The Battle Over UW Segregated Fees Continues

By Amelia Heup for Media Trackers

Conservative students across the University of Wisconsin system in recent months have begun to call out university policies which they contend favor liberal and progressive student organizations, causes, and messages. This problem does not simply plague big schools, such as UW-Madison, but has come to light on small campuses like UW-Stevens Point. With the help of Campus Reform, a watchdog site to the nation’s higher education system, many UW system students have been able to expose the blatant bias on a college campus and the way in which their tuition and payment has been used by university administration and government.

The debate on segregated fees has been taking place on the campuses of University of Wisconsin system for decades, calling into question, should students be required to pay for student organizations and campus activities that they disagree with? In 2000, three UW-Madison students took their case to the Supreme Court in Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System V. Southworth, for refusing to pay the mandatory segregated student fees as a part of their tuition. Not much has changed since, as the Supreme Court ruled that these student fees did not infringe on the First Amendment of the students. Segregated fees as defined by the UW system administrative policy are charges in addition to instructional fees. They are assessed to all students and student services, activities programs and facilities that support the mission of University of Wisconsin System institutions. Then there are two categories of SUF defined by the UW System administrative policy;

Allocable SUF, are those that provide substantial support for campus student activities and allocated by students, in consultation with the chancellor and subject to the final confirmation of the Board of Regents. The student group organized at each UW Institution for the purpose of engaging in the allocation process is referred to in this policy as Student University Fee Allocation Committee (SUFAC).

Non-allocable SUF, is used to support commitments for fixed financial obligations, personal costs, ongoing operating and debt service costs of student unions, health centers, child care centers, recreational and athletic facilities and other university owned or controlled buildings; transit and busing services, child care grants and sports programming including inter collegiate athletics and intramurals.

At UW-Madison, information has come to light that liberal organizations on campus are receiving a 20:1 advantage in student fee funding, as reported by Campus Reform. This means that students attending UW-Madison pay an estimated $7.60 to liberal student organizations or liberal causes while in contrast, only $0.36 towards conservative groups. For back-to-back fiscal years, University of Wisconsin-Madison had a $50 million budget in mandatory student fees, with $1.5 million that is allocated toward liberal organizations.

In 2017, Governor Scott Walker proposed an “opt-out” mechanism for students in giving them the option to pay the student fees for segregated allocable fees, funding organizations that goes against the student’s beliefs or values. Join Finance Committee struck down Walker’s proposal. Across UW System campuses, student governments, organizations and staff erupted in a fury of disdain for the Governor’s proposal, in part because allocable segregated fees make up a large part of the budget for student organizations and their favored liberal causes. State legislatures held town halls and meetings on campuses to allow for the opinions of those who opposed to be heard.

As a student of political science, an athlete on the softball team, and a chair of the College Republicans at UW-Stevens Point, I was put into an interesting position in the university while this debate was catching fire in the spring of 2017. However, what really took me back was not the clear bias in the information that was being released to the students or even how administrators approached the conflict only looking through the small liberal lens to use emotion to drive student interest in the topic, rather it was how the athletic department reacted to the potential opt-out option. Coaches were “recommending” that their athletes attend due to the threat there was going to be a massive budget cut to athletics. Limited information was actually given about how this proposed policy would actually affect the budget and by how much it would cost the athletic department.

From a student organization perspective, to eliminate allocated segregated fees would be detrimental for the sake of receiving money in the form of a budget to support the organization. From an athletic perspective, considering athletics is under non-allocable student fees, little affect would take place on the department’s funding. The dilemma for conservative students, not only in Stevens Point did not come from identifying with an organization or athletic team, instead it came from standing against the majority, standing for the point that students should; first know how their tuition is being used and second, have the freedom to choose if they want to support the liberal student organizations or the message that they espouse, in which they fundamentally disagree with. While this concept should be adopted on a non-partisan basis, liberal organizations, causes and student governments across the UW system know that the elimination of allocable student fees will cause a dramatic decrease in the financial recourses that they would have at their disposal. Student governments and administrations know the means and the loopholes to limit the funding of student organizations and those who reflect these actions are the conservative organizations, solely based on their viewpoint. This is not a small versus large university funding, rather it is institutional bias with the goal of guiding and indoctrinating students into the liberal movement.

At UW-Madison, student organizations such as “Sex Out Loud” and Chapter of MEChA, committed to social justice causes and extreme left agendas, received around $292,000 in the fiscal year 2017, as reported by Campus Reform. In contrast, right-leaning student organizations only received around $13,700 student contributions. Jake Lubenow, the Chair of the UW-Madison College Republicans in an interview with radio talk show host out of Madison, Vicki McKenna stated that the allocated fees that students are currently forced to pay as part of tuition goes against everything that the country stands for. Further stating, “This is all controlled by Associated Students of Madison (ASM), and it is not a surprise that they are funding all the liberal organizations,” and “they’re absolutely not sorry about anything they do and they are not sorry about the fact they take students money from across the state and fund liberal organizations with it.”

More stories of bias distribution of funds have been found at UW-Stevens Point, also reported by Campus Reform and uncovered by the new Turning Point chapter established after battle for recognition by the Student Government Association (SGA). As a part of a contract with Canteen Inc., the vending provider for the university, UWSP is granted $5,000 for “student organizations who seek to increase the involvement of UW-Stevens Point students and social justice issues.” As given on the UWSP website, the criteria remain that the proposed event given by a student organization must “seek to solve a problem or improve a situation, rather than maintain status quo.” This concept of rewarding progressive ideas and events is nothing new to college campuses, there is a problem when a grant of significant funding, like the Inspiration Grant, is granted under the pretext of social justice causes.

In the response to Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System in 2000, the University of Wisconsin system applied the viewpoint-neutrality funding, meaning “funding decisions cannot be based on a group’s point of view, no matter how deplorable or unusual.” This policy does not require that all groups get equal funding levels, rather it ensures that student organizations cannot be restricted from funding for what opinion they have. While this policy is expected to be applied to all universities when deciding funding, the cases are evidence that this is not the case. At a 20:1 ratio, liberal to conservative groups of funding for student organizations at the largest school in the UW system, that is not viewpoint neutrality.