WASHINGTON – Maryland university officials welcomed last week’s Supreme Court ruling that said colleges can collect mandatory fees from students, even if the money funds campus groups that the students may disagree with.
The high court ruled against a University of Wisconsin student who challenged the mandatory fees as unconstitutional because the money went to groups with political agendas, such as homosexual, environmental and women’s rights groups.
“A campus is a place where you need to preserve, above all … First Amendment rights,” said Susanna Craine, a spokeswoman for Towson University who welcomed the high court’s Wednesday ruling.
But the chairman of the Maryland Federation of College Republicans said it is wrong to force students to pay for a political activity that they do not support, despite what the Supreme Court says.
“I still think it’s wrong that I am forced to fund advocacy positions to which I am strongly opposed,” said Phil Deacey. “I can’t get into the university unless I pay the student fees and I really have no say as to where they go. And they tend to be for very liberal purposes.”
Each campus sets its own rules for allocating student fees, but generally the student government decides what groups will be funded. They make no judgment on the position a group advocates, if any, focusing instead on the number of functions and services it will provide students. Funding is limited to groups that are run by students, and those whose membership and services are open to all students.
In Maryland, student fees range from $15 a year for students at the University of Maryland at Baltimore to $130 at Frostburg State University, according to the University System of Maryland.
University system officials could not say how much is collected statewide, but at the University of Maryland College Park alone, student fees generate about $1.2 million a year for more than 100 campus groups, said spokesman George Cathcart. Full-time College Park students pay a fee of $53 a year and part-time students pay $28 a year.
An official from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said no student has ever challenged a state university’s mandatory fees in court. The state’s system of fees “didn’t seem to us to be creating a problem nor did it seem it would create a problem,” said John Anderson, chief of the attorney general’s education affairs division.
Still, the state joined the University of Wisconsin suit last November as a precaution. If the court had ruled against Wisconsin, state and university officials said, deciding what groups got funding and what groups did not would have been a nightmare.
“On the practical side implementing something like that would have been really challenging,” said Craine.
Most Maryland college students were away on spring break last week, but a Towson University official said that student government members would probably be relieved that the court sided with Wisconsin.
“In some preliminary discussions, our students were not in favor of moving” away from the current fee system, said Don Stansberry, Towson University’s assistant director of student activities. “They wanted to keep the process the way it was and they felt it was fair.”
Luke Jenson, director of the University of Maryland College Park’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equity office, said the students he works with were clearly interested in the case “and I’m sure they feel relieved that the court made the right decision.”
Jenson said the university would likely have found a way to work around the ruling if the justices had ruled against mandatory fees. The administration would probably create “strange and arcane rules to adjust” so that many voices were still heard on campus, he said.
“If they would have decided the other way there would have been chaos,” Jenson said.