In a budget proposal to Portland State President Rahmat Shoureshi, the Associated Students of PSU’s Student Fee Committee has focused its attention on funding projects it says will enhance student safety and accessibility. However, the dedication of student building fees to these projects has sparked concern that the SFC—which operates independently of the university administration—is beginning to absorb costs PSU should be paying for.
According to SFC Chair Patrick Meadors, the committee has decided to allocate $531,000 to 12 projects including beacons for an emergency alert system, a railing at the grand stairs of the new $64 million Karl Miller Center, an improved accessibility ramp at Millar Library and tactile maps for vision-impaired students.
“If it’s mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s something [the university] has to do,” said Student Activities and Leadership Programs Director Aimee Shattuck. “Those types of things…are foundational, basic things [the administration] should provide [and] probably shouldn’t be coming out of the fee that students get to choose to allocate.”
Shattuck added, “To me, the intent of that, same with the intent of the student fees, is not to fund the things that the university has to do to function.”
Where do Student Building Fees go?
Current SFC bylaws state, “The Student Building Fee is used to finance construction or remodeling of buildings such as student unions and study spaces across campus.”
PSU used to be part of the Oregon University System and charged students $45 each term for a centralized pot of money shared by other universities in the state. This system allowed smaller universities to access more funds for building maintenance.
In 2013, state lawmakers allowed PSU to leave the system and collect its own fees. Around this time, the way in which Student Building Fee money was allocated also changed.
“When you look at the student building fee section of the SFC bylaws now, and you compare them to how they are described in the old guidelines,” Shattuck said, “the fee was specifically for auxiliary buildings, so non-academic buildings, that were student-centered and in some part student-fee funded.”
The old guidelines, as stated in a document from 2003, say “Building fees can be used for self-supporting, revenue producing campus spaces” and “The purpose of these funds is to enhance the spaces and services that are provided through auxiliary buildings/spaces on campus.” From 1979–2003, no funding allocations were made to academic buildings.
“Now [the guidelines are] much looser,” Shattuck said. “Which in some ways is good because you want that flexibility, but now [that the] provision went away, [Student Building Fees are] now funding academic buildings.”
When should the administration foot the bill?
Meadors listed several examples of student fees improving academic buildings in recent years: small student study and lounge areas in Cramer Hall, 4th Avenue, Parkmill, and the Art Building; conversion of single stall, gendered restrooms to all-gender restrooms across campus, including Science Building 1; an elevator and a lift for Parkmill and Honors, respectively; renovations to the Cramer Hill first floor lounges; and accessible mechanized door openers in a variety of academic buildings.
Despite the SFC allocating money to renovations on areas of campus not run by student fees, however, Meadors and Dan Zalkow, associate vice president for Planning, Construction, and Real Estate, both insist students are not paying to bring the university up to code.
“None of the projects proposed to be funded are being done to bring buildings or spaces up to current ADA requirements for new buildings,” Zalkow stated. “The university always renovates or builds spaces in a manner that meets ADA requirements and often designs and constructs spaces that are more accessible than what the ADA requires.”
Still, Shattuck said she thinks the line between the administration’s capital improvements allocations and funds allocated by students might be getting blurred.
“To me, the original intent of [the Student Building Fee] was things the students wanted to fund, capital projects, that probably wouldn’t rise to the top of things that could happen,” Shattuck said.
“Because the university’s funds for those capital projects had to go towards making things accessible, fixing them, building an academic building, it had to be the foundational pieces of the university,” she said. “And now the building fee projects are slipping into that category. Or, people could see it that way.”
It is unclear whether the SFC is really making up for capital improvement costs the university administration cannot cover, but similar to what the university claims about rising tuition costs, capital improvements seem to be at the mercy of state funds.
“We receive funds from the state on a biennial basis for capital improvements on campus,” Zalkow stated in an email. “This has ranged from $2.8 to $5.3 million, per year, in recent years. Since this is not enough to do all the improvements that are desired, we focus the funds on the most pressing needs.”
According to Vice President of Finance and Administration Kevin Reynolds, PSU deliberately postpones some less-pressing maintenance projects until the state grants PSU money for major building renovations.
Otherwise, Zalkow said, student fees make up for projects that fall into unusual categories.
“Right now, [Student Building Fee] guidelines do talk about [Smith Memorial Student Union] being an important place for money, as well as student places around campus, but not specific to an auxiliary or self-support building,” Zalkow said, “which I think is important because there are a lot of academic buildings that have interesting spaces that have no direct department ownership of those spaces, and there is no funding source to improve those spaces.”