Student leaders at Western Oregon University were alarmed twice this year at potential cuts to student-funded programs and services like their food pantry, student affinity groups and student newspaper. Their concerns were only intensified by what they describe as delayed responses and inaction from university administrators.
Now, WOU’s student government and others are working on legislation, likely to come before state lawmakers at their regular legislative session next month, to ensure similar conflicts don’t happen again.
The Associated Students of Western Oregon University, or ASWOU, in conjunction with the Oregon Student Association and Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, are looking to close legal loopholes that they say have caused delays, conflicts and confusion between students and university administrations at numerous public universities in Oregon. At issue is control over decisions governing the collection of student fees and spending on vital campus services
The new legislation is looking to clarify sections of an existing state statute about mandatory student incidental fees, Oregon Student Association Executive Director Andrew Rogers said. He said WOU’s situation highlights an ongoing difficulty that does not allow student leaders autonomy in controlling spending decisions, if administrators drag their feet.
“Much of the problem is that the law as written now provides the opportunity for an institution to ‘pocket veto’ the student fee through inaction and enough delays,” Rogers said.
At WOU, those incidental fees are paid by students and allocated by ASWOU to a variety of student services and organizations on campus.
“During COVID, I would argue that a lot of these services are even more essential than in normal times,” ASWOU President NJ Johnson said. “Things like the food pantry, different advocacy groups, different culture-based groups on campus and student government, and also student jobs that they rely on to pay their rent and buy groceries and stay engaged in campus life when we’re all really disconnected right now.”
Johnson said WOU’s president, Rex Fuller, and its board of trustees, have delayed ASWOU’s process of requesting student fees two times this year — in September, ahead of fall term, and this month, ahead of the upcoming winter term.
These delays led to ASWOU twice filing appeals with the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Though both appeals were eventually withdrawn, higher ed officials say this was the first time student leaders took such a step.
Things began this past summer, when ASWOU was informed that due to the coronavirus pandemic about 95% of fall term classes at WOU would be held online, and only students taking classes in-person at WOU’s Monmouth campus would be charged the incidental fee.
“We had been informed that only about 5% of our incidental fee dollars were going to be collected,” Johnson said. “And therefore, a lot of programs were going to be lost, a lot of jobs would be lost.”
Johnson said it was then that ASWOU and its Incidental Fee Committee began having conversations about amending the incidental fee process – so that online students would also pay, but at a reduced rate.
“The WOU administration was procedurally blocking that fee request,” Johnson said.
Johnson said WOU’s Board of Trustees was unwilling to meet with them, and there was a general delay in responses from the administration. Working with the Board of Trustees was critical, because that’s the body that authorizes the collection of the fee, he said.
Eventually, WOU offered ASWOU $1 million – temporary support coming from the university itself – not from the student incidental fee as ASWOU had requested.
That money did not cover all of the incidental fee funding areas, so the student government requested the collection of a smaller student incidental fee to make up the difference. WOU President Fuller refused to accept that request, leading to ASWOU filing its first appeal with the HECC back in September — according to HECC documents.
But, documents state, Fuller threatened to take back the $1 million unless ASWOU withdrew the HECC appeal. So student leaders did.
If ASWOU had continued with the appeal and HECC had decided in its favor, it would have overshot financial aid deadlines, and none of those programs would have been funded at all, Johnson said.
“Fast forward now to this term, we were told by the administration that we could set up different processes and establish different guidelines for advancing incidental fees for winter term,” Johnson said. But he said that did not happen in a reasonable timeline.
Johnson said through meetings and student feedback the fall, the Incidental Fee Committee decided on a fee of $150 to be charged to all students this upcoming term, starting in January – both those enrolled online and in-person.
The committee took the request to WOU’s board of trustees in late November, which then delegated the decision to Fuller.
“When it got to President Fuller’s desk, he had over two weeks to respond to that fee request. He waited until the last day that we needed for our timeline,” Johnson said.
Instead of making a decision, Fuller asked questions about the fee request – the answers to which had already been made publicly available weeks in advance, Johnson said.
Although Fuller had neither accepted or rejected the fee request, ASWOU again filed an appeal to the HECC last week.
“[Fuller’s actions], in our eyes, were just meant to stall the process so we would be to the point where a HECC appeal would be null, where it wouldn’t be able to do anything if we had waited too long,” Johnson said.
About a week after filing that appeal to the HECC, on Monday evening, ASWOU said it received a letter from Fuller accepting the student fee request for winter term.
Johnson stressed that this issue could have been easily resolved internally if WOU administration had recognized the student government’s autonomy over incidental fees before ASWOU had to file appeals with the HECC.
Western Oregon University said in a statement that the university’s board of trustees had delegated the authority to approve the fee request to Fuller in order to “provide flexibility” to ASWOU, so that the board did not have to call an additional meeting to take action.
“At no time did the university or President Fuller reject ASWOU’s incidental fee proposal; he shared that he was unable to meet an artificial deadline set by the students,” WOU said in a statement. “Because there was no rejection of the proposed fee, the university believed the HECC appeal was premature and welcomed its withdrawal.”
WOU student Makana Waikiki, also Chair of ASWOU’s Incidental Fee Committee, said she was unhappy about the way that her university’s administration handled the situation — especially in working to maintain key services during a pandemic.
“Overall, what we’re looking to solve right now is that students deserve to have a voice, and they have a right to have a voice,” Waikiki said. “It’s just really disappointing to see that President Fuller and this administration have made countless attempts to silence that voice when this is the time we need to encourage that voice.”
Now, student leaders are working state lawmakers to change the law governing student fees, to affirm the role of student government in spending student fee proceeds.
Rep. Nosse, who is backing the legislation, said these issues are close to him on a personal level — as someone who got his start in student government. Nosse also formerly led the Oregon Student Association.
“[The student incidental fee], within certain parameters, is controlled by the student government and their processes on the campus, not the administration,” Nosse said.
Student government autonomy in how that fee is allocated began out of student activism in Oregon in the 1970s, Nosse said.
“It was hard fought,” Nosse said. “Administrators at the universities, sometimes legislators in the ’70s, didn’t want to give student government that authority, but they were able to pass laws to do it.”
The new legislation intended to clarify the mandatory fee process is expected to be introduced at the beginning of Oregon’s regular legislative session in January.
Specifically, it would add sections highlighting that a student government must make efforts to collaborate with its institution’s board and president on the student fee process, and if an agreement isn’t reached, the board must promptly provide written notice to the student government on how the proposed fee would be altered or if it’s being completely rejected.
“This process at WOU was our first test case of the law as written,” Rogers with the Oregon Student Association said, “and what we have seen is that during the summer when students sought to collect a fall term incidental fee, the statute as written did not successfully protect the right of students to do so.”
Nosse acknowledged that this bill may be somewhat “in the weeds” amid a busy legislative session.
“My hope is that my peers will understand that all people, all human beings, care about having input in some say, and that’s what this is about,” Nosse said. “And I hope that they’ll step up and support it.”