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Press Clipping: A look into the student activity fee: How is it used?
This Lantern article about the student activity fee at Ohio State University quotes ASGA's executive director.

A look into the student activity fee: How is it used?

By Dan McKeever

Published: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Updated: Sunday, February 21, 2010

ouab graphic

Graphic by Melissa Braunlin

Of all the performers that the Ohio Union Activities Board paid to bring to campus last year, author Tucker Max was easily the most controversial.

While Max, known for his raunchy stories detailing his exploits with alcohol and women, played to a capacity crowd in Hitchcock Hall, more than 50 protesters rallied in and around the building.

One protester, Stephanie Diebold, met with OUAB representatives days beforehand, hoping to get the event canceled. Diebold was then a member of Women and Allies Rising in Resistance.

“It’s really wrong of the school to fund this guy to come to the university with Student Activity Fee money, when he writes stuff that glorifies sexual assault,” Diebold said in an interview with The Lantern before the event.

The quarterly Student Activity Fee is mandatory for all undergraduate, graduate and professional students. OUAB receives more than half of the money generated by the fee, which it uses to host campus events such as Max’s appearance. OUAB would not disclose the individual amounts it pays to performers like Max because of stipulations in the contracts it signs with performers.

Diebold’s comment on Max’s tumultuous appearance raises a number of questions. Should OUAB, which is an unelected student group separate from student government, decide how student fees are used for hiring performers? Are the events they sponsor worth the cost, and who holds the board accountable for its choices?

How OUAB works
OUAB is made up of 160 voting general members who join the group, attend OUAB training and volunteer at events. There are also 12 executive board members, who are selected by a panel including a member of the Ohio Union Council, two OUAB general members, the board’s president and its two advisers, and at least one other member of the current executive board.

The group is required to report annually to the Council on Student Affairs, a University Senate subcommittee that includes undergraduate, graduate and professional students, faculty members, staff members and administrators. OUAB is also required to report quarterly to the council’s Appropriations Subcommittee, which has the final say on how the money generated by the Student Activity Fee is allocated.

The Student Activity Fee was introduced in 2003 at $15 per quarter.

The Board of Trustees in September hiked the fee to $25 per quarter starting in January.

The Council on Student Affairs recommended the increase to keep pace with inflation and to provide additional money for what OSU calls signature events, which include the involvement fair, Beat Michigan activities and the Homecoming Parade. These events are also partially paid for by organizations such as Block O, the Ohio Union and the Multicultural Center.

The fee will also continue to fund the Discount Tickets program (formerly Explore Columbus), student organizations, student government, Buck-i-Serv alternative break programs and OUAB programs.

The $15 per quarter fee generated $2.2 million per year, of which OUAB received 55 percent (about $1.21 million). The $25 per quarter fee is expected to generate about $4 million per year, of which OUAB will receive 52.75 percent (about $2.11 million). This school year, the board’s budget is about $1.74 million.

OUAB’s budget goes to marketing, rental costs for performance venues, event production, general administrative costs and artist fees, OUAB adviser Colette Masterson said in an e-mail.

When it comes to choosing performers to come to campus, OUAB
relies on suggestions and feedback from its members, campus surveys and the Internet, using Facebook, Twitter and the suggestion form on the OUAB Web site, Masterson said.

The end result is more than 100 OUAB events each year, which include bands, movies, performers and lecturers, picnics, and events for graduate and professional students, such as speed dating and chocolate tasting. With the exception of charity fundraisers, OUAB’s campus events are free for students who hold valid Buck-IDs.

Holding OUAB accountable
While it’s hard to find anything objectionable about chocolate tasting, some students clearly found OUAB’s decision to spend their money on Tucker Max to be less palatable.

It’s a tricky proposition for OUAB, said Butch Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association.

“Whoever they choose, somebody’s going to gripe,” Oxendine said. “There’s never going to be someone that everybody loves. When you’re spending a lot of money, you want to make sure that it’s somebody most students want.”

Although he noted that situations like OSU’s, where a college’s activity planning board is an unelected body that is separate from student government, are very common, Oxendine is in favor of activities boards functioning as a part of student government.

“If activity fee money is going to fund these speakers and bands that are brought there, then there ought to be a chance for students to have feedback,” he said.

OUAB is accountable to the Council on Student Affairs, which makes funding allocation decisions. Unlike the Undergraduate Student Government, Council of Graduate Students, and Interprofessional Council, the Council on Student Affairs’ 19 voting members are chosen by the student governments, the faculty council and the Vice President for Student Life. They are not directly elected by students.

The most recent meeting minutes available on the Council on Student Affairs’ Web site are from April 2007. In that meeting, members discussed the possibility of increasing the Student Activity Fee to a total of $17 to $20 per quarter to combat inflation, according to the meeting minutes.

Like the Council on Student Affairs, student governments could hold OUAB accountable through the funding process, Oxendine said.

“If they’re producing events that students appreciate, a sign of that is attendance at the event,” he said.

Attendance: inside the numbers
OUAB sponsored 116 events, including 40 for graduate and professional students, from Summer Quarter 2008 to Spring Quarter 2009, the most recent period for which figures are available.
Over that period, attendance at all events totaled 79,376, which includes the roughly 16,000 students who attended Buck-i-Frenzy and the 3,922 students who attended events for graduate and professional students, according to an OUAB annual report obtained by The Lantern through a public records request.

But while attendance is an important metric for gauging the success of an event, it isn’t the only one — after all, Tucker Max’s performance packed Hitchcock Hall.

OUAB aims to run out of tickets for each event, but factors such as audience participation also matter, said Garren Cabral, a fourth-year in journalism and OUAB’s director of marketing.

For example, a recent event featuring Rex Lee from HBO’s Entourage “did not have maximum attendance, but a lot of the students were really engaged and enjoyed it — the die-hard fans,” Cabral said.

But Tucker Max attracted die-hard opponents as well as die-hard fans. Given the possibility that some students, like Stephanie Diebold, could be outraged that their money is used to pay performers like Max, should OSU consider using ticket sales, rather than student fees, to lure top artists?

Such a plan can be costly to students who attend the concerts, Cabral said. Mat Kearney and Ingrid Michaelson are playing an OUAB-sponsored concert in March, and are heading to Ohio University to play a concert shortly thereafter. While tickets to the OUAB event are free, OU students will have to pay between $18 and $30 to see the artists, according to the OU University Program Council’s Web site. OU students are not charged an activity fee, according to OU’s site.

But tickets to any OUAB event are only free because they’ve already been paid for by students’ fees, which will total $65 per student for Autumn, Winter, and Spring quarters this year. For students who attend enough events, the fee will have paid for itself, but students who abstain will have funded their classmates’ savings.

For example, dividing OUAB’s estimated 2008-2009 budget of $1.2 million by the total attendance at OUAB events over that time yields an estimated cost of $15 per attendee, or about half of the $33 that each OSU student contributed to OUAB through the Student Activity Fee over those four quarters.

Some students certainly attended multiple events. Dividing the attendance figures by the enrollment on the Columbus campus for Autumn Quarter 2008 yields an average of fewer than 1.5 events per student.

This average suggests that many students attended one event or no events at all, while many others attended multiple events. At an average event cost per attendee of $15, students who attended two events per year recouped OUAB’s portion of their Student Activity Fee, while those who attended fewer did not.

Despite this imbalance, “the precedent is to use those fees,” Oxendine said. He said he supports fewer free events funded by student fees and more events that require payment for tickets.

“That’s based on performance,” he said, “that’s the way things should be.”

Why the fee exists
The Student Activity Fee was introduced in 2003 with the understanding that all fee-funded events would be free, said Matt Couch, associate director of the Ohio Union and the director of Student Affairs Orientation, in an e-mail.

The fee was designed to provide a balance of entertainment offerings, including smaller programs along with well-known entertainers and lecturers, Couch said. Small programs, such as issue-based lectures and debates, film screenings and craft nights, could appeal to a lot of people, but might not warrant a ticket sale, he said.

“There needed to be a stable and predictable source of funds for those programs,” he said.

Collecting a mandatory fee every quarter allows program planners to count on a fixed budget, Couch said. Instead of relying on ticket sales, which are more variable, OUAB can strategize how to use the budget each quarter.

Another major advantage of collecting the mandatory Student Activity Fee is the ability to afford big-name talent.

“When they’re touring, we’re able to afford big acts like Will Ferrell, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart and put them in the Schottenstein Center for as many students as possible to see them,” Couch said. “Without a guaranteed source of funding for shows like that, there would be a great deal of financial risk.”

Even in the event that OUAB was able to pay for talent fees, venue rental, production costs and marketing expenses, the board would have to make enough from ticket sales to break even, Couch said.

“The ticket costs for students would have to be pretty high (likely
meaning fewer students would take advantage of the opportunity), and OUAB would probably also have to sell tickets to the general public to try to cover the costs,” Couch said in an e-mail.

By avoiding selling tickets to events, “we have likely spent far less on talent fees than we would otherwise have,” Couch said.

When tickets are sold, the artist usually earns a guaranteed amount and a percentage of the ticket sales. OUAB offers a flat guarantee to artists, so an artist earns his or her fee regardless of how many people attend the event, Couch said.

“In general, to make it worth their while, the artists would probably structure the agreements [for ticketed events] to get paid more than what they would get paid with a flat guarantee,” he said.

But exactly how much does OUAB save on artist fees under this arrangement?

Artist fees are kept secret

OUAB would not disclose the amount of money it paid to individual performers, citing privacy stipulations in the contracts it signs with artists.

“The privacy stipulations are commonplace within the entertainment industry,” board adviser Masterson said. “Due to the caliber of artist we bring to campus, this is a common expectation within the contracts. If we developed a reputation within the industry for disclosing talent fees, it would significantly impact our ability to attract talent and negotiate.”

But Oxendine of the American Student Government Association says the amount paid to performers should be revealed.

“That’s not something that should stay quiet,” he said.

Through Summer, Autumn, and Winter quarters of this school year, OUAB has already spent $307,525 on talent fees. This sum represents about 68 percent of OUAB’s expenses and 54 percent of its total event budget over that time period, according to an OUAB budget summary obtained by The Lantern through a public records request.

Over that same time period, the board will have sponsored 60 events, including appearances by Kings of Leon, Third Eye Blind, Bob Saget and an upcoming appearance by Maya Angelou. Not all of these events involve hired talent; more than one-third consists of movie screenings, and roughly another third consists of events such as workshops, picnics and speed dating.

Students should be able to make a judgment as to whether the money spent on a performer was worth it, especially for the big name performers who command the highest fees, Oxendine said.

“That’s the kind of question that student government needs to be asking fellow students,” he said. “Is this worth it? Should we be spending this money somewhere else?” 

American Student Government Association  

The American Student Government Association will provide all Student Government leaders and advisors nationwide with networking, research, and information resources and will teach them how to become more effective, ethical, and influential leaders on their campuses. ASGA also will promote the advancement of SGs, conduct research as the nation’s only “SG Think Tank,” and advocate the importance of having a vibrant, autonomous Student Government organization at every institution in America.

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