UC Berkeley must fund critical software licenses for students

Illustration of the UCs and their technology on a California map
Rioka Hayama/Staff

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The month of April was filled with confusion for UC Berkeley students following the results of student fee referenda in the 2021 ASUC election. Even though the Student Technology Fee, or STF, received more “yes” votes than “no” votes, it failed to achieve the minimum 20% voter turnout required by campus policy.

While this inconsistency provided for much conversation, talk soon subsided as students set their sights on the end of the semester. That was until The Daily Californian reported that the failure of the STF renewal will leave students without access to Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite licenses next academic year. As students took to Twitter and Facebook to express their outrage, it became clear that many students weren’t aware that these critical software licenses were reliant on money from their own pockets.

As ASUC and Graduate Assembly officials, we became aware that the STF referendum did not meet the 20% threshold around mid-April. While the news of the referendum’s failure was devastating, we couldn’t afford to waste time on past failures: We were and still are headed for a cliff that will leave more than 40,000 students without access to critical academic resources.

Because of this urgency, we started discussions with campus administrators with the goal of finding funding for these critical licenses. It soon seemed apparent, however, that administrators were not willing to engage in tough conversations about who has the responsibility to fund the software licenses. Instead, campus information technology leaders developed a proposal for a Miscellaneous Student Fee, or MSF, without consulting student oversight bodies in the ASUC, assembly and Student Fee Referenda Committee.

Per campus policy, an MSF can be proposed by a campus department to finance student services that are not directly related to UC Berkeley’s academic mission. In contrast to campus-based student fees, such as the STF, MSFs are not voted on by the student body; the only student votes come from just nine students on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees, or CACSSF.

Since April, we have received countless emails from professors and students alike emphasizing the need for Adobe and Microsoft software in their coursework. Similarly, many GSIs have told us that these software programs are necessary to perform their teaching duties. As a result, United Auto Workers Local 2865 — the union that represents GSIs in the UC system — issued a statement stressing that requiring GSIs to pay for these software programs through an MSF could potentially violate the UC system’s labor contract, which stipulates that the “University shall provide access to required facilities, services, texts and instructional support.”

We agree with the union, professors, students and GSIs that access to Adobe and Microsoft products is vital to performing teaching duties and completing coursework. As such, it is inappropriate to charge students, especially student workers, for access to these software programs through a student fee.

UC Berkeley is also one of the few top-tier public universities that require students to pay for Microsoft Office through additional student fees. The list of schools that don’t tax their students for access to this software includes Indiana University, the University of Washington, the University of Florida, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado Boulder. Even in the UC system, our campus is an anomaly. All of the other campuses finance student Microsoft licenses at least in part from their campus budgets, even if the campus has a student technology fee.

We’re not advocating for every technology cost to be financed by campus. In particular, we value the flexibility that the STF provided to student-led technology projects through grants. In the past, funding from the STF has been used to support pilot projects that have since become mainstays in the campus technology landscape, including the Student Technology Equity Program, or STEP; the Moffitt Library Laptop Rental Program; BerkeleyTime; the iClicker Rental Program; and the Open Computing Facility, or OCF.

Both undergraduate and graduate students recognize the importance of having a flexible fund to kickstart technology projects that can help supplement the student experience on campus. But the proposed MSF offers no funding for technology grants. All of the money would go to campus units and licensing fees. There will be no grant money to support projects such as STEP, BerkeleyTime or the OCF. And it is here where the campus’s proposal shows its true colors. By leaving out grant funding, campus administrators are implicitly acknowledging that there is a difference between funding for software licenses that are required for instruction or research and funding for technology grants that augment the student experience.

Campus policy is clear: MSFs should be used to cover the costs of “non-instructional services or materials.” Microsoft Office, MATLAB and Adobe Creative Suite are all core to instruction on our campus, so it appears that this fee would be a violation of campus policy. We agree with the Daily Cal’s editorial board: “The failure of the STF referendum should be UC Berkeley’s cue to pick up the tab.” If this campus is serious about being the No. 1 public university in the world, then it cannot leave its students without access to the tools we need to succeed.

Student fees are an inappropriate and unsustainable method of funding core academic resources, and this proposal is no different. For these reasons, we will be voting against the MSF proposal when it comes before CACSSF on June 15, and we will work with UC Berkeley administrators to have campus fund these licenses without any gap in access. Our stance is clear: Campus must foot the bill itself.

James Weichert is the 2021-22 ASUC academic affairs vice president and co-chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees, Maria Pettis is the 2021-22 Graduate Assembly president, Allyson Kohen-Tang is the 2021-22 Graduate Assembly vice president of finance, Christian Hosam is the 2021-22 Graduate Assembly campus affairs vice president, Martin Siron is the 2020-21 Graduate Assembly vice president of finance, Aditya Dev Varma is the 2021-22 ASUC executive vice president and Era Goel is the 2021-22 ASUC student advocate.