Jewish Group at Amherst College Receives Funding After AAS Senate Debate, but Concerns Remain about Senate Funding Policies

By on February 25, 2011

According to a column by Romen Borsellino in The Amherst Student, the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Senate at Amherst College, of which Borsellingo is a member, debated during a meeting on February 14 whether a new Jewish student organization, the Jew Crew, should receive funding for an event. Detractors claimed that the Jew Crew was too similar to the existing Jewish student organization on campus, Hillel, while supporters noted that the two served different purposes. Eventually, the AAS Senate reached an almost unanimous decision to fund the event.

While this is good news for the Jew Crew, the broader implications of the debate are a bit disconcerting. First, there’s no reason to deny a student group’s otherwise valid event funding request simply because some believe that its mission is too similar to that of another organization. Even more concerning, though, is Borsellino’s quote about a proposed resolution for the AAS Senate on value judgments:

This resolution sought to put into words the fact that we should be able to decide to fund something based on whether or not we like the cause. The problem is, that’s what we already do. 

While this type of viewpoint-based decision-making would clearly be unconstitutional on a public campus, Amherst College, as a private institution, isn’t bound by the Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000), which forbids public universities receiving mandatory student fees from using viewpoint-based criteria to allocate funds. But while Amherst is private, that doesn’t change the fact that one of the main purposes of an institution of higher learning is to encourage dialogue about a multitude of beliefs and ideas and let the best ideas win out. If the AAS Senate regularly employs viewpoint discrimination in deciding which organizations and events receive funding, it is impoverishing campus discourse by attempting to prevent the dissemination of certain beliefs and ideas.

This kind of viewpoint discrimination would also violate university policy. Amherst’s "Honor Code: Statement of Rights 10-11," states that students have "[t]he right to engage in the free exchange of ideas" and "to join with others in other non-violent forms of common action." By refusing funding to certain groups simply because they don’t agree with their political or ideological views, the AAS Senate would be breaking these clauses of the Honor Code.

It’s important to note that the minutes from the meeting indicate that the AAS Senate doesn’t flat out say that it has the power to allocate funding in a viewpoint-discriminatory manner, and there is no clause in the AAS Constitution or Bylaws that claims such discretionary funding authority. However, even if the AAS Senate only occasionally follows this unwritten policy, student liberty is sorely threatened. Interestingly enough, letting go unchallenged the idea that the AAS Senate could allocate funding to organizations based on the validity of their cause, Borsellino also believes that having more student groups would benefit the campus.

My opinion on the matter is that there are probably tons of identical groups on campus that we fund all the time. This just caught peoples’ eye because of the religious nature. Who cares if there are two Jewish groups? The more student involvement there is on campus, the better.

Hopefully, the AAS Senate, including Borsellino, will heed these words and make it clear that funding will be allocated in a viewpoint-neutral manner. Only then will Amherst students be able to fully participate in an unrestricted marketplace of ideas.

Schools: Amherst College