By Sonam Vashi
Emory students overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that proposed raising the Student Activities Fee (SAF) from $89 to $110 per semester after two days of online voting. More than 4,000 students voted, making this the highest turnout of any University-wide election in history, according to Elections Board Chair and College junior Reuben Lack.
The referendum failed with 79 percent of students (3,216 students) voting against the proposed increase. This means the SAF, which is included as part of tuition for all students, will still increase in fall 2015 to just $92 as a result of the automatic Cost of Living Adjustment (CoLA) to which the SAF is subject.
The turnout of 4,068 students voting is almost 800 votes larger than the previous record for voting turnout (3,323 votes) for last year’s Student Government Association (SGA) presidential race.
The (SAF) was last raised in a referendum on Feb. 16, 2006, where students approved a $30, or 21.1 percent, increase.
“There’s no way to know for sure, but I speculate the issue at hand, as well as the fact the referendum was just one question as opposed to a long list of candidates, contributed to the high turnout,” Lack wrote in an email to the Wheel. “It is remarkable, considering that almost all SGA proposals put to the body in Emory history are approved. A 79 [percent] rejection is unheard of, if not unprecedented.”
The referendum proposed a three-part increase to the SAF. First, it included the already scheduled SAF increase for the 2015-2016 school year from $89 to $92, as per the University’s cost of living adjustment (CoLA), which accounts for the effects of inflation on prices.
Second, the referendum proposed an additional three dollar increase in order to adjust for the true projected effects of inflation based on average inflation indexes from the past few years, according to SGA President and College junior Jon Darby and SGA Vice President for Finance and College senior Patrick O’Leary, who co-authored the bill.
Finally, the referendum proposed a $15 increase to enact a number of SGA initiatives, such as “student experience equity programs … to enable full participation in academic and extracurricular activities regardless of socioeconomic status, enhanced programming and creation of a Meeting and Event Facilitation Fund,” according to the bill.
“All the benefits we advertised for using a $110 Student Activity Fee can’t happen with a $92 fee. It’s just a reality.” – SGA President Jon Darby
College sophomore Hebing Wang wrote that she voted no on the referendum because she felt that many students already have trouble affording Emory’s tuition, which increased last year by 2.3 percent.
“I feel like our school has more than enough money to fund [the SAF] instead of asking us for more,” she wrote in a message to the Wheel. “It gets millions upon millions in donation and savings. So I don’t think it needs any more money from us.”
The referendum resulted from the SGA Legislature passing Bill 48s108, which proposed the increase. In order for the bill to take effect, a majority of students must vote ‘yes’ in a referendum, and the University Board of Trustees must approve the increase.
“We may have set our sights a little bit too high,” O’Leary said of the referendum’s failure. “$110 is a pretty decent increase. We could have gone for a smaller dollar amount, and it may have survived.”
O’Leary added that the student body didn’t seem very informed about the referendum, which may also have contributed to its failure.
“Most of the sentiments I saw cropping up among the student body were things like ‘SGA doesn’t do anything for us,'” O’Leary said, noting that SGA’s budget comprises less than one percent of the SAF, and that much of the rest goes toward funding student organizations. “We really do make our best effort to fund every student organization on campus, which sometimes comes at the cost of our budget and ourselves.”
Darby said he expected the referendum to fail as time went on but was surprised by the level of turnout and the size of the failure margin.
“I think money is a touchy subject,” he said. “Tuition goes up every year, and the fees we pay go up every year. Higher education’s become more expensive, and I think the idea of paying more, even if you get a lot of value from that fee, isn’t very attractive to people.”
Darby emphasized that Emory students would receive value from an increased fee, given the activities fees for Emory’s peer institutions like Washington University at St. Louis and Vanderbilt University, both of which have fees greater than $200.
“Emory University pays one of the lowest student activity fees among universities of our kind,” Darby said. “Our fee’s very low, and, for better or for worse, I think we need to get what we pay for, definitely.”
O’Leary noted that the lack of specificity of the SGA initiatives to be funded by the $15 increase may have contributed to the referendum’s failure.
“If any increase is going to happen, then students are really going to have to see a tangible cost-benefit analysis,” O’Leary said. “Anything that’s going to be put out about it needs to be concrete and detailed, showing exactly how [the money] is going to be used.”
O’Leary added that SGA was unable to detail specific programs for the extra $15 because of a compressed timeline, where the referendum had to be held before January, when the Board of Regents would meet to approve the increase. He added that if SGA were to do this again, they would start advertising well in advance to reach more students.
Darby added that he believes students judged that the benefits SGA promised from the fee were not worth the cost of the SAF increase. He said this may in part be because students do not currently trust their elected representatives to spend money responsibly, and this is due to the nature of the way the SAF is split among the University.
The SAF is split based on the Fee Split, which allots a certain fixed percentage of the fee to each divisional council of the University. Last fall, SGA amended the Fee Split to eliminate fixed percentages of the SAF for University-wide organizations, which include the Outdoor Emory Organization (OEO), the Student Programming Council (SPC), Club Sports and the Media Council.
Darby added that these organizations receive fixed percentages of the SAF without being required to submit a budget.
“I think accountability on the front end through budgeting is really necessary moving forward,” Darby said. “I think the fee split is fundamentally flawed.”
Darby said that the SGA programs proposed by the $15 increase are not going to happen now that the referendum has failed.
“All the benefits we advertised for using a $110 Student Activity Fee can’t happen with a $92 fee; it’s just a reality,” he said. “We don’t expect we’ll be able to make anything we promised under the $110 fee happen with any fee lower than that.”
O’Leary concurred, adding that the SAF increase would have relieved financial pressure on student organizations.
“The wallet of student organizations at Emory University is pretty strained right now,” O’Leary said. “We’re having some organizations get very, very close on their accounts. We definitely need to see something happen. If it’s just the [three dollar] CoLA increase, then that’s just going to have to be it for now.”
“I feel like our school has more than enough money to fund [the SAF] instead of asking us for more.” – College sophomore Hebing Wang
Based on the results of the referendum, Darby said he and the rest of SGA will be disseminating surveys to ascertain why students voted no.
“I have my own ideas, and sometimes my ideas don’t align with the student body, as we’ve seen in this referendum, but I think I’m obligated to be responsive to student concerns, by nature of being an elected representative,” Darby said.
College senior Harlan Cutshall, who is the vice president of programming for the Emory International Relations Association (EIRA), wrote that he was disappointed in the referendum’s failure.
“We receive significant funding from College Council, but are still forced to cover a large portion of our expenses independently, including conference fees for our traveling Model UN team,” Cutshall wrote in an email to the Wheel. “We were hoping that additional funds generated by an SAF increase would help not only our organization but hundreds of others across campus to help shrink this deficit, even if to a small degree. I’m upset that the referendum failed…”
Darby said that, regardless of the outcome, he felt it was encouraging to see this level of turnout.
“In the past, our turnout has been disappointing, to say the least,” he said. “I hope that in the future, we see at least this number of people voting.”
– By Sonam Vashi, Executive Editor, and Rupsha Basu, News Editor