It’s Time to Reorganize the Student Activity Fee Board
By now, you’ve probably read about the Student Activity Fee Board’s 8-3-1 decision to recommend the Council of Commonwealth Student Government’s budget, which gives the student government $14,800 to go on retreats. Although the outcome was an egregious misstep by the board, some good may come of it now that students understand how these decisions are made thanks to increased media attention and the scrutiny of UPUA.
To understand the student activity fee and how it works, it’s important to look at the history. The student activity fee was approved by the Board of Trustees and endorsed by President Spanier in 1995, and the $25 fee was first imposed in fall 1996. The fee, now $85, is paid by all undergraduate and most graduate students at University Park and is used to:
- Improve the overall quality of the campus experience from the students’
- Increase opportunities for student involvement in the educational process,
particularly the out-of-class experience.
- Enhance the appropriate out-of-class services and programs at the campuses based on identified student needs.
Students can access the fee primarily through UPAC requests for out of classroom experiences, although the fee is used in a number of ways, especially for the three student governments at Penn State. The Student Activity Fee Board exists to make decisions on how the fee is to be used. According to the Student Activity Fee Handbook, the role of the SAFB is to:
- Review the use of activity fee funds for consistency with the established principles and practices and to review all end-of-year audits.
- Be responsible for hearing any appeals of decisions of the campus allocation committees.
- Recommend changes in policy and procedure.
- Receive and review any proposals to increase the fee beyond inflation increases.
The SAFB is also responsible for determining “lump sum” requests for the three student governments (UPUA, CCSG, GSA). It is comprised of the following 13 members:
- The Vice President for Student Affairs who will serve as chair (or his/her designee).
- The Senior Director of Union and Student Activities.
- A Director of Student Affairs/Director of Student and Enrollment Services from the Eastern campuses.
- A Director of Student Affairs/Director of Student and Enrollment Services from the Western campuses.
- The University Park Undergraduate Association President (UPUA).
- The Council of Commonwealth Student Governments President (CCSG).
- The Graduate Student Association President (GSA).
- The CCSG Campus Chair.
- Two elected representatives from CCSG.
- The Chair of the University Park Allocation Committee (UPAC).
- A University Park student representative appointed by the UPUA President.
- A member of the Faculty Senate Committee on Student Life.
That means, of the 13 members, 6 are guaranteed to come from Commonwealth Campus interests. Though in reality, 7 members (and a majority) work or represent the Commonwealth Campuses. Here’s the current makeup of the board:
- Andrea Dowhower (Assistant VP of Student Affairs)
- Mary Edgington (Senior Director, Union and Student Activities)
- Tracy Garnick (Director of Student Services and Engagement at Penn State Hazleton)
- Rebecca Pennington (Director of Student Affairs at Penn State Dubois)
- Ron McCarty (Faculty Senate Committee on Student Life from Penn State Erie)
- Ben Clark (CCSG President)
- Ryan Steele (CCSG Representative from Penn State Abington)
- Chandrra Ulinnfun (CCSG Vice President)
- John Shaffer (CCSG Representative from Penn State Mont Alto)
- Jesse Scott (UPAC Chairman)
- Courtney Lennartz (UPUA President)
- Spencer Malloy (UPUA Chairman)
- Wanika Fisher (GSA President)
(Lennartz, Malloy, and Edgington all voted no on the CCSG budget proposal, while Fisher abstained.)
Looking at that list, it’s easy to recognize the problem. Essentially five adult administrators, seven members who represent the interests of the Commonwealth Campuses, and only four members who are students and represent the interests of students at University Park decide the rules for how a pot of nearly $4 million is spent each semester.
The student activity fee that will fund CCSG retreats is paid for by students at University Park and it should be governed by students at University Park or simply abolished. The fact that only four students on the SAFB represent University Park interests (Scott, Lennartz, Malloy, Fisher) is an alarming impropriety that is not discussed often enough.
The fact that the Director of Student Services and Engagement at Penn State Hazleton has a vote on how the student activity fee at Penn State University Park is spent is just as absurd as it sounds.
Why not have an entire board made up of students from University Park, with administrators serving as non-voting members, made sure that policy is followed? The student activity fee is paid BY the students FOR the students — why shouldn’t students determine how it is spent?
Ultimately, the Student Activity Fee Board answers to Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims, who has the final say on matters relating to student affairs. With such a strong support for CCSG’s budget on the board, but the student body overwhelmingly against the budget (UPUA voted 27-1 to oppose it), it’s clear the Student Activity Fee Board no longer represents the interests it claims to serve.
It’s time to reorganize SAFB or just do away with the fee entirely. What are the chances of that happening? Very slim. But as Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”