‘Loss of a safety net’: Lack of Student Technology Fund fee impacts UC Berkeley

photo of someone using Office 365 on a laptop
William Webster/Staff
Despite the Student Technology Fee receiving a majority of the votes in the 2021 ASUC Elections, it failed to meet a campus policy that requires a minimum voter threshold of 20% of all enrolled and eligible students to be met for a referendum to pass. The failed renewal of the referendum impacts students' ability to access technology services.

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For Kenneth Lien, campus sophomore and executive director of Cal Hacks, the failed renewal of the Student Technology Fund, or STF, fee during the ASUC elections in April is a “loss of a safety net.”

Without the STF fee — a campus-based student fee referendum that provided all UC Berkeley students with equitable access to a range of technology services — Lien said he will no longer have access to a Wi-Fi hot spot and laptop that he relied on to take virtual classes during the pandemic, which was lent to him by Moffitt Library.

“The fund really made success; it gave everyone equal opportunity and removed technology from being a barrier to excelling in school,” Lien said. “It’s unfortunate that the fund didn’t get renewed, especially because I personally and a lot of my peers have been able to continue school and handle a virtual transition because of it.”

UC Berkeley Student Fee Referenda Committee co-chair James Weichert, who was also formerly ASUC Elections Council chair, said the STF failed due to a “nuanced situation” with regard to campus-based student fee referendums.

The results of the 2021 ASUC Elections for all referendums were initially certified by the ASUC Elections Council on April 19, with the STF receiving a majority of votes in favor of its renewal, according to Weichert.

Despite the STF obtaining a majority vote, it failed to meet a campus policy that requires a minimum voter threshold of 20% of all enrolled and eligible students to be met for a referendum to pass, Weichert said. The campus policy states that only “yes” or “no” votes on a referendum are counted when determining if the threshold is met, which excludes votes made in abstention.

The total percentage of “yes” or “no” votes for the STF was 19.1%, which did not meet the threshold and resulted in its failure to renew, Weichert added.

“It is a deliberate part of the policy that ensures that a small portion of the campus is not able to levy a fee against all students,” Weichert said. “Even though we had nearly 8,000 students voting in favor of the fee, it would’ve had to be paid for by 40,000 that didn’t voice their opinion on it if it did pass.”

Weichert, who is also the incoming Academic Affairs Vice President, added that the low voter turnout indicated that not enough students were aware that they would lose technology services without the STF, potentially due to the assumption that those services are covered by campus. The AAVP’s office, which was not involved with the STF, is working to minimize service outages and communicate that technology services should be funded by campus, not students.

The lack of the STF in the upcoming academic year will impact the services that have been provided since it was last approved in 2014, according to Jennifer McNulty, analyst for the Student Technology Fund.

McNulty added that service reductions are “inevitable,” noting that the Student Tech Services Helpdesk and Open Computing Facility, or OCF, will have to reduce their services and operating hours next semester. Financially vulnerable students will be most affected by service reductions at the OCF, with many unable to afford software licensing costs, private technology support and access to hardware and equipment.

McNulty noted that several software outages will occur as well. All students will lose access to Adobe Creative Cloud in July and Microsoft Office in September, and some will lose access to MATLAB in December, which will impact a significant number of students who have previously utilized these software.

McNulty said during the 2019-20 academic year, for example, 57% of students used at least one of these software and one in five students used two or more, according to data from Productivity and Collaboration Services, a campus IT department.

“Without the STF, these software programs will no longer be supported,” McNulty said in an email.

In addition to service reductions and software outages, the absence of the STF will result in “wide-ranging consequences” for campus student organizations, according to McNulty. The STF previously offered grants in three cycles per year to student technology organizations, which will no longer be distributed.

Cal Hacks is a student organization focused on hacking that received approximately $10,000 from the STF in previous years to fund its annual “hackathon,” according to campus sophomore and executive director Terrance Li. With the absence of the STF, there will be an increased difficulty in funding the hackathon next semester.

“The STF has really been a huge help in running an event that is very important to us and also a big experience of the tech community here at Berkeley,” Li said. “We can only hope that we can find some other means of funding for the upcoming hackathon.”

The Space Technologies and Rocketry Team, or STAR, will also be impacted by the lack of the STF, according to campus sophomore and STAR president Sam Phillips. STAR is a student competition rocketry team on campus that previously received funding from STF to cover the costs of constructing rockets.

To fund construction next semester, STAR will have to reallocate funding away from education outreach to high school and middle school students about rocketry and STEM, according to Phillips.

“The Student Technology Fund really made up some of the bread and butter that allowed us to do the projects we wanted, and now we’re going to miss out on some of that,” Phillip said.

In place of the STF during the upcoming academic year, Associate Vice Chancellor of IT and Chief Information Officer Jenn Stringer said in an email that a “Miscellaneous Student Fee,” or MSF, has been proposed to the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees, or CACSSF.

The MSF would partially cover funding previously provided by the STF for one year, particularly for services most needed by financially vulnerable students, Stringer added.

The MSF proposal is set to be reviewed by CACSSF in mid-May, according to McNulty.

“We hope that the MSF will pass so that we can avoid abrupt software outages and service reductions for students, which especially impact those with limited financial resources,” McNulty said in the email.

Annika Kim Constantino is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaKimC.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article may have implied that James Weichert was speaking on behalf of the ASUC Office of the Academic Affairs Vice President. In fact, Weichert was speaking as a UC Berkeley Student Fee Referenda Committee co-chair and former ASUC Elections Council chair. The Office of the AAVP was not involved in the Student Technology Fund fee referendum.