By Christian Palmer, investigative reporter, Goldwater Institute
The college experience typically doesn’t involve joining an autonomous student organization that has hundreds of thousands of students’ dollars at its disposal. And it usually doesn’t include bitter fights over taxes or being threatened with lawsuits.
Then again, the lessons learned by Arizona State University student Josh Hoyt, then a 19-year-old pre-med major, were anything but ordinary.
In late September of 2011, ASU’s four campuses were buzzing about the Sun Devils football team’s spectacular 43-22 hometown defeat of the University of Southern California Trojans.
The victory ended the university’s 11-year skid against the rival. Bragging rights were amplified by the national broadcasting of the game on ESPN.
Still, Hoyt, the undergraduate president of ASU’s Polytechnic campus, had more pressing concerns.
In a charged email to fellow ASU campus student presidents and the highest echelons of ASU administrators, including ASU President Dr. Michael Crow, Hoyt called for terminating the university student body affiliation with a private organization, known as the Arizona Students Association, which is funded through a direct fee on all state university students’ tuition bills.
The move would have withdrawn a population large enough to fill Sun Devil Stadium from the Arizona Students Association, which represents students from all of Arizona’s public universities.
“The goal was to reform ASA. Or get the hell out. We didn’t want to continue to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” Hoyt said.
The loss of ASU would deprive the ASA of roughly the 70,000 dues-paying Arizona State students. Within days, Hoyt was threatened with a lawsuit by ASA’s attorney, Ryan Anderson.
“It was amazing because I said nothing publicly. It was something like, ‘If you continue to disparage ASA, publicly or otherwise, we will sue you, and we can sue you for everything you are worth, and we will win.’ I said, ‘No, you won’t. Please don’t ever call me again.’”
For decades, the ASA’s traditional role has been to serve as an advocacy group for Arizona’s public university students. But in 2012, the student funded 501(c)(4) applied its money and manpower to assist a constituency that even universities are prohibited from helping: A political committee formed to launch a statewide ballot initiative.
Formed in 1974, the ASA is a student group representing the 130,000 students who attend Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.
According to the mission statement proclaimed by the ASA, the organization works to “make sure that higher education in Arizona is affordable and accessible by advocating to elected officials and running issue campaigns to engage students.” Hoyt felt that ASU students were being taken advantage of, not engaged.
The association is funded through a mandatory $2 fee tacked on university student tuitions paid each spring and fall semester and a $1 fee applied for summer sessions.
The fee appears minimal, especially when considering the rapid rise of university tuition and the litany of other charges students are forced to pay. But it adds up, and the sum is substantial when the total student population is taken into account.
Last year, according to university financial records, the ASA reaped more than $585,000 from university students in Arizona. Over the course of the past five years, the group has received $2.6 million in fees. The association claimed in its most recent tax return filed with the Internal Revenue Service to have had net assets of $725,000, the vast majority in cash and cash investments.
Virtually all ASA funding is collected from Arizona’s public university students, many of who have little or no idea what the association is or does.
Students have the legal right to request fee refunds. Few do, as evidenced by the association’s annual budgeting of a mere $50 for that purpose—enough for 25 students, or two-hundredths of one percent of the university population.
The ASA reports that one student sought a refund during the 2012 spring semester.
Overall, the ASA student board of directors has roughly two dozen student members, and the number of each university’s directors is tailored to reflect the universities’ student populations; ASU is the largest, followed by U of A, which is trailed by NAU.
Despite the ASA’s innocuous mission statement, current and former student directors, like Hoyt, contend that its political actions are growing in intensity and partisan rancor.
Decisions by the ASA, at least in theory, are made by the student board of directors, whose one-year terms make board turnover nearly constant, with few exceptions. The student board of directors is manned by winners of student body elections held on the main and satellite campuses of Arizona’s three public universities, as well as a handful of appointees. But Hoyt and others are concerned that the organization has fallen under the control of full-time non-student staff members with clear political and personal agendas.
Andrew Clark, an ASU West graduate and former ASA student director, said he encountered intense partisanship from ASA’s non-student staff throughout his two-year tenure with the organization.
The staff’s blatant political agenda, he said, was drilled into students during introductory “retreats” for incoming student directors and interns.
“They would take you into a room and give you a good three days of indoctrination: Higher education would solve all of the world’s problems, and without it the world would come to a crumbling end. Republican legislators were the enemy of higher education,” said Clark, who as a student was involved with Republican student clubs.
The past two ASA executive directors, Robyn Nebrich and Serena Unrein, have direct ties to Arizona Public Interest Research Group, which for years has tried unsuccessfully to achieve its own funding stream through the university to advocate its issues, which include ending homelessness, improving the environment, lowering textbook costs and pushing for improved public transportation.
Unrein now serves as an Arizona PIRG public interest advocate, while Nebrich, who graduated from ASU in 2004, is listed as a board member of the organization on incorporation documents filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission.
The State Press, an ASU student newspaper, reports that Arizona PIRG campaigned with ASA officials in 2006 and 2007 to secure a $25 student activities fee to fund student groups. Arizona PIRG was slated to receive roughly $200,000 a year, but the Arizona Board of Regents nixed the idea of providing student money to a group that hired professional staff.
In 2010, Arizona PIRG sought and failed to secure ASU money, a $1.50 charge on students’ tuition, via a student referendum. That same year, an identical effort launched at the University of Arizona failed.
The ASA has also used Arizona PIRG’s national umbrella group, USPIRG, to train ASA staff members, who have traveled to the Massachusetts-based organization’s headquarters at ASA’s expense.
Nebrich’s résumé also includes stints with MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood and fundraising efforts for the Democratic National Committee. A review of other ASA staffers reveals work histories limited to similar political efforts, including state Democratic parties and Democratic political campaigns.
Hoyt’s September missive invoked the longstanding sentiment held by some ASU student government members who have grown wary of the organization and doubted the benefit that ASU—the primary funding source of ASA—reaps from its membership.
Hoyt claimed that ASU student directors are routinely overruled by representatives from NAU and UA, whom current and former ASA critics accuse of “teaming up” to deny ASU delegates important internal committee positions and access to details on budgets and the setting of policy agendas.
The clash among the personalities has existed for years, and has pitted conservative students with affiliations with campus Republican groups and officials against liberal students and staff members with ties and sympathies to Democrats and organizations like PIRG.
The most glaring example of tension occurred this year during months of infighting over the Quality Education and Jobs Act, a ballot initiative seeking a one-cent sales tax increase to fund K-12 education, construction projects, health programs and university scholarships.
If passed, initiative backers, led by committee chairwoman Ann-Eve Pederson, estimate the tax will collect more than $1 billion in 2013 and more than $2 billion a year by 2025. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee projects similar, although slightly lower, revenues from the initiative’s tax. The tax would be permanent under Arizona’s Voter Protection Act.
Then-ASA student director Josh Tucker, who earned his position on the ASA board of directors by winning several student elections on the ASU West Campus, said he learned of the initiative from Nebrich, then-ASA executive director, during an association retreat in late 2011.
Tucker, then also president of the College Republicans at ASU West, said he refused to back the initiative, now dubbed Prop 204, because he did not want to create a permanent tax increase during a temporary recession.
He wasn’t alone in his objection to the Quality Education and Jobs Act, but he, Hoyt and like-minded Arizona State student directors were outnumbered by the ASA’s majority of supportive students from ASU, NAU and UA.
The tension came to a head during an April 4, 2012, ASA meeting in Tucson. Staff and student directors who supported the initiative were desperate to provide an official association stamp of approval on the initiative.
Despite the clear majority, the task wasn’t easy. ASA quorum rules require student government representatives of three of the five Arizona State interests—ASU Tempe, Downtown, Polytechnic and West campuses, and ASU’s graduate student government—be present or proxy their votes for the board to take official action.
The bylaws also require measures to pass by a majority vote of each of the three universities’ delegations. ASU student critics of the initiative were well aware of the rules and did not hesitate to put them to use.
ASU campuses had a total of 10 directors. According to ASA meeting minutes, Hoyt held the proxy votes of fellow Polytechnic student Trevor Rasmussen and ASU Downtown campus President Joseph Grossman. Tucker held the proxy vote of fellow ASU West member and fellow initiative holdout Zeke Reed. In all, ASU opponents of the initiative held five votes—enough to prevent the matter from achieving majority approval of the ASU delegation, and, with that, the approval of the larger association. A long fight to keep ASA out of the ballot initiative effort was just beginning.
Association meeting minutes indicate Nebrich spoke favorably of Prop 204 and told students that 80 percent of the revenues would fund education efforts, including higher education, vocational schooling, general education diploma programs, and the public K-12 system. One student director, ASU representative James Baumer, noted that the ASA had already begun a media campaign and was actively managing the collection of signatures for the Prop 204 ballot initiative committee.
“It would be awkward to back out,” Baumer was quoted saying in meeting minutes.
Despite these efforts, neither Baumer nor Nebrich were able to muster sufficient support for Prop 204. As a result, the ASA adjourned for recess. During the break, student proponents of the measure continued their attempts to sway directors who proxied their votes to opponents Hoyt and Tucker, particularly ASU Downtown President Josh Grossman.
“They were calling me all day,” Grossman recalled, adding that UA delegates in support of the initiative later drove to Phoenix from Tucson to visit him in an attempt to convince him to back the measure.
Tucker said opponents were under no illusions about the importance of the April 4 vote, which was needed to apply a retroactive student approval to a staff decision to promise that the ASA could be counted on to collect tens of thousands of signatures to help qualify the measure for the ballot.
“They were basically telling us you can vote ‘yes’ or you can vote ‘yes,’” said Tucker, who noted that ASA was collecting signatures at the UA Tucson campus during the meeting. “It was a very intense meeting. It was probably one of the worst meetings. It was a super-strong attempt to get us to change our vote, to get us to sustain. It was a barrage of, ‘You guys are holding this entire thing up, holding it hostage,’ but we just tried to explain to them this wasn’t something we believed in.”
Hoyt said the association was unable to locate, much less sway Grossman to obtain the critical sixth vote from the ASU delegation. Then the majority of the ASA abandoned the meeting in order to avoid an official vote that would be documented in the organization’s formal record.
For ASA staff and student supporters of the initiative, the failure to secure official support was a serious setback.
“I think [Nebrich] was about to cry during the board meeting in Tucson. I think she was definitely flustered and upset. She walked out,” Tucker said.
That version of events remains disputed by Nebrich, who said that no ASA student directors expressed any opposition to the initiative prior to the meeting.
“I called every single board member as executive director and not one of them said, ‘Hey, Robyn, I have a problem with this.’ They had all been given the chart with the numbers on it with what [Prop 204] will be doing. They had all been given that in January,” she said.
No one disputes that it did not take long for ASA student directors and staff who supported Prop 204 to regroup for another vote after the initial effort was derailed by dissenting ASU students.
Two days later, on April 6, ASA Board Chairman Dan Fitzgibbon scheduled an April 8 email vote to approve three initiative planning documents authored by Nebrich.
Student directors were asked to file their votes with Fitzgibbon, fellow UA student director Kelly Paris and Nebrich, all supporters of the initiative.
The votes from the ASU delegation again split evenly. With knowledge of that result, the majority of UA student directors declined to vote.
The next day, the student board of the ASA was informed by Fitzgibbon that the association again failed to reach quorum. The email included what he referred to as the “roll call of votes.”
Likewise, Nebrich informed board members via email that the lack of quorum meant that “no official vote was taken. This means that this will not be reflected in the minutes or be an act of the board. This will be considered a poll of board members present.”
“It was really shady. They didn’t get the answer they wanted so they counted it as an unofficial vote,” Hoyt said.
The notice for another vote was given on April 18, and ASA members were instructed that a phone vote would occur at 3 pm on Friday, April 20.
ASA’s student critics of the initiative were immediately suspicious.
“It almost seemed like they planned it when he couldn’t make it,” said Grossman, who claimed the ASA was aware that he, as downtown ASU student president, was to be busy helping university officials screen applicants for a financial aid administrative position.
Tucker, who was nearing the end of his second year on the association board, said he believes the April 20 vote was scheduled to coincide with ASU West student government meetings held every other Friday. The scheduling conflict ruled out his participation and also that of fellow ASU West student director Zeke Reed, who offered a puzzled response to the vote scheduling via email: “Our senate [meeting] is at that time, like that exact time?”
Likewise, Hoyt, who would be preoccupied with a university awards ceremony on April 20, told the Goldwater Institute that he is nearly certain the student directors and staff of the ASA were aware that he would also be unable to participate in the phone vote.
For ASA supporters of the initiative, the third time was a charm. The association was able to reach necessary quorum to hold an official vote, as an ASU director appointed by Hoyt from the Polytechnic campus, Trevor Rasmussen, was persuaded to join the call.
Rasmussen, who previously voted via email on April 9 to oppose joining the initiative campaign and believed the phone vote was timed to avoid the participation of ASU critics of the initiative, switched his vote to support the campaign.
Rasmussen told the Goldwater Institute that his vote followed intense lobbying from ASA student directors from NAU and UA—and he added that he was told that the initiative would be changed to address his opposition to the creation of a permanent tax.
“I was the only one who was going to vote no on it and they talked to me about it and told me that it wasn’t going to be a permanent tax. So, I voted for it at the end there,” Rasmussen said.
The business communications major said he was not aware that state law would require a ballot initiative committee to start signature gathering efforts anew if the text of the initiative were changed.
Rasmussen did not respond to requests for subsequent interviews.
Aside from the official support of the initiative, the April 20 meeting secured another objective—removing matters involving the Quality Education and Jobs initiative from the purview of the full ASA board and relinquishing it to the association’s smaller committees.
The measure passed unanimously, with the exception of one abstaining director from UA, Alicia Raccuia.
Nebrich told the Goldwater Institute that the Prop 204 decision was made to adjust to the association’s traditional difficulty in establishing quorum for full board meetings near the end of school years.
The smaller committees manned by more dedicated student directors could make “tactical” decisions quickly to help Prop 204, said Nebrich, who added that full board approval for decisions like the use of ASA interns for signature collection is unnecessary and unreasonable.
Hoyt and his fellow ASU critics felt otherwise.
“They always have their excuses. It just moves the power away from the board and towards [Nebrich] and the executive committee,” said Hoyt, adding that he was “shocked” to learn of the implication of the vote during a conversation with Grossman.
“The vote wasn’t advertised like they were proud of it. I think they know it was passed in a way that wasn’t legitimate.”
Reed, a then-student director for ASU West, said the decision left him and other initiative opponents on the board “blindsided.”
Both Nebrich and ASA’s current executive director, Casey Dreher, dismissed ASU critics who claimed that staff had no intentions to allow dissenting student directors to thwart ASA support and efforts to help the Prop 204 campaign.
“I think the bigger problem was 74 percent of our board representing 88 percent of the students were all in favor of this,” she said, adding that student critics of the initiative failed to participate in smaller ASA committee meetings about the initiative.
Now free of the constraints of her former ASA employment, Nebrich was highly critical of Hoyt, Grossman, Reed, and Tucker, all of whom she accused of abandoning students in order to do the bidding of state legislators who oppose the initiative’s dedicated funding for education.
“The reasons had nothing to do with whether this will help or harm students. Every year, our board members take an oath of office that they will be there for the students, that they are there to serve the students and this was created by the students,” she said. “It was really about, ‘Is this going to serve legislators?’ It wasn’t about, ‘Is this going to actually be good that our universities have stable funding, be good for our students that will actually for the first time have state-based financial aid funding?’”
In the case of Prop 204, Nebrich said the oath administered to ASA student directors made support for the initiative a critical association priority that trumped the discretion and political beliefs of student directors who oppose the measure.
The oath requires directors to “faithfully execute the office of director of the Arizona Students’ Association by advocating students’ interests, interceding on behalf of students for their legitimate grievances, and by seeking to better the circumstance of students in the state of Arizona.”
“Yes, people can come in and do whatever they want,” Nebrich said. “But, as a board member, legally you have a responsibility to the people that created the organization in the community. A non-profit—you belong to the community. You do not belong to the individual. This is not your organization. This is about the people that have entrusted you with this obligation.”
Nebrich defended ASA staff’s continued signature collection and use of interns to obtain Prop 204 signatures despite the failure to achieve an affirmative board vote on multiple occasions.
Still, she said that staff “tamed down” the Prop 204 action and advocacy out of respect to the voiced concerns of dissenting ASU board members. The ASA also scaled back on its use of interns to accommodate their need to study for final examinations, she added.
Nebrich also said that the ASA would have voted during the April 4 meeting to support the Prop 204 campaign had ASU Downtown campus president Joseph Grossman not used his vote as a “political tool” that harmed university students in an attempt to strong-arm concessions from the student board.
Grossman did not dispute the allegation, and said he intended to secure organizational changes that ASU student directors sought without success. Among the ideas, he said, were plans to create of a rotating chairmanship in order to break the NAU-UA stranglehold on ASA power and allowing students to affirmatively decide whether or not to fund the ASA each semester.
To Hoyt, an outside observer, Grossman’s holdout appeared more political, as the Prop 204 April 4 voting coincided with student body election season. Grossman faced a challenger, Erika Green, an ASA intern whom multiple sources told the Goldwater Institute was personally recruited and advised by ASA staff to campaign against Grossman.
Despite the repeated failed attempts to secure board approval, Nebrich said staff-directed efforts for the Prop 204 campaign—even before board approval was secured—were justified by a strategic plan approved in 2010 that called for increased state-based financial aid, as well as a legislative agenda approved in September 2011 that included the desire to extend the Prop 100 sales tax.
Nebrich said ASA interest and involvement in revenue-producing ballot measures began in 2009. The year marked a round of tough cuts to education budgets by state legislators forced to deal with crashing revenues brought on by the recession.
Championed by Gov. Jan Brewer, Prop 100 brought a temporary three-year tax increase in sales tax rates designed to steady the state’s sinking budgetary ship.
Those involved in education, said Nebrich, were encouraged by the state’s approval of the measure, which passed with an impressive approval rate just below 65 percent. Coalition-building and negotiations aimed at establishing a permanent tax began shortly after.
In the summer of 2011, ASA records indicate that staff, including Nebrich, were active participants in discussions with a budding ballot initiative coalition of interest groups and representatives associated with Arizona’s elementary and high schools.
ASA’s social media trail indicates the association was knowledgeable of the initiative’s funding details as early as February 2012, a month before Prop 204 was formally introduced.
A month later, Nebrich recommended to ASA a role in the education alliance that expanded to include public health activists, construction contractors and other interest groups. In a March 9 email to the ASA student directors, Nebrich advised: “It makes the most sense to focus our efforts on signature collection, we have been asked to collect 50,000 valid signatures as part of the coalition by July 5th.”
The collection of signatures, wrote Nebrich, could occur through the use of interns paid a minimum wage of $7.65 an hour. Direct cash contributions to the initiative committee could wait until the initiative qualified for the ballot.
“These are just some of my initial thoughts, but this is your decision as a board and all of you might have other ideas on how we can accomplish this which will be discussed on the call. So no financial contribution decision will be made until July and we see who else has contributed, and that the ballot is moving forward,” Nebrich concluded her letter.
Within a week, Nebrich authored detailed plans for signature collection. The blueprint included the immediate training of interns, student government representatives and others on how to circulate petitions.
The plan called for the temporary hiring of a student staff of “field managers” to collect signatures on the Tempe, Tucson and Flagstaff campuses of ASU, UA and NAU. Twenty thousand dollars would be allotted for that specific purpose, and Nebrich claimed that she already collected or helped collect 500 signatures for the initiative.
By March 19, Nebrich had authored job descriptions for field managers, who, in turn, would report directly to ASA staff campus organizers who are responsible for recruiting and supervising interns at each university.
The updated budget plan called for using $26,655 for signature gathering, $10,000 for travel expenses and several other funding items that produced a grand total of $48,000 in proposed ASA expenditures.
Two days later, Nebrich told the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the University of Arizona’s student newspaper, that ASA would direct “all of our energy, efforts and resources” into helping collect 50,000 signatures. Her approval of the measure in the paper was backed by two ASA board members, UA Student President James Allen, and ASA Chairman Dan Fitzgibbon.
But, the decision to formally back the initiative would not be reached by the association’s board for another month.
Despite this, ASA’s non-student staff, including Government Affairs Director Amy Cronkhite, then-Organizing Director Casey Dreher, Campus Organizer Erika Edholm, ASU Field Director Shalayne Pillar and Director of Communications Daniel Sullivan personally collected signatures for the initiative as early as March.
Dreher, a former student organizer at Portland State University and field organizer for the Washington State Democrats and President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has since been appointed executive director of the ASA. Nebrich officially resigned from her position as executive director in mid-June.
Prop 204 petitions kept by the Secretary of State’s Office show that ASA staffers and interns were collecting signatures by mid-March, and that petition sheets were personally notarized by Nebrich.
Dreher, who as organizing director was responsible for overseeing staff directors and ASA interns on all state university campuses, estimated that the ASA employed roughly 80 student interns at the time.
One former intern contacted by the Goldwater Institute said the ASA experience included lobbying trips to the state Capitol where students were able to get an up-close view of the lawmaking process.
Those positive experiences, however, were outweighed by the orders to perform “grunt work like standing outside trying to get students to register to vote or sign petitions” for the ballot initiative measure, said the intern.
Ultimately, the ASA claimed credit for collecting 20,000 signatures for the ballot measure, many of which were collected by staff and interns prior to ASA’s formal approval of joining the campaign.
“This set a new precedent in staff running the show,” said Hoyt. “[The students] were transformed into an advisory board.”
Following the initial April 4 failure to secure ASA support for Prop 204, Hoyt said he was surprised to see Nebrich enter his office on the Polytechnic campus with Dreher and several ASA interns.
“She came in crying and saying, ‘I can’t believe you would do this to me,’” he said. “She let me know how bad we would make her look. She wanted to know what she could do to have my vote, and I said, ‘nothing.’”
Nebrich disputed the allegation, and told the Goldwater Institute she visited Hoyt to address his personal problems with an ASA staff member, not to persuade him to back the association’s involvement in the Prop 204 campaign.
The collection of signatures through the use of fulltime staff and interns, which began more than a month before the official ASA Board approval of Prop 204, continued until mid-June, several weeks before initiative backers filed more than 260,000 signatures to help qualify the initiative for the 2012 general election ballot.
More upsetting to Hoyt and his fellow executive directors, however, was the ASA’s launching a new strategy—direct financial contributions to the initiative, which they said remained deliberately hidden from the public and even ASA members.
The first contribution of ASA cash, which additionally marked what is believed to be ASA’s first direct political contribution since its 1974 formation, occurred in mid-May with the cutting of a $20,000 check to the Quality Education and Jobs committee.
To Hoyt, the contribution was the fruition of the ASA’s move to deliberately sidestep the board, which is required by internal financial policies to review and approve all expenditures of $300 or more.
Nebrich defended the spending, which she said she initiated with the ASA student treasurer in order to comply with ASA bylaws that task the executive director and treasurer maintain a balanced budget.
Nearing the end of the 2012 fiscal year, the ASA had $40,000 in cash that was never put to use towards staff salaries. The decision to give the money to the Prop 204 campaign was seconded by the Finance Committee, which ultimately decided to contribute half of the money to the campaign, she said.
“It’s the end of the year and we really don’t have a lot of options on what we do with it,” said Nebrich, who contended that ASA’s financial policies do not preempt or contemplate political expenditures, let alone require full board approval.
“The [policy] is for purchases,” she said. “This was not a purchase.”
That logic was contested by Hoyt, who noted that ASA board votes are necessary to approve the spending of money to send students to in-state and out-of-state conferences and events, actions which he said also would not technically be considered a purchase.
The ASA has ignored multiple requests to release audio recordings and detailed meeting minutes of the ASA board meeting that occurred on April 20 and the May Finance Committee meeting that authorized the $20,000 contribution to the Prop 204 campaign.
Additionally, Dreher told the Goldwater Institute that the ASA is unable to produce a recording of the April 20 telephonic conference, because the host of the conference—freeconferencecall.com—does not have the technological capabilities to allow users to access recordings more than once.
Several customer service representatives of the firm told the Goldwater Institute that recordings of teleconferences can be accessed an unlimited number of times and that users can access the recordings for up to six months.
Roughly one month after the initial payment, the ASA opted to make a larger financial contribution. On June 17—and through a board comprised almost entirely of new student directors—the ASA voted to contribute $100,000 to the Prop 204 campaign.
The significant expenditure secured the ASA a top spot among Prop 204 contributors, as the association’s contributions exceeded those made by teachers’ unions and school boards, and was bested only by construction contractors.
And unlike the previous contribution, which was made public only through campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office, the $100,000 gift drew the attention of ASA observers.
Tyler Bowyer, an ASU student and student member of the Arizona Board of Regents, said he was bothered by the association’s general lack of transparency and its decision to spend students’ money on a political cause that students may not be aware of or even support.
“In my opinion, they are pilfering from students who may or may not want to fund some of the decisions that the ASA is making. The fact of the matter is, if people want to donate to that cause then let them do it. Let’s not have a third party making the decision for us,” he said.
ASU President Michael Crow told the Goldwater Institute that the high likelihood that Arizona’s public university students were unaware of the
political expenditures makes the contributions “problematic.”
“It is surprising that they would invest fee-based money, as opposed to contributed money, into a political campaign for an initiative. That is surprising,” he said.
Rick Myers, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees Arizona’s public university system, said that his experiences with the ASA had been positive.
He remained neutral on the ASA’s decision to dedicate student fees to the Prop 204 campaign, even as the measure “will absolutely generate money for financial aid.”
“I think it’s a judgment call on whether this particular initiative is something they should have jumped on or not,” said Myers, who added that the ASA’s allowing of students to “opt-out” of the fee was important to have so students aren’t “stuck” paying for activities they do not support.
Will Creeley, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that existing case law would present dissenting Arizona university students a strong case in challenging the ASA’s dedicated funding source.
While the U.S. Supreme Court’s Southworth v. Board of Regents opinion in 2000 upheld the practice of awarding student groups cash from larger student activity pools of money, the opinion also cast “real suspicion” on public university student referenda processes that by electoral nature are under control of the majority, he said.
The referendum process was used to create the Arizona Students Association in 1974, and to create the ASA’s own distinct $1 student fee funding mechanism in 1996, as well as an increase to $2 per semester in 2008.
Student challenges to distinct student fees for political organizations have been garnered mixed results by federal courts, which have tended to be most concerned with whether compulsory students fees improved or contributed to the educational atmosphere of a campus.
Creeley said Arizona universities’ use of the referendum process to fund the ASA, as well as the ASA’s separate student fee presents a clear difference from the protected ability of all student groups to petition universities for a share of combined student activities fees.
“What if students had a referendum on whether or not to send $2 to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party? It sure seems as a policy result to be absolutely wrong and problematic, and I can’t think of much of a distinction that this body purports to be both nonpartisan and in the interests of students. Lots of organizations would claim that—us, we’re nonpartisan and we would argue that we work in the interest of students. Can we get a $2 fee funded directly to us?” Creeley said.
Likewise, attorney Jim Young of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation said the ASA’s use of mandatory student fees to propel a ballot initiative would be difficult to defend, as the established case law respects and protects contributions to students’ educational benefit, not political endeavors.
“This is not a robust forum for debate and intellectual challenge,” he said. “The notion that this group is allowed to pick the pockets of Arizona students to pursue the personal political agenda of those who happen to be in charge of it is absurd on its face. This is a traditional government forced association, forced speech.”
Dr. James Rund, ASU’s Senior Vice President of Educational Outreach and Student Affairs, told the Goldwater Institute that any serious changes within the ASA regarding the involvement of ASU students would have to come from students themselves.
Rund said he viewed the association in a historical context, as many similar student associations came to formation during the post-Vietnam War era when school administrations operated campuses without much student input.
That top-down model, which led to clashes with students, is long gone and has since been replaced with near constant administration interaction with students, he said.
“We invite the students into the day-to-day problem solving of an educational institution. There is an open exchange and regular dialogue among the administration and students about how you improve the institution, how we improve the quality of their daily experience and how we drive up the value of their degree. That’s 180 degrees different than the way that students engaged with a university 30 years ago or 40 years ago when you think about the founding of the ASA,” he said, adding that he felt ASA “as a concept is anachronistic and in many ways has outgrown its usefulness.”
Rund said he recognized the educational value that students of ASU campuses gain through experience working as part of a representative government structure like the ASA, despite the “running dialogue” he has had with disaffected ASA members, including Hoyt.
“Some parts of their education they maybe didn’t anticipate,” he said.
Rund, who regarded the ASA’s claim to represent all students as misleading and disingenuous, said he viewed the legal threat against Hoyt as “emotional and immature” on the part of the association.
Such a lawsuit, he said, would be baseless and only serve to “accelerate the debate” at ASU on whether to leave the association.
Nebrich said Hoyt would have never faced a legal threat if he resigned his position from ASA prior to writing his letter or if had he not chosen to “collaborate” with ASU officials who are not associated with the organization.
She added that the former student was attempting to “take down” the association in direct violation to his legal responsibilities to the non-profit.
“You’re talking about the funding of the organization and their ability to function. If a school decides they are no longer going to be a part of the organization, that’s hurting the organization. That’s not doing something to strengthen the organization. Your duty to your students when you’re on the board of directors is to strengthen the organization,” Nebrich said.
Crow, who along with Rund received Hoyt’s letter that prompted the threat, said the talk of suing ASA student directors only served to demonstrate the longstanding fissure within ASA.
The ASU president said he viewed the threat as “over the top” and unreasonable given the student nature of the organization.
“It’s a free country and he should speak to whomever he wants to speak,” Crow said.
Hoyt, who did not receive subsequent threats of lawsuits, chalked up the episode as part of the broad learning experience he received from the association, however hostile the relationship.
During his tenure, Hoyt said he learned a lot about political organizations, including representative governments and non-profits. The ease in which people can spend others’ money also made Hoyt’s list, as did the self-interest of others and the power of personal beliefs.
“I came out the better because of it. I learned you have to have convictions, and you have to fight for your convictions, even if it makes you unpopular. It’s easy to talk about that until you are the one in that position. I don’t think you really learn until you experience those things.”