case argued before the Supreme Court, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth.
But missing from the counsel’s legal analysis is the most recent court case that deals specifically with viewpoint discrimination in the allocation of CUNY student activity fees to NYPIRG. In the case, Almengor v. Schmidt, a federal judge cited the same Supreme Court case, which allowed portions of a student activity fee to fund political groups as long as allocation is viewpoint neutral or there is an established refund process, a process that NYPIRG conducts and publicizes. Requests to CUNY officials on why the Almengor case was missing from the legal analysis went unanswered.
CUNY students who sit on the committee overseeing the recommendations remain unconvinced that there’s a legal necessity for some of their changes, specifically ending NYPIRG’s funding.
“It is difficult to have a conversation about an issue when only the convenient facts are being considered,” said Fernando Araujo, one of the student members who sits on the committee overseeing the changes. He said he was perplexed by why the most recent case dealing with student activity fees is not presented in the legal analysis to the board.
At rallies, board committee meetings, board hearings and through resolutions, students have spoken out and continue to oppose changes that would diminish the power to control fees that they’ve elected to pay. At a recent CUNY Rising Alliance event attended by local politicians, several students spoke about their concerns over the student activity fee changes.
“Student-run and student-initiated projects exist because students are able to control these finances, the only finances of the college that students have actual control over,” said Pedro Freire, a graduate student at the Murphy Institute. “Using referendum to start new organizations is a right that should not be taken away.”
The board will likely take action on the proposals to revise student activity fees at their June 25 meeting. Prior to that meeting, the CUNY community can speak about the proposed changes at a BOT hearing on June 18.