The Argus, the student newspaper of Wesleyan University, became a target for activists on that campus last semester when it published an op-ed that was aggressively, and in some respects unfairly, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. When a petition was circulated demanding reforms at the paper and urging the paper’s defunding if those demands weren’t met, the story went national as a free speech battle.
A few weeks later, reports appeared on Twitter that the WSA, Wesleyan’s student government, had slashed the Argus’s budget. As I wrote at the time, though, those reports were a bit garbled — what WSA had actually voted on was a draft proposal for Argus restructuring, one that contained no budgetary language and established a timeline for further discussion on the issues it raised. My own sense then was that while the WSA proposal had flaws, it appeared to be a good-faith effort to address questions of diversity and accessibility in Wesleyan campus journalism. (I should note that some Argus supporters thought I was being too generous to the WSA. You can judge for yourself here.)
I checked in on the story a few times after that, as I recall, but didn’t see any major developments until yesterday, when this Argus editorial found its way into my Twitter feed.
Here’s the deal.
The WSA, according to both its editorial and a statement on the WSA website, has revoked the remainder of the Argus’s funding allocation for the current academic year. The stated reason for the revocation is the existence of an Argus “emergency fund” of non-student money.
That emergency fund, amounting to about one semester’s worth of Argus operating expenses, consists primarily of donations the paper solicited from alumni and others last fall during the last round of the funding dispute. (WSA says some of it came from ad revenue too.) The Argus collected the money as a hedge against problems with WSA, and as a way to keep the paper afloat if its funds were frozen or its budget was cut.
WSA’s position is that student groups are not allowed to carry over unused funds at the close of the academic year — if you don’t spend all your allocation by the end of the spring semester, they say, it goes back into the general pool. The WSA statement doesn’t address the question of why the current semester’s funds were revoked now rather than at the end of the year, but it appears likely that the intent of doing so was to force the Argus to draw from the donated funds, which are held in a separate account.
Seen in the light most favorable to the WSA, this could be interpreted as a matter of fiscal prudence and sound governance. If it’s true that all unexpended funds have always reverted to the common pool each spring, then they have precedent, if nothing else, on their side. But there’s cause for concern as well.
To begin with, the bylaw provision WSA cites in support of its action—”Article VI, Section 2, II, F”—doesn’t seem to exist in the version of the WSA governance documents that is posted online. And the posted document seems to my uneducated eye to be at odds with the WSA’s actions in at least two ways.
First, while the bylaw says that “all money allocated to student groups by the SBC or the CC remaining in that group’s account at the end of the year shall automatically revert to the SBC,” it goes on to specify that such funds may not be reverted before April 1. (The SBC is the Student Budget Committee, which funds the Argus.) And second, the same passage says that while SBC and CC funds revert to those bodies, “any funds not allocated by the SBC or the CC but deposited into that group’s account shall remain in the account indefinitely.” This seems to suggest that while SBC funds revert, independent funding doesn’t—which in turn suggests that it’s not appropriate for the WSA to pull money from the Argus’s SBC account to force it to spend its fundraised money.
And this brings us to a more fundamental issue. When the Argus was faced with the prospect of a financial crisis last semester, it didn’t sit back, it hustled. It went out and got alumni and other supporters to provide it with a cushion—an insurance policy. And while that cushion wasn’t needed this semester, it could be in the future. But as a result of WSA’s actions, if it is needed, it won’t be there.
The people who donated to the Argus could have donated to the general fund of the WSA if they’d wanted to. They didn’t. They donated to the Argus to provide the Argus with supplemental funding above and beyond what the WSA gave them. By cutting the Argus’s other funding in response, WSA is in effect appropriating that donated money for its own purposes. That’s wrong.
And it’s wrong even if it isn’t (as it appears it may be) a violation of both the letter and the spirit of WSA’s own bylaws. It’s wrong because it has the effect of discouraging student groups from taking the initiative to fundraise, and of discouraging outside individuals and groups from making such donations. If I’m thinking of donating to a Wesleyan student organization, and I know that any money I give the group will be cut from the group’s budget, I have no incentive to give.
When I was on my own student association’s budget committee years ago, we took evidence of outside fundraising as evidence of a group’s health and vigor. If you were committed enough to your mission to spend your time and energy raising outside money, we believed, you were likely to spend the money we gave you well—and likely to get a bit more from us the following year.
Student group fundraising isn’t a zero-sum game. It lifts up all organizations on campus—not by freeing up additional student government money (though it may do that, at the margins), but by increasing the total pool and enabling groups to do more with their fee money than they would have been able to do otherwise.
And the arguments to be made for the Argus are even stronger. The WSA has not completed the publication review process initiated last fall, and when that process is done, it’s possible that the budget for the Argus—for next year, or the year after—will be cut. If that happens, surely the Argus should properly be able to draw on the money it raised last fall to provide it with flexibility in making the transition to the new funding structure, and in shaping its future spending to its own organizational priorities. That’s what the donors who provided the money would have wanted, and it appears to be what the WSA’s own bylaws anticipate.
Now, it’s possible I’ve gotten this all wrong. I’m a generation and several hundred miles removed from the Wesleyan student body. I have no personal stake in this argument, and I usually don’t use this platform to take positions on student-student conflicts.
But the relationship between a student government and a student newspaper is a special one. It’s fragile, and complex, and essential to the interests of the students and the campus as a whole. And while student governments and student newspapers are often adversarial, their relationship is a symbiotic one — each contributes to the health of the other.
Again, it’s possible I’ve gotten this wrong. It’s possible that the WSA’s position is more reasonable than I’ve made it out to be, and that the Argus is arguing unfairly. But based on the public statements from both sides, and my own reading (perhaps faulty) of the relevant governance documents, it appears to me that the WSA should at least consider revisiting its decision.