The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Crucial subsidy

IMAGINE a University without Madison House, the Pep Band or The Declaration. Imagine no student groups with Lawn tables, no flyers covering the bulletin boards in Cabell Hall, and few opportunities for first-year students to get involved in anything, since they can't rush a fraternity or sorority, of course.

There are close to 200 student groups that depend on subsidies from the Student Activities Fee for their very existence. From publications to club sports, from community service to the fine arts, the SAF makes possible a host of extracurricular opportunities that a thousand T-shirts and a million bake sales couldn't pay for. These groups and their activities benefit the University community far more than can be measured by the $39 that each student pays into the SAF on an annual basis.

This is not to say that the SAF is perfect. In recent years, across the board cuts, excessive spending by Student Council and the haphazard allocation of funds have given the SAF a bad name. But these are problems of management, not a fundamental flaw in the premise of funding groups with student fees. As long as the elected student government allocates student fees fairly and responsibly, the SAF stands as the greatest example of that hallowed ideal of student self-governance.

In the past two years, Student Council has handled the SAF in a manner that is more responsible, ensuring that the benefits of what amounts to a tax on students touch the lives of as many students and organizations as possible. At the same time, the number of student groups is growing, requiring more resources and more aid from the students as a whole, in the form of SAF dollars. Unless the University administration is willing to pick up the ball and support student groups more than it does already, the SAF is the only place where these groups can go for help.

Legally, the SAF is on firmer ground at the University than at other institutions. Unlike at the University of Wisconsin, where the activities fee is being challenged in a case currently pending before the Supreme Court, the University has an opt-out policy for those students who feel they do not wish to support some of the groups who receive student fees. This policy takes the form of a one-quarter refund -- which amounts to $9.75 -- that all students are entitled to, should they request it.

This policy came about after the last time the SAF was challenged in the Supreme Court in the 1995 case of Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. In the current case, students at Wisconsin objected to their fee money being given to organizations with political messages that they disagree with. The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin granted summary judgement for the students and ruled that the school must establish an optional refund policy for its students.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision. But these two decisions do not necessarily stand in contradiction to the Rosenberger decision. First, the University already has an opt-out policy that is utilized by many students. Secondly, in Rosenberger, the Supreme Court ruled that the allocation of student fees creates a forum at the University in which all students are allowed to participate. In creating that forum, organizations may not be discriminated against based on their message since that would violate the First Amendment. That interpretation hasn't changed. The refund policy should ensure that the Court protects the SAF.

The true worth of the SAF is that it fosters a University community where hundreds of student organizations with thousands of student members can add differing viewpoints and offer a host of different experiences. Without knowing it, every student at this University receives more than his or her $39 out of the SAF. Without even thinking about it, almost every student has been to an event, read a publication or heard a speaker that was paid for, at least in part, with SAF money.

When you pick up a copy of The Virginia Advocate, when you use the Escort Service, or when your roommate goes to club soccer practice and you get some extra sleep, you are benefiting from the SAF. So go be a Big Sibling, go hear the Glee Club sing, and go out and support the men's crew team. Enjoy Culture-Fest, argue with a College Republican and read The Journal of International Law. The next time you see Poodah, give him (or her) a hug, and say "I think you make the University a better place, whether or not I think you're funny."

(John T. A. Finley is the chief financial officer of Student Council.)


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