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Opting Out of Opt-Outs

Students should be better informed about the optional UC fee

By Matthew H. Ghazarian, None

I just transferred to Harvard last spring. That being the case, it wasn’t until this October that I found out what the Undergraduate Council was. It was at that time that I also discovered this organization, of which I was scarcely aware, had claimed an optional $75 fee from my termbill. I was confused—no one had ever asked if I wanted to pay this fee. I checked the termbill Web site. It explained the UC fee as an optional “fee of $75 added to all College students’ bills” that funds “student groups and support the activities of the Undergraduate Council.”

In theory, the collection of this fee seems like a great opportunity to support a genuinely pro-student organization. But in practice, certain aspects of the fee’s collection actually undermine the UC’s representative mission. The UC has a responsibility to educate students about the nature of their annual contributions, and make sure there are no undue barriers to opting out of paying them. The failure to do so could seriously damage the UC’s legitimacy as a unique advocate for all undergraduates.

The UC derives a lot of its credibility from the fact that students fund it by choice, not compulsion. However, it has become progressively become more difficult to opt of the fee over the past few years. In 2006, one only needed to click a link the termbill Web site in order to opt out of the fee. By 2007, that link disappeared. Instead, one had to write an email explaining why he or she did not want to pay the $75. Moreover, by 2008 one had to handwrite that same letter and send it to the Student Receivables Office. There is, in short, an obvious and disturbing pattern toward making the opt-out process more annoying and time-consuming than it ever should have been.

Some may argue that sending an email or a handwritten letter to the Student Receivables Office is not an extremely difficult task. These people would miss the point. The UC shouldn’t look on in silence while the administration limits their constituency’s freedom with regard to the fee’s payment. Such quiet complicity makes the Council appear desperate for funding, and happy to wrest money from students who otherwise wouldn’t want to pay. The UC constitution claims that it represents the entire undergraduate student body, not just students who fund it. Even if the UC doesn’t organize the opt-out process, it has a responsibility to those students who want to opt-out of its fee to combat this disturbing trend.

Moreover, the information surrounding the option to opt out of paying the fee is quite inconsistent. This year’s Handbook for Students defines the UC fee and describes the opt-out process as “checking the appropriate box” on one’s July student bill. However, the termbill Web site explains that students must handwrite a letter and send it to the Student Receivables Office by September 30th. The printed information in the Handbook for Students mentions no such cut-off date and nothing about a letter. Having to fact-check the Handbook on this issue, only deepens the confusion surrounding the opt-out process. Once again, no matter who is responsible for this misinformation, it is the UC’s responsibility to approach the administration about remedying the situation. Its constitution clearly states, “Students shall be made amply aware of the deadline for termbill refund requests.” A proper first step would be to make sure this information is clearly stated in the Handbook for Students. If the UC doesn’t address this issue, the organization seems like a tacit supporter of the administrative errors that have likely secured a broader participation in their substantial fee.

I do not mean to attack the usefulness of the fee or the organization that it funds. The UC is a wonderful and necessary resource for College students. However, its legitimacy rests on the fact that students willingly support it. How can we express our satisfaction or displeasure with our student government if the one means of doing so—the payment of the UC fee—is already decided by a third party? The UC should show enough appreciation for their unique representative position to realize that the optional fee should be truly optional.

Matthew H. Ghazarian ’10, a Crimson editorial comper, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.

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