EXCLUSIVE: Leftist 'agency' funded by UMass student fees could present legal hurdle

The UMass-Amherst Student Government has allocated more than six times more funds toward a progressive agency operating out of the campus than to the school’s College Republicans chapter.

There are also allegations of “legislative agents” attempting to tilt policy in the left-leaning groups’ favor.

University of Massachusetts’ student government has been allocating several times more funding to a left-leaning group on campus than a conservative one, and potentially even using student fees in violation of Massachusetts state law.

According to UMass SGA budget documents obtained by Campus Reform, a left-leaning student government “agency” called the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy (CEPA) received more than six times more funding from the student government’s budget than did the school’s Republican Club, while University Democrats and Young Americans for Liberty received even less than that.

CEPA, which conducts grassroots political organizing and seeks to “train, educate, and mobilize students around issues of education justice,” received $116,255.91 in funding from student fees in the budget for the 2019 fiscal year, while the Republican Club received $17,800.53. UMass University Democrats received $3,818.44 and Young Americans for Liberty received $3,041.38.

UMass had a fall 2018 undergraduate enrollment of 21,969, which works out to a little over $5 in student fees per student per semester for CEPA. A budget spreadsheet showed that CEPA spent nearly $50,000 on “employee compensation,” an additional $20,369 on “Pension and Insurance,” and an additional $37,950 on contract services.

In comparison, the Republican Club, College Democrats and Young Americans for Liberty do not spend any money on compensations, pensions or contract services.

[RELATED: VIDEO: Students interrupt Gold Star family ceremony while demanding free college]

“I think it’s ridiculous that they’re getting so much student fee money for doing basically what [a registered student organization] would do.” UMass Amherst Republican Club President Nick Consolini told Campus Reform, regarding the funding discrepancy.

A CEPA charter obtained by Campus Reform shows that the organization has opened new paid jobs for undergraduate students at the college such as Lead Campaign and Advocacy Coordinator, Campaign Advocacy Coordinator, and others. These jobs would include networking with Student Government, which would potentially influence campus policy decisions.

“CEPA shall serve its advocacy role by: Collaborating with the SGA and campus agencies, support services, programs, RSOs, academic departments, and regional and national coalitions (such as the USSA) to increase the efficacy and inclusiveness of campus policy development,” the CEPA charter obtained by Campus Reform states.

CEPA lobbies the state and federal government, focuses on under-representation and inclusion among UMass undergraduates, and create “organiz[es] campaigns” that focus on diversity and social justice, among other goals. 

The CEPA website also claims that the agency was involved in “organizing” for Black Lives Matter on a national and local level, the creation of policy briefs promoting a $15 minimum wage, and “leading the UMass system toward full divestment from fossil fuels.” The group’s Twitter also promotes the “Fund our Future” movement that seeks to influence state legislatures to pass legislation for “debt-free” college.

A recent Fund our Future rally at the Massachusetts state house disrupted a Gold Star family ceremony, as Campus Reform reported.

Massachusetts has laws against the use of student fees for funding of “legislative agents,” or students or others who are paid to engage in legislative lobbying. The law also states that the organization “shall not include any student government association or associations, individually or collectively, or any organization comprised of representatives of such associations” to be involved with the process.

The law also prohibits mandatory student fee funds that are collected to be used as payment for these “legislative agents” but allows for optional fees for “nonpartisan student organizations” to be collected by the board of trustees when authorized by an official student referendum.

An email obtained by Campus Reform to the administration and student government about the issue also suggests that the group, defined as an “agency” in the budget, was violating Massachusetts State Law by advocating for certain policies and allegedly using the increased allocation of student funds to influence legislation on campus and in the state and federal legislature.

“While I believe that the methods currently used to allocate mandatory student fees is fair and neutral in other regards, the Agency status of CEPA and the de facto increased funding and resources it receives compared to all other viewpoints is a glaring exception,” the email reads.

“I would like to know why one advocacy viewpoint is given a higher status as an agency than all advocacy-centered Registered Student Organizations,” the email also reads. “CEPA is the only advocacy-centered group that is guaranteed their own adviser, office space, and undergraduate payroll.”

CEPA’s website shows that the organization partners not only with other agencies, but also other organizations such as the Black Student Union, the radio and TV stations on campus, academic departments such as women, gender, and sexuality studies and Afro-American studies, and even unions such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

[RELATED: Labor union slams UMass for letting Sean Spicer speak]

Caleb Dalton, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom, spoke with Campus Reform and referenced the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision, which ruled that unions had to provide an opt-in process when collecting dues. He also said that UMass does not appear to have an opt-out policy.

”As the Supreme Court affirmed last summer in the union’s case (Janus), the government may not compel us to pay fees to directly support speech we disagree with,” Dalton said. “Thus, from a general constitutional standpoint...It’s likely unconstitutional for UMass to charge the mandatory student activity fee in the first place.”

Dalton also referenced Ball State University, California State at San Marcos and the University of Florida schools which are in the midst of discriminatory funding lawsuits that are allegedly targeting right-wing organizations on campus.

”It seems that students have to pay $231 a year in mandatory student fees,” Dalton told Campus Reform. “If student groups are funded with student fees, it should be done on an equal basis.”

In addition to CEPA’s history of advocacy, December 2017 and March 2018 meeting minutes obtained by Campus Reform show that the group leans toward left-wing ideologies, as it has encouraged members to write “leftist op-eds” and attend a “progressive caucus.”

The minutes also show that the agency was discussing updates on “protecting members of the executive” a member’s existence in the student government being in violation of the constitution.

Further investigation by Campus Reform also found that the current president of UMass Amherst’s student government, Timmy Sullivan, was promoted by CEPA on its Instagram account. According to a question and answer session transcript published by the Daily Collegian, Sullivan stated in February 2019 that he and outgoing Vice President Nathalie Amazan, were “both really involved in” CEPA and SGA. 

“If they were former members...it could raise the possibility of [a] conflict of interest,” Dalton said.

“Universities have the responsibility to ensure the marketplace of ideas is free and not put their thumb on the scale to disadvantage those they disagree with,” Dalton added, “If student groups are funded with student fees, it should be done on an equal basis.”

Campus Reform reached out to the UMass Student Government for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication. CEPA declined to comment, directing Campus Reform to UMass. The adviser for student government also refused to comment directly but redirected Campus Reform to the school.

“The Center for Education Policy and Advocacy is an agency of the Student Government Association (SGA), and is supported by student-activity fee funds allocated by the SGA,” Ed Blaguszewski, the Executive Director of Strategic Communications at UMass, told Campus Reform. “Decisions on how to allocate this student funding [are] decided solely by the student government, which is elected by the UMass student body.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @jessestiller3