Miller: Too Tempting to Resist

by Jon Miller | 4/27/15 7:22pm

Jon Miller ’15 is a member of the undergraduate finance committee.

The current system of allocating the student activity fee should be fundamentally changed — particularly to prevent inaccurate attendance estimates and duplicitous funding requests submitted to multiple student organizations.

As it stands now, the $1,045,000 derived from the student activity fee is distributed to nine large campus organizations — including Collis Governing Board and the Greek Leadership Council — under the undergraduate finance committee. If one of these organizations is particularly skilled at ensuring that smaller student groups use the money effectively, then it may have a positive balance at the end of the fiscal year in which it was allocated to them. Rather than rewarding the smaller groups for prudent spending, however, the UFC retains control over any surplus. Organizations that spend money inappropriately, then, may benefit from the reallocation of these surplus funds.

One high-profile instance of the misuse of student activity fee money was Student Assembly’s purchase of custom Patagonia jackets for executive council members last November. It would, for example, be likewise unethical to request $8,000 in funding for a dinner and inflate the estimated attendance to 400-500 people if the event will, in reality, only have 40-50 people. This type of behavior is not uncommon, though no single student would have the time to tally instances when student activity money was essentially pilfered in several thousand dollar lumps at a time on programming with low attendance.

The current system encourages student groups to not only request gratuitous amounts but also to inflate estimated attendance. If a group holds an event it knows will cost $2,000, it may ask for $4,000 from various funding sources, knowing it likely not receive the full amount. This pattern incentivizes many groups to submit with undoubtedly inflated cost estimates. Since high costs can often be justified on the basis of strong attendance, groups might exaggerate those numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly all students working to review funding applications from one of the nine groups under the purview of the UFC have come across such attendance inflation.

Another major problem faced by students charged with the equitable use of student activity fee money is that a student group looking for funding can request it from multiple sources. In the case of co-sponsorship, this is ethical and doesn’t present any problems. What is concerning, however, is when one group, having been denied by one of the funding sources under the UFC, solicits funds from another source but declines to mention their previous funding denial. Even worse — a student group might double- or triple-dip into the student activity money by submitting requests to multiple boards without informing them of having received funding from similar sources. As the current system works, there is not a centralized way for the nine UFC organizations to quickly and easily communicate with one another about those seeking funding.

To address these problems, the College should assist the UFC in creating a centralized database of current funding requests from across the nine organizations. Additionally, decisions about which groups and events receive funds from the student activity fee and how those funds are spent must be transparent. Funding requests, denials and approvals should all be made public. In theory, the student activity fee must only fund programming open to all of campus. Yet this line is sometimes hazy. If, for example, an event caters to a narrow, niche interest — perhaps shared by only 30 or 40 students — should it receive lavish funds because it is technically open to all?

The UFC and the nine organizations below it should be required to publish detailed annual expenditure reports alongside funding data. The student activity fee is supposed to serve students, who have a right to know how their money is being spent — or misspent. If a group wishes to spend $3,000 on a relatively exclusive event or spend $800 renting a moon bounce or something equally ridiculous, then by all means, they probably will. In doing so, however, the group will be accountable not just to the students on the UFC, but to campus as a whole, and greater transparency will increase pressure on student groups to take ownership of how money is spent. It is one thing to have the 18 members of the UFC asking you in private to spend responsibly and quite another when you have 4,000 of your peers watching you.