Student election season is here again, which mostly means that a bunch of freshmen are scrambling to find rides to Kinko’s to print their best puns. Regardless of which 15 undergraduates are elected to the ASSU Undergraduate Senate, this year’s campaign season has brought to light a far more interesting, and far more contentious, aspect of the elections process: student group special fees.
I think it is fair to say that just about everyone is confused about special fees. Special fees is an amorphous vat of money outside of general fees to fund student groups that can’t be funded through normal bureaucratic channels, and as such it is inherently confusing: since it is essentially impossible for the average student to try and understand the intricacies of the ASSU funding system, let alone each of the 600 student groups’ funding needs, voters are unable to understand why or for what a group should receive special fees.
Because of this system, groups take advantage of the system and stretch the boundaries of special fees legitimacy. This issue was brought to light by the special fees petition of the members of the Stanford Flipside, in which they requested 7,000+ dollars to buy themselves a Segway scooter. The Flipside’s satire attracted a fair amount of attention, and certainly achieved its satirical mission: it made clear that the special fees process has enormous, easily exploitable loopholes. The Flipside has exposed the problems with special fees that other groups have been abusing for years. The actions these groups are taking are, in my opinion, wrong: it is immoral for students to game the special fees process at the expense of other students. But why?
After thinking about this issue, I believe it is possible to create a coherent moral justification for rewarding special fees money. There are right and wrong actions for student groups requesting special fees to take, independent of other student groups’ actions or the rules of special fees. Just because the law does not prohibit an action does not make it morally justifiable, nor does the fact that other groups are acting immorally condone one’s immoral actions.
We should base the morality of a special fees request on the principle of universalizability. Universalizability, in its simplest interpretation, states that an action is moral if you would support everyone taking that same action under similar circumstances. In other words, if a student group is requesting funding for a specific item, it would only be moral if it would be willing to support every other group requesting funding for the same item given similar conditions. Or, from the perspective of a special fees voter, voting to support one’s group’s special fees request is only morally justified if the voter is willing to support every other group that has similar requests and faces similar constraints.
A maxim of universalizability is attractive because it allows for flexibility and differing moral judgments between individuals. Students will apply universalizability in different ways: some will be willing to deem more requests as universalizable and therefore acceptable; others will draw a more stringent line. A coherent moral stance does not necessitate agreement on outcomes, but rather on the foundations. In a democratic community, such as the one we are in at Stanford, these disagreements on outcome are dealt with via the voting process.
But unless a person believes in complete moral relativism, it seems fair to assume that the law of universalizability will lead to certain requests being roundly agreed upon as immoral. Let us take again the example of the Flipside: now that the members of the Flipside have pointed out the flaws in the system, they have not stopped their request; instead, they are actively campaigning for special fees approval. A special fees approval would include funding for their entire budget: both normal printing costs (so that they can continue to produce their publication) and a Segway plus other equipment.
To continue to seek out a Segway through special fees is immoral because, to me, it is impossible to universalize that expense. Special fees comes directly from students: I would not be willing to support all groups, or even all publications, buying themselves a Segway. If I were to support the Flipside buying a Segway, I would also need to support many similar purchases from other groups. I cannot speak for the members of the Flipside, but it seems hard to believe these students would be actively willing to fund Segways, parties, or clothing for any other group.* Most students, I believe, would be very hesitant to be willing to pay for some group’s personal expenses or fund anything that does not directly and irreplaceably contribute to the goal of the student group.
The Flipside argues that they would benefit from a Segway because it will help distribution of their papers; for the request to be morally justifiable, then, the members of the Flipside and the voters who support the Flipside must also be willing to fund other large expenses that make student groups’ activities easier. For example, it would be great if any of the student performance groups on campus had an actual theater space in which to perform their shows–that would certainly contribute to their performances and help enormously to support and allow these students to fully express their craft. But requesting a few million dollars from other students for a new theater space, just as requesting a few thousand dollars for a motorized scooter, is an expense that is neither necessary nor should be coming from other students and is therefore not universalizable. The same principle applies to any student group that uses special fees to buy alcohol, clothing, or group expenses.
The problem with special fees, though, is that it is often difficult to tell what funds are irreplaceable and what funds are not. Again, it is impossible to fully understand a group’s finances unless you are deeply enmeshed in that group, and therefore it is impossible to fully understand a group’s budget requests. Groups often request items like airfare for tournaments, which, depending on whom you ask, could be universalizable: some say that groups who spend all year preparing for a big tournament and could not easily fund the travel expenses in other ways should be allowed to ask for those costs in special fees; others would argue that these are personal expenses and therefore should not be.
In these situations, the moral onus more prominently falls on the student groups themselves. Are these groups asking for money that they would consider universally supporting for other groups in similar situations? If the answer is no, then according to the idea of universalizability these student groups should not be requesting those special fees. So long as we agree to act morally to our fellow students and community members, loopholes won’t matter.
From a voting perspective, we may not know the ins and outs of special fees, but we do know that special fees money comes from students like ourselves. We should not blindly accept or reject all special fees requests; instead, we should ask: would I support this request for other groups as well? This is particularly important for groups that affect us: it is wrong for us to only support groups that we directly benefit from, as this would violate universalizability.
Special fees funding allows for groups that can otherwise not be funded to be able to exist and thrive. Let us, as student group members, voters, and members of the Stanford community, consider the moral implications of special fees requests and work to preserve the benefits of the special fees funding system.
*Having spoken to members of the Flipside about this issue, it is very clear that a number of them are concerned about the Segway and would like to return that money if they get Special Fees approval.