SSFC’s strict rules: A barrier or a safeguard for underrepresented student groups?

The Student Services Finance Committee, which allocates more than $1.3 million in segregated fees, was criticized this year for not being accessible to all students.

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SSFC’s strict rules: A barrier or a safeguard for underrepresented student groups?

Every year, a panel of 15 students allocates $51 million dollars to services around campus. Of that $51 million, more than $1.3 million is given to student organizations that are a part of the General Student Services Fund.

This year, the Student Services Finance Committee, which allocates those funds, was criticized for not being accessible to all students. Specifically, some groups claimed some SSFC practices make it especially hard for underrepresented organizations to get funding.

Groups argued that SSFC’s strict rules created barriers for underrepresented students’ organizations, which are typically smaller. Some groups said they found SSFC’s environment unwelcoming — one student leader went so far as to call the committee a “white, colonial space” and said parts of her budget meeting were “triggering.”

When looking at the data, The Daily Cardinal found that the five underrepresented racial, ethnic and religious organizations that applied for GSSF funding had larger budget cuts on average than other groups. Eighteen student organizations requested funding for the next school year.

In total, underrepresented groups received only 81 percent of the funds they requested, but majority groups received 97 percent of requested funds. However, most majority groups did receive budget cuts, compared to only three of the five underrepresented groups — they were just much smaller than those taken by underrepresented groups.

Additionally, SSFC was sued through the Student Judiciary by two separate multicultural student organizations who argued the body was not accessible. And a survey taken by GSSF groups showed that 50 percent did not think the eligibility hearing was a welcoming space.

“Spaces that feel very safe to one group of people can feel very alienating to another,” said Pamela Oliver, a professor in sociology who specializes in collective action and social movements and racial disparities in criminal justice.

According to Oliver, whiteness means being perceived as the societal baseline, and it manifests in ways that inevitably benefit the majority.

“If you’re part of the majority, the campus is easier for you,” Oliver said.

“Depending on your subculture and the hierarchical relationships, even just how you talk to each other can be culturally fraught,” Oliver said. “You can feel like something’s a white space if people are just doing business in a way that's not comfortable. It's like a second language, only it's a second culture. You have to try and warp your normal way of being into a way these people expect you to behave.”

SSFC defended its processes by saying their strict policies allow the body to allocate funds without political or ideological influence.

“It’s a good way now because it does allow us to look at a set of criteria as opposed to looking at an organization’s mission,” said SSFC Chair Jordan Gaal. “I think that criteria has allowed us to empower both underrepresented groups and other organizations on campus.”

Nearly two decades ago, three students sued UW-Madison, arguing it was unconstitutional for portions of their student fee to fund political or ideological activities with which they disagreed with. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the 2000 Southworth v. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System ruling dicated a policy of viewpoint neutrality that is followed today.

While all groups are not entitled to equal funding, they are entitled to equal process. The ruling didn’t establish what eligibility-exact criteria SSFC must follow when distributing funds — but the ASM bylaws do.

“[The legal requirement of viewpoint neutrality] requires equality of process, not outcome, and it requires that individual criteria are not set up to suppress specific views/identities and reward others,” said UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone.

Every year, SSFC representatives have to undergo viewpoint neutrality training before they begin eligibility and budget hearings and follow specific criteria and processes to determine a group’s fiscal need.

“We all recognize our own biases and pure viewpoint neutrality is always impossible,” Gaal said. “This is a way we are able to apply the same standards and criteria to each organization that applies for funding.”

But some say that you can’t serve all groups of people equally with one set of strict rules.

“The whole process [to get GSSF funding] is set up in a way that it’s a system, and it’s structured and it has to be exactly [one way],” said Mariah Skenandore, a leader of the Native American student organization Wunk Sheek. “That is a very white, colonial structure. And that is something that doesn't work for people that don't operate that way. And indigenous folks, and most marginalized folks, don’t operate that way.”

But Oliver explained implicit bias can seep into how rules are created and enforced.

“You try to take opinions out by using these rigid policies,” Oliver said. “But the rigid formulas themselves can be gamed to do some damage … any principle will do harm sometimes. Things that are usually good will turn out to be bad sometimes.”

Claim: Eligibility process is not accessible to small, underrepresented groups

The two multicultural groups that sued SSFC this year were the Wisconsin Association of Black Men and the Multicultural Student Coalition.

“It just didn't seem as if the SSFC ways embodied the Wisconsin Idea,” said WABM president Kenneth Jackson. “It seemed almost purposefully confusing and purposefully complicated … and very problematic in terms of getting new orgs funded.”

Smaller groups that tend to be underrepresented organizations don’t always have the infrastructure or know-how of who to contact and how to go through SSFC’s eligibility process, Jackson explained.

“I think that’s really who [SSFC] was targeting in terms of making it harder for those orgs to even try to get the funding … it’s very disproportionate,” Jackson said. “I think our case really called into question a lot of the things SSFC has been getting away with for a long time, and I think now that there's a light on it, they have to hold themselves and each other much more accountable.”

Forced to grapple with criticism, Gaal acknowledged that SSFC needed to change their processes to make things easier for student organizations. Throughout the year, SSFC worked to update forms and procedure, improve communication and clarify expectations of organizations and representatives.

Gaal received some pushback from fellow SSFC representatives about whether internal policy debates deserved so much of their attention, but he argued the effort would help the committee improve in the long run.

“It’s hard for us always to tell what’s working and what’s not when we spend every day with these policies,” Gaal said. “I make sure we are continuously evaluating the processes by which we grant students money and making sure that they’re inclusive and working for everyone.”

After WABM eventually received a budget of $27,000 for the 2018-’19 school year, MCSC was allowed to apply but presented SSFC representatives with outdated information during the hearing and was not granted eligibility.

Underrepresented groups see larger budget cuts, can’t fit “white” SSFC rules

After they are eligible, groups move through the budget process. At the first budget meeting, organization representatives present their budget and SSFC representatives ask them questions. At the second meeting, SSFC representatives debate and suggest budget cuts before approving the final budget.

“I honestly have never felt so surrounded by whiteness. There's a whole panel of [mostly] white men starting at me, trying to get me to answer questions, and everything they say takes precedence over what I say,” Skenandore said about Wunk Sheek’s budget meeting. “They carry such a high level of privilege in that space that anything I say can be countered by what they're the ones that are saying it. That in and of itself is a barrier.”

Wunk Sheek received the largest budget cut this year: $35,544, or about half of their budget. The second-largest cut came out of the Muslim Student Association’s proposed budget: $18,500 was cut, which was 46 percent of their proposed budget.

Both groups faced issues with the types of programming they planned to provide for campus.

According to the Associated Students of Madison bylaws, GSSF groups can provide core and supportive programming. The amount of core programming they provide must exceed the amount of supportive programming — and groups’ monetary requests must reflect this.

However, core programming has a strict set of requirements, one being that it must provide an educational benefit. In 2014, ASM adopted a policy that considers programming educational if it "promotes intercultural or cross-cultural knowledge and competence."

Additionally, it must be available throughout the year, it must be substantially different from anything the university offers and at least 75 percent of people attending or using the program must be students.

“The people paying this money and the people that should be benefiting from the segregated fees are students,” Gaal said in defense of the 75-percent rule. He added that it doesn’t prevent groups from including outside communities and only applies to core programming. Groups can also get funding from other campus sources.

The 75-percent rule can be challenging for smaller, underrepresented student organizations when putting on large events. Wunk Sheek’s funding was cut because they couldn't ensure that 75 percent of attendees at their spring powwow, their largest event, would be students.

“When you stretch away from the set criteria, that’s when you can start getting into issues with values-based decisions,” Gaal said.

For Skenandore, it makes more sense to examine every individual organization’s needs without forcing every group to adhere to a strict set of rules.

“There's an exception to every rule … everything is not a binary,” Skenandore said. “They're never going to understand if they don’t live it, why we deserve that funding and why we need that funding.”

The powwow is one of the largest student-run campus events. Last year they had roughly 6,000 attendees, according to Skenandore. But only 600 attendees, or about 10 percent, were students.

She explained that it would be impossible to meet this requirement at the powwow because Wunk Sheek relies on Ho-Chunk and other the Native communities outside of UW-Madison for support.

“Marginalized groups are so small that often times we operate with the strength of our communities,” Skenandore said. “To suggest that it should be more students than community is to suggest that it should be less than who we are; there's no indigenous representation on campus to begin with.”

For Skenandore, the 75-percent rule reinforces that UW-Madison students are mostly white.

“To provide services to [underrepresented orgs] actually entails connecting with the community because there’s not enough people on campus to provide full support,” Oliver said. “It seems like this specific rule is missing the way in which the community [can] benefit the students.”

In years prior, Wunk Sheek had received smaller grants through the Finance Committee, now known as the Grant Allocation Committee. However, in 2015 they asked for a grant that was so large, it went to the entire council for special approval. After that, student leaders encouraged Wunk Sheek to apply to be a GSSF group so they could receive more funding for the powwow.

GAC grants are for small, one-time uses and have less requirements for how they are distributed. They don’t require groups to prove 75 percent of event attendees are students, unlike GSSF funding.

The 2016-’17 school year was Wunk Sheek’s first year applying for GSSF funding, and that year’s committee approved GSSF funding for this year’s spring powwow. However, after this year’s budget cut, they will have no segregated fees to use for next year’s powwow at all. And because they are a GSSF group, they cannot apply for any GAC grants.

Additionally, lecture series, speakers and leaflets or publications only count as supportive programming. This rule caused MSA to lose a large portion of their funding.

“Our mission is to educate and expose our religion to the students at Madison, so in order to do that we have to run events,” said Salman Qazi, the MSA financial director. SSFC cut all $14,100 MSA asked to fund their lecture series after a debate over whether it was eligible for core programming.

Moving Forward

“I’m kind of glad I’m not on this committee because you have to make these hard decisions,” Oliver said. “But it would seem to me that disproportionate funding is reasonable. It would seem to me, from just listening to the arguments on-face, that minority [organizations] need more community involvement. And this 75-percent rule that seems fair on its face turns out to have these perverse consequences … and maybe should be revisited in a complex way.”

When confronted with the accusation SSFC was a “white space” and the strict rules weren’t comfortable for marginalized groups, Gaal paused before answering.

“I feel terrible that that's the perception; it may very well be true. I don't have the experience to say whether or not it is,” Gaal said. “I don't necessarily want to defend the rules because perception is reality, and if that's how they feel about the rules then, yeah, maybe there does need to be a change.”

However, a funding model that is unbalanced for groups of different identities, races, religions, etc. could be seen as a proxy for viewpoint and would be inappropriate under university policies requiring viewpoint neutrality, according to McGlone. She added that such a policy wouldn’t survive a legal challenge in court.

At the end of the year, SSFC sent out an email to organizations asking how the process could be improved, but only two groups responded. Gaal said his group did a lot of outreach with their Eligibility Criteria Review Committee and will continue to explore ways to make the process better.

“I think that all criticism is fair,” Gaal said. “I think that taking a critical look at our current institution is important for us to continue to move forward and improve our system. No system is perfect. And based on the criticisms from students, changes may need to be made in the future.”

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