Protecting Against “Heterosexism” — for $200,000?

Harvard’s president Derek Bok has written that universities have something in common with gambling addicts and exiled royalty – there is never enough money. One reason why that’s true is that people on campus are almost always spending other people’s money and when that’s the case, there’s a strong tendency to demand all sorts of unnecessary things. After all, if available money doesn’t get spent on what you want, it will get spent on what someone else wants.

The story of the proposed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Center at NC State is a good illustration of the infighting that erupts when interest groups battle over how to spend other people’s money.

Back in October, the NCSU Student Senate paved the way for a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Center by passing a proposal made by the LGBT advisory committee outlining the mission, costs and benefits of the proposed Center. The mission of the proposed center is to provide a safe and welcoming place on campus for members of the LGBT community, to serve as a resource center, to educate individuals about LGBT issues and to represent the LGBT community and serve as its advocate. The Center’s Proponents claim that the current “heterosexist climate” on campus necessitates a designated place on campus for LGBT students to feel safe.

The proposed center was debated during an open forum on December 6th. The source of funding for the center and the effect on available funding for other student activities was a major concern throughout the debate. The new center will cost just under $200,000, with about half of that coming from mandatory student fees and the other half from previously set allocations from the university. Ongoing costs of running the center are estimated to be between $124,550 and $141,850 annually.

A strong argument against the proposed center is that it would be a large expense serving only a small fraction of the NCSU student body. The highest estimates claim that 10 percent of the population is homosexual or LGBT-identified but in the 2004 NCSU Student Diversity Climate Survey, less than five percent of respondents identified themselves as homosexual, bisexual or transgender. And of those students, fewer than 10 percent said they felt unwelcome on campus. Given those statistics, it’s unlikely that an LGBT center will solve any problems not already addressed by myriad LGBT programs currently in existence, most of which are conducted through the school’s Office of Diversity and African American Affairs.

Despite the work his office already does for LBGT students, Vice Provost of Diversity & African-American Affairs Dr. Jose Picart says he is “fully, wholly committed to the establishment of an LGBT Center on this campus” and that such a center “is way past due.” Perhaps he thinks that because both UNC and Duke have already set up LGBT centers.

At NC State, student affairs and university housing are already very attentive to LGBT issues. The NCSU Counseling Center serves a number of LGBT students as well as all other members of the NCSU community. Additionally, NCSU has made efforts to address issues specific to LGBT students: starting in 2006, a graduate assistant was funded to attend to the needs of the LGBT community by administering LGBT programs and running the LGBT resource Web site “Everyone Welcome Here.” Other projects on campus include “Project Safe,” LGBT student roundtables, LGBT faculty brown-bag lunches, and several student organizations.

Given those existing efforts aimed at LGBT students, it is difficult to see much advantage to adding another expensive layer of bureaucracy. An official LGBT office would simply duplicate work already done by other campus organizations.

Moreover, many NCSU students disapprove of the proposed center. Some students, dedicated to stopping student fees from funding the center, have formed a Facebook group, “Students Against NCSU LGBT Center,” which currently has more than 1,200 members. On the group’s webpage, its creator, Jantzen Brantley states, “We disagree with using student money to fund this center…I should have a say in where my money goes.” The corresponding Facebook group, “Students For NCSU LGBT Center,” has only 600 members. The group’s members cite NCSU’s high ranking in the Princeton Review “Alternative Lifestyles Not An Alternative” list as evidence that a Center is needed. That scarcely seems like a sound justification for a large, ongoing expenditure.

The findings of an online poll confirm that a majority of NCSU students are either opposed to the center, or opposed to its funding source. According to the poll conducted by NCSU’s student newspaper, the Technician, 50 percent of students oppose the center. Forty-one percent support the center and nine percent say their support “depends on where the money comes from.”

NCSU Student Senator Benton Sawrey explained his “No” vote on the center proposal, “I feel there are a lot better things we can put $200,000 toward. Off the top of my head, I can think of 5 different academic centers that are needed at NC State that I feel would better serve the student population rather than an LGBT center.”

The question that students and officials at NC State should think about before they take any final action on the proposal is whether it’s a good policy to use student fees to create campus centers that only cater to a small portion of the community. Student fee projects should be for all students, not aimed at any distinct segment of the student body. NC State would be taking a strong stand for common sense if it were to stop playing the “identity politics” game and say “no” to this and all similar projects. In the meantime, LGBT students can consult the myriad opportunities, projects and student organizations that already address LGBT-specific issues.

If advocates feel strongly about a LGBT center, they should explore private options for creating one on campus. It’s possible that one or more backers could be found and if they’re willing to spend their own money, no one can complain.