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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


From the archives: The checkered history of the Student Activity Fee referendum

The Statesman logo. Archivist Peter Lupfer describes the history of the Student Activity Fee referendum.  STATESMAN FILE

Statesman Archivist Peter Lupfer reflects on the most recent Student Activity Fee referendum and the vote’s controversial history at Stony Brook University. This newsletter is the first in a monthly series from The Statesman Archives.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is safe to say that an air of uncertainty has surrounded much of the 2020-2021 academic year and the biennial Student Activity Fee referendum was no exception. The SUNY-mandated vote to determine “whether student activity programs shall be supported by either voluntary or mandatory student fees” was originally scheduled to be considered alongside the Undergraduate Student Government (USG)’s annual elections late in the spring 2020 semester, but both were postponed until the fall after the university shifted to online learning in March.

After partial activity fee refunds were issued in the spring and reduced activity fees were charged for the summer and fall, the student body was tasked with deciding if the charge should remain mandatory or be assessed on a voluntary basis. Though many were unsure about the fate of the referendum under such unprecedented conditions, the vote ultimately passed, ensuring that the student activity fee will continue to be mandatory through at least the 2021-2022 academic year. 

The 2020 referendum was just the latest episode in a long history of turbulence pertaining to student activities funding at Stony Brook. Upon scanning The Statesman’s archives, it is easy to find stories of controversy caused by the activity fee spanning all the way back to its inception. 

To provide a complete and comprehensive history of the student activity fee at Stony Brook would require an article much larger than this one. With that being said, this collection aims to provide a glimpse into the seemingly endless struggle to maintain a mandatory activity fee at the university. 


A screenshot of a 1968 Statesman article about the Student Activity Fee referendum. Students voted to make the student activity fee mandatory in the 2020 referendum. STATESMAN FILE

Written by Stuart Eber in 1968, the article “Mandatory activities fee still in doubt, student government awaits word from Toll” demonstrates the origins of the referendum system, which is still in place today. Eber describes the jockeying that took place between University President John S. Toll and Polity, USG’s predecessor, in regards to who should mandate the fee. Read more here.


Polity council members discuss referendums in a photo from a 1990 edition of The Statesman. Polity was predecessor to the Undergraduate Student Government. ANDREW MAHON/THE STATESMAN

Next comes a 1990 article by Amy Flateman entitled “Campus Community to Vote in Referendums: Activity Fee is Allocated,” which breaks down specific items that were included in that year’s referendum. The article shows a referendum agenda far more stable than the one from two decades prior and demonstrates the powerful role of Polity on Stony Brook’s campus. Read more here.


A screenshot of a 2002 article on Polity’s decertification. President Shirley Strum Kenny cited “structural/constitutional problems” with Polity’s administration of the student activity fee and a failure to institute “necessary reform[s].” STATESMAN FILE
That power is stripped away in this third article, “Polity Decertified as Governing Body: Bickering Between Council and Senate Finally Leads to Organization’s Demise.” Writer Jeffrey Javidfar covers the dramatic events that took place under the 2002 student government, following the legal rationale behind President Shirley Strum Kenny’s decision to decertify Polity. It is interesting to note that the legality of this move is ultimately based upon the power to allocate the student activity budget. Read more here.


A screenshot of a Statesman editorial from 2004. Publisher Mansoor Khan urges the student body to vote for a mandatory student activity fee. STATESMAN FILE

Two years later, Publisher Mansoor Khan wrote the editorial piece “The Student Activity Fee: What Are You Paying For?” in the midst of the 2004 voting period. With Polity gone and USG now established, Khan’s argument is one of the earliest editorials advocating for a mandatory fee in the modern era of Stony Brook’s student government. Read more here.

On March 26, 2019 USG candidates held a debate in the Student Activities Center. There were more than a half a dozen candidates running. GARY GHAYRAT/THE STATESMAN

Finally, the somewhat scandalous vote of 2010 is covered in Alessandra Malito’s “Low Election Turnout Leaves Student Activity Fee in Limbo.” With little over one percent of the student population participating in the referendum, student leaders came to the conclusion that the vote was not adequately publicized and needed to be reconsidered. Read more here.

Though this year’s referendum presented its own unique challenges, controversy and bumps in the road have been par for the course in the extensive history of Stony Brook’s Student Activity Fee. The fee is now mandatory until the spring of 2022, but it is safe to assume that when the time comes to vote once again, a new set of challenges will arise and the result will be as close as it has always tended to be.

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