What are Student Activity Fees?
The Student Activity Fee is the total of the fees collected from students for student government and student activities, including recognized student organizations (clubs, etc.) and certain college programs and services. Student Activity Fees, including student government fees collected by a college of the university, are deposited in a college central depository and, except where presently earmarked by the CUNY Board of Trustees, are allocated by a college association budget committee subject to review by the college association.
Student Activity Fees are implemented and monitored by the individual colleges in a manner consistent with the policies established by University Bylaws and the City University Fiscal Handbook for the Control & Accountability of Student Activity Fees.
What are permissible uses of Student Activity Fees?
The use of Student Activity fees is restricted and can only be allocated and expended for the following purposes:
- Extracurricular educational programs;.
- Cultural and social activities;
- Recreational and athletic programs;
- Student government;
- Publications and other media;
- Assistance to registered student organizations;
- Community service programs;
- Enhancement of the college and university environment;
- Transportation, administration and insurance related to the implementation of these activities;
- Student services to supplement or add to those provided by the university;
- Stipends to student leaders.
Who is eligible to receive Student Activity Fees?
Student organizations recognized by the duly elected student government organization are eligible to receive Student Activity Fees. Extra-curricular activities at each college or school are regulated by the duly elected student government organization. The duly elected student government organization has the authority to charter or otherwise authorize teams (excluding intercollegiate athletics), publications, organizations, associations, clubs or chapters, and, when appropriate in the exercise of such regulatory power, the power to refuse, suspend or revoke any charter or other authorization for cause after hearing on notice.
What is a college association? 
College Associations have responsibility for the supervision and review over college Student Activity Fee supported budgets. College Associations are comprised of the following board of governors:
(i) The college president or his/her designee as chair;
(ii) Two administrative members and one administrative alternate, appointed by the college president;
(iii) Two faculty members (and two alternates) appointed by the college president;
(iv) Six student members and up to three student alternates comprised of the student government president(s) and other elected students; and
(v) Two independent directors appointed by the college president. An independent director shall be a former employee of the college or the association, a college alum, a community member, or any other individual who satisfies the NYS Not-for-Profit Corporations Law.
Who approves Student Activity Fee budgets submitted by recognized student organizations?
All budgets of college student activity fees, except where presently earmarked by the Board of Trustees to be allocated by another body, should be allocated by a college association budget committee. Student government fees shall be allocated by the duly elected student government for its own use and for the use of recognized student organizations, provided that the allocation is based on a budget approved by the duly elected student government after notice and hearing, subject to the review of the college association.
Is there further college oversight of the submitted budgets?
The president of the college shall have the authority to disapprove any student activity fee, including student government fee which in his or her opinion contravenes the laws of the city, state, or nation or any bylaw or policy of the university or any policy, regulation, or order of the college. The president of the college shall also have the authority to suspend and send back for further review any student activity fee, including student government fee, allocation or expenditure.
How does a college know that its Student Activity Fees are being used in the manner approved and consistent with Article XVI of the CUNY Bylaws?
The chancellor or his/her designee shall promulgate regulations in a fiscal accountability handbook, to regulate all aspects of the collection, deposit, financial disclosure, accounting procedures, financial payments, documentation, contracts, travel vouchers, investments and surpluses of student activity fees and all other procedural and documentary aspects necessary, as determined by the chancellor or his/her designee to protect the integrity and accountability of all student activity fee funds.
What are the major changes proposed in the reform of CUNY’s approach to the allocation, use, and administration of Student Activity Fees?
The two major changes recommended are 1) the discontinuance of referenda to allocate funding for student organizations, clubs, associations, chapters, intramural teams and media/publications and the requirement that the recognition and funding of such “speech activities” instead be done by viewpoint neutral criteria and processes, and 2) the disallowance of contributions or payments of Student Activity Fees to external organizations outside of the University’s required purchasing and procurement processes. Additionally, language is recommended for inclusion in the Fiscal Accountability Handbook concerning viewpoint neutral recognition and allocation criteria and processes, to be implemented by the Chancellor.
What is the impetus for the proposed changes to CUNY’s approach to the creation, modification, and administration of Student Activity Fees?
The impetus for the recommended changes is to bring CUNY into compliance with law both with regard to 1st Amendment protections that apply to the funding of student speech activities in public universities as well as fiduciary obligations for the appropriate use and control of public funds. The proposed changes to Articles XV and XVI of the CUNY Bylaws are designed to remedy legal concerns about the lack of viewpoint neutrality in CUNY’s recognition and funding allocation procedures in relation to student speech activities. The changes require viewpoint neutrality in the recognition and funding of student intramural teams, media/publications, organizations, associations, clubs or chapters. Referenda seeking to allocate funding to any student speech activity listed above are disallowed and in the place of referenda is created an annual viewpoint neutral funding process for such speech activities.
What is “viewpoint neutrality” and how does this principle relate to Student Activity Fees?
Viewpoint neutrality means the use of objective, neutral criteria in recognition and funding decisions for student speech activities. It is settled law in the United States that public universities may collect mandatory student activity fees to foster student speech activities as part of their educational mission. In so doing, they must protect the free speech rights of student organizations, treating minority views with the same respect as majority views, and may not allocate funding based upon the speaker’s viewpoint. The requirement of viewpoint neutrality to protect free speech rights was established in 2000 in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000) and has been applied more recently to universities in the 2nd Circuit, notably in Amidon v. Student Association of the State University of New York at Albany, (2nd Cir. 2007).
How does CUNY’s current practice of earmarking Student Activity Fees via referenda for registered student organizations relate to the principle of viewpoint neutrality?
Referenda that allocate funds for student speech activities based upon popular vote–even if advisory in nature—are inherently viewpoint discriminatory because the vote represents an aggregation of the student body’s agreement with or valuation of the message a student group wishes to convey. Although a popular majority vote on an issue certainly can represent a “democratic” method of decision-making, it does not protect the rights of the minority in the 1st Amendment context to speak or refrain from speaking. Balancing and respecting the rights of both minority and majority views with regard to student speech activities is necessary.
What changes are proposed to the use of referenda to set Student Activity Fees?
The recommendations for changes to referenda powers allow students to vote on whether to increase or decrease their student activity fees in general and to continue to “earmark” funding for non-speech activities (e.g., student government, student programs and services such as shuttle buses, child care centers, student centers, tutoring and writing centers, etc.) This change allows students to retain control over such non-speech related funds via referenda. Because earmarking of funding for non-speech related programs and services presents low legal risk in terms of violation of 1st Amendment protections, the current Bylaws provisions have been left in place to maximize student control of Student Activity Fees.
Why is CUNY’s current practice of using Student Activity Fees to make contributions or payments to external organizations concerning?
Currently, several CUNY colleges annually send a total of more than one million dollars in Student Activity Fees directly to external organizations without contracts delineating the services to be provided. While the value of these partner organizations to participating students is not in dispute, it is settled law that Student Activity Fees are public funds that must be safeguarded per state laws and university policies and cannot be allocated in a viewpoint discriminatory manner. See Smith v. City University of New York, 92 N.Y. 2d 707 (1999). CUNY fiscal policies generally disallow contributions/payments of public funds to external non-profit and political organizations. Accordingly, a change has been proposed to Bylaw XVI to disallow contributions or payments to external organizations outside university procurement, purchasing and contracting requirements.
What is the history of this current effort around Student Activity Fee (SAF) reform?
- The Board passed a resolution on October 23, 2017, calling for a review and recommendations concerning the SAF infrastructure with both a legal compliance and policy/best practices lens.
- In its resolution, the Board created a Task Force to serve as the mechanism for engagement with students and campus constituents. Chairman Thompson ultimately appointed 13 task force members, 6 USS/SGA student representatives, 1 USF faculty representative, 2 presidents and 4 campus student affairs officers.
- The SASP committee has discussed the SAF review and associated issues 4 times in open public session since October—October 2, 2017, November 13, 2017, January 17, 2018 and February 26, 2018.
- The internal working group was led by General Counsel and Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Loretta Martinez and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Chris Rosa, consisting of staff from legal, finance and student affairs as well as two USS student representatives, a UFS faculty representative and a president and has met eight times since October—October 31, 2017, December 5, 2017, January 10, 17, 24 and 31, 2018, and March 9 and 28, 2018.
- The SAF Task Force, co-chaired by York College President Marcia Keizs and USS Chair John Aderounmu, has met 8 times since October—December 11, 2017, January 8, 16, 26, 2018, February 9 and 23, March 16 and April 4, 2018.
- On February 13, 2018, the working group via the Office of the General Counsel distributed to Task Force members a two-column side by side comparison of proposed language changes to Trustee Bylaws XV and XVI and the Fiscal Accountability Handbook for use with their constituencies. This language was discussed, changed and refined at several meetings of the working group and Task Force prior to its inclusion in the side by side comparison document.
- Draft language was submitted for discussion at the February 26, 2018 Student Affairs & Special Programs (SASP) committee meeting.
- Approximately 80 students and other interested persons attended the SASP committee meeting on February 26, 2018. Student led Town Halls took place at several colleges afterwards. USS has discussed and introduced resolutions regarding the proposed changes at meetings in March 2018, and University Faculty Senate (UFS) has considered the issues at its regular meeting in March.
- A public hearing was held in Brooklyn on March 12, 2018, where nearly 70 speakers addressed several topics, including the ongoing review of the SAF infrastructure. The comments primarily addressed students’ ability to have input into recommended changes and desire to continue to determine how SAFs are spent.
- The recommended changes to the Bylaws and Fiscal Accountability Handbook represent significant changes from the initial draft language presented at the February 26 SASP committee meeting based upon the SAF Task Force’s input and the input received at public hearings, constituent meetings and town halls.
What is the timeline for the proposed Student Activity Reforms?
An action item recommending the proposed changes will be prepared for the Student Affairs and Special Programs Committee meeting on April 16, 2018 and the full Board for the May 7, 2018. Because the Board requires a first and second reading prior to amending its Bylaws unless there is unanimous consent, it is likely that Board will not take final action on these recommendations until its June 25, 2018 meeting. Accordingly, there will be two Student Affairs and Special Programs committee meetings (April 16 and June 4, 2018), two public hearings (April 30 and June 18, 2018), and one Board meetings (May 7, 2018) prior to the Board taking action on the recommended changes on June 25, 2018.