‘Autonomy and oversight’: UC Berkeley reflects on path to funding tech services

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff
The UC Berkeley community reflected on students’ use of technology and software provided by the Student Technology Fund fee, which did not originally pass in the ASUC elections in April.

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When the Student Technology Fund, or STF, fee, failed to pass due to low voter turnout in April, undergraduate student Tarang Srivastava was surprised — surprised that essential services such as Microsoft Office were funded entirely by students in the first place.

According to ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert, students have been paying about $50 per semester since 2014 to fund an array of “student tech-related needs.”

“It seemed like something the university should be funding outright,” Srivastava said. “I was kind of annoyed. I had licenses I was using; I didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars a year.”

This feeling was shared by student leaders, Weichert said, who were “disappointed” and “justifiably a little in shock” at the results; Weichert himself relies on STF services.

Weichert added that the STF covered Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and other software licenses, in addition to grants financing the Student Technology Equity Program, the Moffitt Library Laptop Rental Program and the Open Computing Facility.

‘Tuition covers the costs that are core to the educational experience,” said campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff in an email. “Campus-based fees like the Student Technology Fee, are developed to cover costs that are ancillary to the basic technology needs paid for out of tuition.”

Ellis Spickermann, 2020-21 ASUC senator and primary sponsor of the STF referendum, noted in an email that software licenses were not as crucial for students seven years ago.

However, technology has become increasingly core to material presented across campus departments.

“The campus should not put the resources that students need to survive or to succeed academically in jeopardy through the student fee process,” Weichert said. “It is a very volatile process, and as we’ve seen this year, nothing is certain when it comes to student fees.”

Srivastava said that students should not “morally” have to pay for necessary software programs, as they not only provide students access to the programs but also to documentation and tutorials on how to effectively utilize them.

This concocts an equity issue, Srivastava added. Because campus does not offer courses preparing students to use “industry software” within their fields, accessibility in learning these programs is hindered.

“Cal made this decision not to prepare you to use industry software, so it feels even more important that they provide all the licenses to you so you can learn it for yourself,” Srivastava said. “It should be an absolute priority to even get more licenses for more software that are industry standards that we don’t have classes for. 

Weichert noted that although the failure of the STF was unfortunate, it provided an opportunity for student leaders to have “in-depth conversations” with administration on reshaping how critical student services are funded and reverse a trend of placing that cost onto students.

In the process of securing emergency funding for software licenses, campus proposed a semesterly $25 “tax” on students who bypassed most student input processes, Weichert said. This proposal — a Miscellaneous Student Fee, or MSF — was rejected by the student members of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees, or CACSSF, Ratliff said.

“Uniquely at Berkeley, we have a lot of autonomy and oversight over our own money,” Weichert added. “The entire process around an MSF really goes against a lot of the oversight and control mechanisms that students have fought hard for when it comes to student fees.”

Fortunately, stalwart student advocacy secured emergency funding for Microsoft and Adobe software, according to a CACSSF student member statement. While the licenses will be available for free from 2021-22, discussions on long-term funding for overarching student technology resources continue.

Weichert added that the emergency funding is only a stopgap solution and that campus must recognize students’ priorities: a sustainable, long-term technology solution. Consequently, a successor to the STF on the ballot this spring would not include license funding, which students view as the responsibility of campus to provide.

“We want long-term financial details,” Weichert said. “This announcement is indicative that campus has the money, and so, we want them to follow through so that students don’t have to pay an extra dime, especially in the context of ever-rising student fees and also ever-rising tuition.”

The ASUC and the Graduate Assembly hope to more robustly advocate for student priorities by knowing what campus can and cannot afford, Weichert noted. This would include raising the bar on student services, student well-being and equity, inclusion and belonging efforts.

Weichert encouraged students to alert their elected officials and administrators about their circumstances and what resources they need, particularly through emailing ASUC senators and executives or providing public comment at ASUC meetings.

Srivastava added that it was “nice” that he would be able to safely download software for both his academic and photography pursuits. He also appreciated the work of student leaders in securing the funding.

“Anytime campus does something like this you’re not really happy,” Srivastava said. “You’re just kind of like ‘OK, it should’ve been like this in the first place.’ ”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.