University News

Ivy student governments differ in budgets, duties

Large budget disparities attest to varying responsibilities of undergraduate councils

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Undergraduate Council of Students operates under a budget of approximately $11,000 for the 2017-18 academic year.

Its budget is small compared to those of student government organizations at peer schools. This year, for example, the Yale College Council operates on a $349,000 budget and Penn’s Undergraduate Assembly works with more than $2.1 million — 30 and 190 times larger, respectively, than UCS’ budget.

However, it would be misleading to directly compare the budgets of separate student government bodies. Across universities, student-led governments assume vastly different responsibilities and operate through various branches, and their budgets are generated by different sources of revenue and  through different processes. Financial transparency, which is dependent on policy rather than monetary operations, also varies by institution.

Some of the duties that the YCC and UA oversee are taken care of at Brown by other student groups with substantial separate funding. For example, students groups that UA would fund are not funded by UCS but by the Undergraduate Finance Board, which has a $1.7 million budget in the 2017-18 academic year.

Budgets and responsibilities

UCS operates “typically on a small budget,” said UCS Treasurer Alex Song ’20. “Our budget, while fluctuating, stays pretty limited.”

Though UCS’ budget amounts to a fraction of the money allocated by the YCC and Penn’s UA, UCS does not fund or oversee many of the university operations that the other groups do.

Of UCS’ $5,500 budget this semester, the New Initiatives Fund consumed approximately $4,800. This money is accessible only to newly created Category I student groups, which neither qualify for baseline funding nor demonstrate eligibility to request funds from the Undergraduate Finance Board’s $1.7 million fund, Song said.

The Project Fund uses approximately $550 of the council’s remaining $700 for the semester. This money is used to finance initiatives that have been adopted by the organization, but do not yet have a permanent source of funding. This fund’s uses are left “extremely wide open” and can go toward “whatever we think will benefit the students,” Song said.

The $550 project fund is sufficient for UCS’ current supplemental financial needs as the council relies on the University as a main funding source for approved initiatives. “We try to institutionalize (initiatives),” Song said. “That’s the main hope of anything we do.”

One of the council’s most recent and well-known initiatives is the Tampon Project, which was adopted in fall 2016 and was funded by UCS’ Project Fund for the first year. This fall, the University is funding the effort, but only on a “temporary basis,” wrote Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark in an email to The Herald.

The remaining few hundred dollars mostly go toward administrative costs, such as website maintenance.

At Yale, the YCC operated on an approximately $380,000 budget for the 2016-17 academic year, YCC Finance Director Carson Handley said.

Seventy-nine percent of the budget, which amounts to nearly $300,0000, is used to finance Yale’s Spring Fling — the school’s spring music festival that is similar to the University’s Spring Weekend.

The Council also spent approximately $55,000 on campus events and almost $20,000 on community events last year, according to the group’s website. This leaves only $4,000 per year for administrative costs, such as software subscriptions and tax filings.

At Penn, the UA’s mammoth $2.1 million budget was divided into 14 major categories for the 2016-17 academic year, according to UA Treasurer Samantha Shea and a budget report.

Of the budget, $1.3 million financed the Student Activities Council, which funds student groups. Almost $1 million funded the group’s Social Planning and Events Committee. After other expenses — including class boards and various committees — the UA fund allocated only $6,000 for its own maintenance.

Of the funds specifically for UA, nearly $4,000 was used for “general operations,” including meeting packets, retreats, annual reports, marketing and other expenses. Legal services, a mentoring program and marketing for an airport shuttle initiative used $2,000, according to the budget.

Considering the scope of operations managed by UCS, the other groups wield comparable amounts of money.

Forming a budget

The disparity between various university student organizations’ budgets is also due to the manner in which they are formed.

UCS requests its budget from UFB, its partner organization, and operates in this respect “like any other Category III student group at Brown,” Song said. This means the group submits a budget proposal in the preceding spring semester, which is then reviewed by the UFB board and funded by its $1.7 million budget. UFB’s budget is derived from the student activities fee — which, for the 2017-18 academic year, was $274 for each student.

According to Song, UCS generally gets “a little less” than what they request from UFB. Song does not expect anything to change when he requests the 2018-19 budget for UCS next spring.

The YCC’s budget is created in a different manner. Its finance committee, comprised of Handley and two other members, does not request funds to cover its expenses. Instead, it receives approximately 50 percent of the total amount of money from Yale’s student activities fee. It receives an additional annual grant of $40,000 from the University President’s Office to help with the funding of Spring Fling, Handley said.

However, students at Yale, unlike Brown, have the ability to opt out of paying the $125 student activities fee. Consistent with previous years, approximately 30 percent of Yale students decided not to pay the fee this year, which diminishes the amount of money the YCC could integrate into its budget, Handley said. Yale also covers the fee for students on financial aid, she added.

Penn’s UA’s budget, which is also drawn from its students activities fee, formed during the previous spring term, Shea said.

In the fall, a full year before the budget comes into effect, the budget committee meets with every major group to which it allocates funds in order to revisit the year’s financing. Over the course of the year, the group meets several times in formal budget meetings to review the 14 major funding categories, and “within that, there are hundreds of line items,” Handley said. The committee proposes the budget to the UA’s 35-member general body, which holds three sessions over three weeks to deliberate the proposed budget and ultimately votes on whether or not to approve it.

Transparency

UCS does not report their budget online, but Song was able to provide figures for a breakdown of UCS’ budget.

The YCC’s annual budget is recorded online in a series of graphics that explain the budget’s exact sources of revenue and expenses. It is updated annually, and the full report for this year’s budget will be completed soon, Handley said.

The push for increased budget transparency started when a previous YCC director noticed a “problem with the fact that (the YCC is) using student money and students do not know what their money is being used for,” Handley added. “We want students to know what their money is being spent on.”

The UA’s $2.1 million budget is recorded in a 19-page spreadsheet on its website, which reports every sum that the group has allocated, down to $20.00 fee to register one of the organization’s domain names online. Records extend back to 2012.

“I think (the budget and budgeting process) is extremely transparent,” Shea said. All budget meetings involving the general assembly are open to the public. The group is now attempting to live steam their events and general body meetings online.

Both the YCC and the UA were fully able to provide an exact sum for every one of their expenses. And while Song agreed about the importance of transparency, he was unable to provide exact figures for some specific UCS expenses as the organization looks to secure competitive prices from companies for potential contracts.

“We understand definitely that we want transparency, … but there are circumstances in which we might need to keep how much we’re paying to certain companies” inaccessible to the public, Song said.

“Our goal is to do everything at the lowest price, because this is students’ tuition that we’re using to fund all these things,” Song said. “We understand that we want transparency and we’re trying to give as much as we can.”