Asking Students to Pay a Title IX Fee is unethical: The case at the University of Maryland

The proposal of the Student Government Association (SGA) and the complicity of the University’s Title IX office in proposing a mandatory student fee towards funding the Title IX office is highly unethical. It is an affront to those of us who fought towards affordability in higher education, and it is another exercise in the ever-increasing neoliberalization of our universities.

The SGA Vice President for Student Affairs wrote a guest column in the student newspaper titled: The University of Maryland hasn’t adequately funded Title IX. Now, it’s up to students.If the office “has experienced a 65 percent increase in sexual misconduct complaints, and a 40 percent increase in civil rights complaints” why should it fall to the students making those complaints to ensure the university complies with a federal mandate? How does one jump to proposing a student fee in this scenario? A.J. Pruitt and the Executives at the SGA see no problem in asking the victims themselves to pay a mandatory fee so that the University can adequately process these complaints.

This solution is being touted as one based on a model of shared responsibility. Catherine A. Carroll, the Director of the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct wrote on the Diamondback that:

The university has funded the office since its inception in 2014. Each subsequent year, the funding has increased, and now the office has a current budget of just over $1 million. However, reports of sexual misconduct and the number of investigations continue to increase, likely the result of increased awareness and outreach. Additional resources are needed to properly handle our growing caseload and — critically — to expand education and prevention efforts across the campus.

The responsibility for this effort does not rest with any single group. If we are to truly change the culture and create an environment of respect and safety, it will take our entire community working together and participating.

But why should this proposed million dollars to be collected in student fees come from students? If it’s unethical and unheard of to mandate faculty and staff to withhold part of their salary to contribute to the Title IX office, why is it ok to ask students to pay a mandatory fee? Why is it such a huge deal to expect to study and work in an environment free of sexual assault and harassment? Why is it such a huge deal to expect to have the appropriate office with the right protocols to report such behavior when it happens? Why does the SGA and The University of Maryland seem to think that students should pay a premium for such an environment in the form of a student fee?

While well-intentioned, this sets a dangerous precedent. The fee is being championed by the SGA. Which means that it is well on its way to being presented to the Committee for the Review of Student Fees. I am saddened and disappointed by this news, because while this particular fee is new, the creation and increase of students fees has become too commonplace at my graduate Alma Mater. It is alarming that students are being asked to shoulder more and more costs over the years. This particular fee is even more egregious and insulting because it is designed to supplement funding for the Title IX office.

Unfortunately, the stage for this has been set with other mandatory fees. When I started graduate school in 2008, fees amounted to less than 400 dollars per semester. When I graduated in 2015, that quantity had almost doubled for a full time non-candidate graduate student (here is a link for the current student fees); this is not mentioning the surprise Spring 2015 one-time Tuition surcharge—that paradoxically wasn’t covered by tuition remission—that was imposed on us as a result of looming budget cuts at the state level.

The increase in tuition fees came at a time when the undergraduate Student Government Association’s leadership successfully lobbied for a tuition freeze and moderate tuition increases. This resulted in minor 3–4% increases in both undergraduate and graduate tuition at the University System of Maryland. Which seems like good news.

However, that slow increase triggered the university administration’s use of student fees to cover loss in revenue. The creation of student fees gives the proposing unit greater control over those funds, than those that are allocated to it by the University’s monies from tuition.

For many undergraduate students, who do not rely on tuition remission, this is almost a moot point. However, for many graduate students receiving tuition remission, mandatory student fees amounted to approximately one paycheck plus a portion of the next one—especially those getting paid at the minimum stipend levels. Student fees at UMD are an additional cost that are separate from tuition since graduate students who receive tuition remission still have to pay for student fees, since they are not considered part of tuition. This is especially grim given that less than half of the 11,000 graduate students at UMD are on graduate assistantships with some sort of tuition remission, and others rely on student loans—which are unsubsidized since 2012. How does another fee fit into the life of graduate students struggling to meet the demands of their education process?

Every year, the university fee committee meets to make decisions about fee proposals. Every year they have been approving, not eliminating or actively reducing, student fees1. During my tenure as representative, Chief of Staff, and President of the Graduate Student Government, new fees were created to offload services from the university’s budget in the form of student fees.

fees-simply-001

The committee for the Review of Student Fees is comprised of 6 administrators, 6 students (4 undergraduates and 2 graduate students), and one committee chair (another university administrator) who only votes as a tie breaker-if needed. During my two year tenure on this committee, it served to more or less approve—and, in very few instances, deny—fee increases.

The undergraduate students in particular always felt pressured to pass these fee increases, and I don’t want to speculate as to why that was. My fellow graduate student on the committee and I often took hard stances to force the administration’s hand to adequately fund services we deemed essential and that should be part of tuition. One such case was with a proposed increase to the library technology fee. The increase would have ensured access to current electronic journals. The fee has also been used to update the computers and devices students could borrow from the library. However, my colleague and I felt the increase inappropriate. Why would the university fail to adequately fund the University Libraries, in such a way that it forced the libraries to ask students for more funding through a mandatory fee increase?

Personally, I was confused by how UMD could admit a student to a Research One university, with the understanding of what that entails, and then ask the student to pay extra—in a different category of payment from tuition, since tuition is also tax deductible—for better access to electronic journals. That, to me, is a capitalist fast-food approach to higher education; here are your ten or so extra sides—fees—to choose from, however, they are mandatory if you want your entree—education. Our tertiary level education now comes with an additional (and mandatory) bill of $750 per semester you didn’t you know you had to pay when you were admitted—it’s somewhere in the small print: Enjoy those football and basketball tickets though, they’re “free” (they’re part of your fees) to students.

The committee was receptive to what my colleague and I would have to say about the precariousness of the economic lives of graduate students, but the fee business pressed on. The undergrads in particular weren’t consistent allies, since they often sided with the administration in regards to increases of student fees; my impression was that while they agreed with us in spirit, they felt no other option was viable. I also thought that bringing up issues regarding the fee review process put the undergraduates in an uncomfortable situation: “Did they want their 4 year college experience to be sub-par, without these extra services?”

During my time, I particularly remember an increase to the recreational services fee being approved. The recreational services fee increase was egregiously proposed to us in the most ironic of scenarios: the fee increase was to cover the cost of the pool at one of our recreation centers for the following three years. Why a fee increase to cover the cost of the pool then? Who payed for the pool before? The pool was previously payed for by the swimming team; and the swimming team was eliminated by the university president the previous year, among many other athletic teams in an effort to solve the growing deficit of the athletics department.

There was no talk of reducing that particular fee after those initial 3 years or any other fee. That topics always elicited uncomfortable laughs, because of its improbability. There was even the case of another fee that was being collected and was not being spent! This reminded me of what the SGA wrote in their press release about the Title IX fee:

The SGA and other student leaders are working to ensure funding for this resource in the short-term but we believe this financial responsibility is one that falls on the university administration in the long-run.

This is a naive belief because, in my experience and that of my colleagues in the GSG, once a fee was instituted, it’s done. During this time, a fee has not been removed so far. How is the University going to be pressed to then provide more funds, if students are taking care of it? The SGA is proposing something dangerous, given their relatively short stay at the university for four years.

Whereas the Title IX office is currently understaffed and is being “forced” to ask students for funding, the university is currently spending millions of dollars building a new indoor training facility for the football team. While some might argue that I am making a false equivalency between athletics and academics, since those budgets are “technically” separate, it is still very disappointing that a school prioritizes football facilities, over adequately funding the Title IX office, which is supposed to handle sexual assault/harassment complaints as part of a federal requirement. How does this make sense?

David Colón-Cabrera, MAA, PhD, President of the Graduate Student Government 2012–2014

  1. There is an exception to this: the Graduate Student Activity Fee was reduced at some point. This particular fee is self-determined by the Graduate Student Government. As such, the university has little (only in an advisory manner) oversight into setting this particular fee. Same with the undergraduate activity fee.

Award

Note: The tone and style of this post is very different than the others; I rarely write like this, so I feel a bit out of my element.

This past Sunday, I received The University of Maryland Graduate Student Distinguished Service Award. I was nominated by my advisor, and one of my closest friends early this semester, but until  Sunday night I only knew that I was a finalist among a group of equally deserving graduate students.

Among the finalists, were two other colleagues that I have worked with before. I felt in good company, and I knew they were deserving of the award as well.

They told us ahead of time that if one of us won, we had a chance to give a 30-45 second speech; this was only done with the last 4   awards of the night. I decided that in that short time I wanted to share part of my story and honor the road that brought me here.

It was a very emotional experience for me; I barely kept it together. I cried in joy, and I wished my mother could have been there:

I’m really proud to have been nominated along with these other graduate students who are such givers of their time and resources, and also deserve to be recognized. (I added how overwhelmed I was at the moment).

Growing up in a poor neighborhood, I learned from a young age the importance of service to others. I owe my service orientation to my family, especially my mother.

She lived her life so selflessly, that when she got cancer and couldn’t work anymore, her coworkers paid for her health insurance out of gratitude; and when she died, the whole neighborhood took care of my sisters and me.

So I have never taken for granted the fact that sometimes I had food in front of me because of strangers’ kindness, that I was able to finish college with the help of others… And that I was able to come to grad school because in that same spirit of service, others saw potential in me.

So I want to thank my family away from home, my advisor Judith Freidenberg and my friend Nadine Dangerfield for nominating me. I hope to keep giving back to others, so they can be as fortunate as I have been. This is for my mami.

I was surprised to hear from some people that it was not until then that they had actually heard my story. Which is why I’m sharing this bit in a post. I think it’s important for others to know of the success stories of people like me, and bask in them, since we so often only hear the bad experiences and the struggle.

Mami
Mami