Victory for Student Rights: UT Austin Restores Transparency in Funding Student Organizations

May 19, 2014

The assessment of mandatory student fees for the purpose of supporting a variety of student organizations and programming is commonplace at public universities. Distribution of these funds is often placed in the hands of students themselves, with the understanding—reinforced by multiple Supreme Court decisions—that this process must be content- and viewpoint-neutral. In the absence of transparency, however, the fair allocation of student fee funds can be threatened—as was until recently the case at the University of Texas at Austin (UT). Fortunately, in response to concerns raised by FIRE, UT is taking steps to ensure transparency is restored and funds are distributed even-handedly.

The trouble at UT began on March 6, when the UT Objectivism Society applied for funding support from the student-led Events CoSponsorship Board (ECB) for a planned on-campus debate. Titled “Inequality: Should We Care?,” the discussion was set to feature Yaron Brook, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, and James K. Galbraith, a UT professor and director of the University of Texas Inequality Project. ECB itself is funded wholly by student activity fees, to the tune of $70,000 per year—all of which is spent supporting the programming of various student organizations. The UT Objectivism Society applied for $1,920.64 in funding to support the event, and met with ECB on March 19 to discuss its proposal and make its final pitch for funding.

On March 22, however, ECB emailed UT Objectivism Society president Jonathan Divin, informing him that ECB “is unable to fund UT objectivism Society at this time.” Divin responded, asking if ECB could provide any explanation as to why the group’s request for funding was denied. Troublingly, ECB replied only: “Unfortunately, ECB is unable to disclose any information regarding the deliberation process whether or not an event was funded.” The UT Objectivism Society’s debate would take place as scheduled but only after the group raised $3,000 privately in the absence of funding support from ECB.

Yikes. That’s problematic for a whole host of reasons, chief among them being that when a funding board like ECB is unaccountable to the student public, there are no checks on whether it is distributing its funds in a constitutional manner—opening the door for charges of unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination.

We detailed these concerns in a letter sent to UT President William Powers on March 28:

Foremost among FIRE’s concerns is the preservation of viewpoint neutrality in student group funding. As ECB’s budget is subsidized by mandatory activity fees paid by students, ECB is obligated to distribute all funds for student programming in a viewpoint-neutral manner, so that no student organization is discriminated against on the basis of its views and ideas. Multiple decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States in precisely this area of the law make ECB’s obligations as an agent of the university clear. See Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 233 (2000) (“When a university requires its students to pay fees to support the extracurricular speech of other students, all in the interest of open discussion, it may not prefer some viewpoints to others.”); Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995) (“For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses.”).

If ECB claims the right to withhold any information it wishes about its review process from student groups applying for funding support, it essentially grants itself license to discriminate against any group it pleases without any accountability to the student public. This is an unacceptable practice and an unethical use of the students’ fees.

I’m pleased to report that UT took these concerns seriously and got to the bottom of the funding issue, detailing its findings in its April 24 response to us. We now know that, among other matters, ECB’s available funds at that time were low enough that it couldn’t cover the group’s full request for support. Importantly, Vice President for Student Affairs Gage E. Paine’s response concluded:

I regret that the basis for the ECB’s decision was not communicated more effectively to the Society. Since learning about the concerns expressed in your letter, ECB members and University staff have met and discussed the need to provide information to funding applicants after an ECB decision has been made. I hope an improved line of communication between the ECB and funding applicants will prevent a similar misunderstanding in the future.

We’re very pleased by this response and by UT and ECB’s commitment to ensure transparency in funding student activities. This can only improve student organizations’ confidence in the fairness of the funding process as they seek support for their activities, which in turn will boost ECB’s credibility with the groups it supports. We commend UT for taking the right steps to resolve this issue.

Schools:  University of Texas at Austin

Cases:  University of Texas at Austin: Lack of Transparency in Student Group Funding Raises First Amendment Concerns