An Open Note Concerning the Activities Fee-Student Government - Carnegie Mellon University

Fellow Graduate Students,

Thank you for all of the interest and thoughtful questions regarding the Activities Fee Referendum.  GSA has been working with Jon Mark (Student Body Vice President for Finance, who sent Thursday's email) to help convey the graduate student perspective on this issue, but I wanted to wait a few days before following up with an email from GSA.  This was so that people had a chance to sort through the information independently and so that we could get a better sense of the questions people were raising. Below are some answers to those I've received most frequently, as well as a bit more info that I think is relevant to graduate students.

READ THIS SUMMARY (What the &*$% is going on):

  1. Undergraduates and graduates will have the opportunity to vote online Nov 8th-10th (link to vote: http://bit.ly/PwPBtA) as to whether they want to raise the Student Activities Fee by 25% from $97/semester to $121/semester.
  2. Undergraduates and graduates will vote separately for each of their respective fee increases.  The undergraduates do NOT vote on whether to raise graduate fees and we do not vote on whether to increase theirs.
  3. GSA has not initiated this referendum and does not necessarily support a fee increase, but we do view this as an opportunity to gather feedback from the graduate student community at large.
  4. Please see below for more information and context.

I've heard CMU is one of the most well-funded student governments in the country, why are they asking for more money?

From research conducted by a non-CMU member of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, this seems to be true of the graduate student government, though the research is by no means exhaustive, nor well analyzed to control for a myriad of variables. GSA is one branch of student government and this initiative is being proposed by another. However, the vote is an opportunity to express whether or not the resources a fee increase would bring is something you want. This should not be construed as GSA wanting more money from you.

If GSA isn't proposing this fee raise, who is?

Jon Mark is the Student Body Vice President for Finance (SBVPF).  This is a position elected jointly by all undergraduate and graduate students each spring, along with the Student Body President and Vice President for Organizations.  These elected positions represent the entirety of the student body. This is in contrast  to GSA, which serves graduate student interests, and Senate, which does the same for undergraduates.  Though as President of GSA I sit on the executive committee with the elected officers, and we work with them and Senate on many issues facing all students, the executive committee is a separate entity from GSA.

The email we received on Thursday was biased towards raising the fee.

Yes it was.  This was intentional on Jon's part because he personally thinks we should raise the fee, but he sought input from GSA and included some counterpoints so that both sides were represented. The email was not meant to present the case impartially, and, regardless of the outcome, Jon believes that this election is a forum for graduate students to express their opinion.

What is JFC and how are they involved?

The Joint Funding Committee (JFC) is comprised of graduate and undergraduate students and is headed by the SBVPF.  Throughout spring semester, they meet with and review the budget of ALL student organizations that receive funding through the student activities fee and then allocate the pool of money comprised of activities fees via an iterative process.  30% of graduate student dollars and 90% of undergraduate dollars go to this pool.  There are more fee-paying undergrads than grads (~6,000 undergrads vs. 5,000 grads) and we currently pay the same activities fee amount.  Because the undergrad:grad ratio fluctuates year to year, between 20-25% of the dollar value of the pool allocated to student organizations is contributed by graduate students. (30%*fee*number of grad students)/((30%*fee*number of grad students)+(90%*fee*number of undergrad students)).

How does JFC allocate funds?

JFC uses a variety of metrics on items such as hotel stays, food spending, and travel costs, and broadly tries to treat similar types of organizations (e.g. all sports teams or all cultural groups) in the same manner.  It has been the experience of the graduate students on JFC for the past few years that decisions do not break down on graduate/undergraduate lines, and are reached by consensus.

Why should graduate students subsidize undergraduate student participation in student organizations?

Graduate students do participate in student organizations.  Jon has made the best effort possible to collect data on the undergrad and grad participation in organizations last spring.  Though the data is far from perfect, the best estimate is that ~30% of the members of student organizations are graduates and some organizations, like cultural groups, are predominately graduate students.  Patrick Foley has conducted an in-depth analysis of types of grad participation and amount of funding grads receive through JFC, and I encourage anyone who is interested to contact him for more information.  Furthermore, Jon can provide information on how this data was collected.

If the graduate students vote to raise the fee, does that mean it's automatically going to happen?

No.  The results of the referendum (including level of participation) will be reported to the Board of Trustees at their November meeting. The Board of Trustees will consider the students' wishes when they decide on the amount of the fee for the next school year in concert with the tuition and other fees.  Several administrators, including Michael Murphy (CMU Vice President for Campus Affairs) and Gina Casalegno (Dean of Student Affairs), have been actively involved since discussions about the fee raise began and they will ensure that any nuances of the situation will be conveyed to the Trustees.

Are there a minimum number of votes required to pass the referendum?

No. There is no minimum level of voter participation required in order to pass the referendum, but when the results are communicated to the Board of Trustees, they will include information on eligible voter participation levels.

Can the undergraduate voting results force an increase in the graduate student activities fee?

Almost certainly no, but there is a non-zero chance this could happen, especially if our participation in the referendum is particularly low.  There are two separate referendums, and though we are voting on the same issue (whether we should raise the student activities fee 25% from $97/semester to $121/semester), graduates vote on an increase in graduate student fees and undergraduates vote on an increase in undergraduate fees.  Historically, the Trustees have set the student activity fee for the undergraduates and graduates at the same level.  However, this doesn't mean that they have to, and they strongly consider the outcomes of  referendum votes.  The administration has assured us that we can have separate voices and outcomes on this issue, and that if we vote differently than the undergrads we most likely would have different fee amounts.  However, the Trustees are not bound by any of the outcomes of the referendum. 

What does my student activities fee do for me?

As discussed above, 30% goes to JFC for use by student organizations.  25% is returned to the departments to be managed as they choose.  For some departments, the GSA reps manage it.  For others, the department business managers or coordinators take care of it.  Finally, some departments have their own internal student government or social committee that decides how to use this money.  Because the uses are not specified, departments can use it for a range of purposes.  These include happy hours, department lounge furniture or supplies, qualifier preparation support, conference travel, other social events, etc.  Check with your departmental GSA rep to find out more on how yours is used (reps can be found here: http://www.cmu.edu/stugov/gsa/reps/index.html).  The remaining 45% is directly managed by GSA for a variety of events.  About half is for social events like beer tasting, wine tasting, rafting, skiing, ice skating, movies, theater tickets, etc., and the other half is used for a variety of graduate student support, including special allocations, conference and research funding managed by the Assistant Vice Provost for Graduate Education, capital projects like bike racks and changing tables, GSA intramural sports, new student orientation support, etc.

Didn't GSA just give $175,000 to the endowment last year?  How can anyone claim we're short on cash?

We did in fact contribute $175,000 into the endowment from GSA's reserves, which is comprised of student activities fee money from years past.  This is a somewhat complicated issue, which Jason Imbrogno (last year's GSA president) wrote a lengthy explanation of at the time.  Because the detail of the transaction is outside the scope of this email, please email me if you have further questions on it and I'll be happy to follow up with you.  GSA generally runs a very small budget surplus on the 45% of funds that we directly manage, but the large amount that was accumulated was a non-recurring windfall.  There was a change in accounting at the University level and consequently a substantial amount of money that had been withheld in an account separate from GSA was released to us. By our organization by-laws, the money had to be spent on long-lasting capital projects.  We were not able to roll it into the JFC pool or throw the biggest wine tasting in the history of wine tastings.  This motivated the solicitation of capital project ideas, which in turn led to the installation of GSA funded bike racks this year and the endowment contribution (for which we receive a yearly monetary draw) last year.  We are always looking for more capital project ideas so let us know if you have one.

What benefit would I see if graduates voted to increase the fee?

As Jon pointed out, there would be more money available to allocate to student organizations.  Your department funds would proportionally increase and could be used as desired by each department.  As far as GSA programming is concerned, there are several potential uses.  We could increase our contribution to conference and research programming, give more money to graduate student projects via special allocations, fund more capital improvement projects around campus, throw more social events, or something else that no one has conceived of yet.  However, this comes with a caution.  The current exec feels that we are already very well funded and while we're always looking for project suggestions and general feedback (seriously! we are! got a problem? just let us know and we'll try to help!) we don't currently have anything in the queue that we could do if we just had more money.  Several people have commented that our events are getting extremely crowded and I agree.  It is great that there is such a level of enthusiasm for the programming, but part of the problem is that as the number of graduate students has increased, we're maxing out on venue space.  Mario's is one of the biggest bar options we can find for the welcome-back happy hour, and beer tasting last Thursday was bottle-necked by availability of taps from Penn Brewery.  So while we're trying to think about ways to improve the feel of events without restricting tickets, fundamentally it is not a funding issue.  Incidentally, if you ever have event feedback, please send it our way.

While we're talking about it, can we vote to decrease the fee, charge different amounts for sub-populations, or increase it by more than 25%?

In short, not right now.  GSA represents graduate students in conversations with the administration including the Trustees, and we can absolutely talk about these suggestions for future years.  However, the fee-raise referendum on the docket has been a multi-year project that has finally reached the voting stage so that it can be completed prior to the Trustee meeting in November.  If you feel strongly that we should start working on other fee adjustments, GSA can help you do that, but we cannot execute it in time for the meeting to set next year's fees.

So does GSA think we should raise the fee?

Jon and others have dedicated an incredible amount of time to improving student life at CMU.  There is an inescapable reality that student organizations are asking for more money than the JFC pool has, and that there are no easy solutions. Jon is arguing that the best solution would be to mitigate this funding crunch by raising the fee.  Whether or not you think the benefit that you, as both an individual and as a CMU community member, derive from the fee increase is worth paying 25% more per semester is your call.  GSA is not asking for more money and provided the counter arguments in Jon's email, but at the same time we welcome the opportunity to gather feedback from the entirety of the graduate population.  If grads ask for more money by voting yes on an increase, then, as stewards of that money, we will continue to provide the best programming and resources of any graduate student government body in the country.


IN SUMMARY:

I hope this has clarified the referendum issue a bit, but I also understand that there is a great amount of new information that has been presented to graduates about their fees and student government and it can be overwhelming.  I encourage you to attend the town hall meetings Jon is holding (Wednesday, October 31st in Rangos 1 from 5:00-6:00 and Tuesday, November 6th in UC Danforth from 5:00-6:00) and email Jon, myself or Patrick Foley (GSA VP of Finance) with any and all questions.  We do not want this to be an opaque process or for anyone to feel like they did not have adequate information to make an informed decision.

All this being said, it is your responsibility as a graduate student to vote online Nov 8-10 (link to vote: http://bit.ly/PwPBtA).  GSA wants to represent the interests of graduate students, and we are best able to do that when we have input from as many people across the university as possible.

1st Town Hall Meeting: Wednesday, October 31, 5-6pm, UC Rangos 1

https://www.facebook.com/events/373578706056525/

2nd Town Hall Meeting: Tuesday, November 6, 5-6 pm, UC Rangos 1

An Analysis of Grad Student Participation in On-Campus Organizations by GSA's VPF: VPF Rundown

(based on survey responses from organizations)

Online Voting: November 8-10, http://bit.ly/PwPBtA

Important Links and Information