Western Oregon University has about 6,200 students. The population of Monmouth, OR is about 9,500.

Oregon college students are pointing to a conflict at Western Oregon University to push lawmakers to clarify the power of student governments to control incidental fees.

Lucy Ohlsen/OPB

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Multiple students and higher education advocates are pressing Oregon lawmakers to support a bill clarifying the power of student governments over student fee money used to fund various campus programs and services.

The advocacy comes as student governments throughout Oregon have had varying conflicts with administrators over delays and disagreements regarding student incidental fees.

“The student-controlled incidental fee is the only money which students pay to institutions and then have democratic student control over the expenditure of,” Emily Wanous, Legislative Director of the Oregon Student Association — a student advocacy nonprofit — said Thursday. “Our work shows time and time again that the only way students get their needs met on campus is when they’re given a voice and given power.”

The incidental fee is one type of fee that public college and university students pay on a term-by-term basis. Unlike fees controlled by the administration, which may go to facilities or classroom technology, the incidental fee is allocated by the elected student government toward student interests.

State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, and Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, are chief sponsors of House Bill 3012, which was originally discussed by lawmakers late last month.

“Institutions, who have differing priorities of students sometimes, have played a larger and larger role in determining how these incidental fees are expended,” Evans said in a House Committee on Education meeting a few weeks ago. “I think it’s time that we actually clarify … the power of the student government over their own tax dollars.”

House Bill 3012 does not create any new processes necessarily, but simplifies language in existing state statutes — clarifying the timelines for when college or university administration notifies a student government if it is rejecting or altering a proposed fee.

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Students said that would have helped last year at Western Oregon University.

Members of WOU’s student government, the Associated Students of WOU, said programs and services like the university’s food pantry and student newspaper almost lost funding due to delays from administrators.

“[Current state law] must affirm the role of the student government in determining the need for incidental fee services on all of our campuses in the state of Oregon,” ASWOU President NJ Johnson said Thursday during a public hearing for the bill.

Although her school has not had recent, obvious conflicts like those at WOU, Nat Young, a graduate student and senator for Oregon State University’s student government, also spoke in support of the bill.

“This year, we’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions in terms of what student fees need to go to. A lot of things have had to be cut [and] reduced,” Young said Thursday.

Along with clarifying language, HB 3012 would also update the existing state statute to reflect financial struggles public colleges and universities have faced during the pandemic. Specifically, it would allow mandatory incidental fees to be raised by more than 5% if the fee budget for the previous year was at an abnormally low level because of a declared state of emergency.

Young said, moving forward, and eventually out of the pandemic, making budgetary decisions as a student government is “going to be really tough to do if a lot of the requests that we’re making can just be thrown out.”

The way the current state statute is written, a college or university board has broad authority to refuse a student government’s request for an incidental if the administration decides the request does not add to the “cultural or physical development of students.”

The bill removes that ability, so that a board can only refuse a student government’s fee request if the request is in violation of a law, conflicts with a contractual financial commitment or is a 5% increase outside of a state of emergency.

Rep. Evans said initially when speaking about the bill that he was concerned about the will of the student government being “pushed aside” by college and university administrations.

“If I was paying the amount of money that folks are paying at a public institution, I would want greater say over this particular type of fee, and that’s what this bill does,” Evans said.

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