If you’re trying to get to the root of the left wing lean on campuses, try following the money. Until the 1960s, student activity fees were relatively modest and primarily just a mechanism for paying for the new swimming pool or student center on campus, buying equipment for intramural sports, and the like. But with the rise of the free speech movement at Berkeley and elsewhere, liberals on campus began to see student activity fees as a potential source of funding for their ideological causes. This paved the way for Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Resource Groups (PIRGs) to become student funded mechanisms for lobbying and advocating for left-wing causes.
Of course, not everyone supported those causes and some students over the intervening years objected to being forced to pay to support groups whose views they reject. In Southworth v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, the Supreme Court held that it was permissible for universities to require students to pay these fees and authorize student government to allocate them to such ideological groups, but only if the university ensured that the fees were distributed in a viewpoint neutral manner.
This brings us to Stony Brook University on Long Island, part of New York’s SUNY system. Stony Brook students pay $95 per year in student activity fees – a healthy piece of which ($33,000 in the current year’s budget) goes to the New York PIRG. Stony Brook University students who do not approve of the positions advocated by NYPIRG or other groups – religious, political, or otherwise – cannot demand their money back (after Southworth), but they can demand that student government be required to allocate their fees in a neutral manner using neutral criteria that do not simply direct the lion share of the funds to one side of the political spectrum.
Last fall the Undergraduate Student Government at Stony Brook initiated a “New Club Funding Act” that fails this test and has been applied to discriminate against the views of Young Americans for Freedom a conservative student organization. YAF sought funding from the USG, but was denied on the basis that it is “very similar to the College Republicans.” This is a curious decision anyway since YAF is a nonpartisan group (whose membership at Stony Brook includes Republicans and Democrats) dedicated to advancing conservative principles, whereas College Republicans is primarily aimed at supporting Republican candidates for election. While there is certainly some commonality of interest, a casual observer of politics for the past few years knows that the Republican party and conservative activists have had an occasionally rocky relationship.
But in any case, asking student government to examine the views of a group to see if they are “too similar” to an existing group invites a subjective analysis where the supposed differences between some groups with more favored views are excused in order to justify funding both, but any new group on the conservative side of the spectrum is considered duplicative and unnecessary. And a casual review of the groups funded at Stony Brook indicates that may have occurred here. Moreover, the system cements the existing groups (including NYPIRG and many others) and resolves any “duplication” in favor of the status quo.
But Stony Brook’s problems only start there. The New Club Funding Act provides no limitation on the factors the student government may consider in allocating funds to student groups and even requires groups seeking funding to submit a petition with roughly 800 student signatures (10% of which are verified by calling the signatories and quizzing them) supporting the group’s funding.
Whether intended for this purpose or not, policies like these have the effect of skewing the marketplace of ideas. The heavy funding for left-wing groups allows them to evangelize more effectively on campus and the resulting more left-leaning student body makes it even more difficult for conservative groups to get their fair share when majoritarian views are inserted into the process. But ultimately it is all students, not just a few members of a conservative group, who are robbed when the marketplace of ideas lacks a robust conservative aisle.
Today we have sent Stony Brook’s USG and its Dean of Students a letter urging them to make the necessary changes to the school’s funding system to comply with the law and protect the rights of YAF, its members and other Stony Brook students.
Stony Brook isn’t alone in having funding policies that violate the First Amendment. This is an epidemic on campuses several decades in the making. And one would be foolish to believe that all of the problems faced by conservative and Christian student groups today are attributable to the funding disparities. But for those who lament the leftward tilt of academia, follow the money trail.