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Op-eds, Opinions

Gaur ’21 and Lee ’20: UFB’s pandemic response fails our communities

By and
Op-Ed Contributors
Saturday, May 30, 2020

Following Brown’s closure due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 16 Brown student organizations called on the Undergraduate Finance Board to donate unused funds from these organizations’ annual budgets to mutual aid efforts to support members of both the Brown and Rhode Island communities. On May 20, outgoing UFB Chair Julian De Georgia ’20 wrote an op-ed explaining why UFB would not allow student organizations to access their unused funds. De Georgia’s response was incomplete, misconstruing important facets of the student organizations’ requests and ignoring important context regarding UFB’s operations. As student leaders of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere — one of the University’s largest community-engaged organizations — we believe it necessary for us to respond and set the record straight.

We acknowledge the unique position UFB finds itself in: As an organization whose decision-making is, in normal times, determined by strict adherence to policy and precedent, this pandemic presents new challenges. In addition, we appreciate and celebrate the important efforts made by the current UFB leadership to increase transparency in the body’s dealings. We continue, however, to advocate for change not because we see UFB members as callous and unconcerned individuals, as De Georgia suggests, but because — just like De Georgia and his colleagues — we believe that UFB can and must better serve our community. Improving accountability within the Brown student body means calling one another out when our actions fall short of our intentions, no matter how good those intentions may be. And UFB’s actions, despite great progress, continue to fall short of the responsibility that the Brown student body entrusts in the organization during these unprecedented times.

The burden of COVID-19 has not been shouldered equally; the pandemic has revealed the deep inequities embedded within both the Providence and Brown communities. In requesting that UFB allow our student organizations to donate our unused funds, we requested an exemption to help aid those community members most vulnerable to the virus and its social and economic fallout.

Within the greater Providence community, we sought to donate to community partners who are serving housing-insecure and low-income communities, those most threatened by a virus spread through contact. Many vulnerable communities in Providence and Rhode Island benefit greatly from the services provided by student-run, community-engaged organizations. We have already seen specific gaps left by the lack of Brown students’ involvement in these crucial community-engaged activities. Because of the pandemic, Providence community members experiencing homelessness are no longer served by the nighttime outreach conducted by HOPE. Students at William D’Abate Elementary School cannot receive enriching after-school tutoring from Brown students through Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring. Brown students working through the Outdoor Leadership and Environmental Education Program can no longer provide local high schoolers the opportunity to connect with the outdoors while conducting important environmental science and justice learning.

If Brown students can’t give our time and energy to our neighbors, one of the best ways our student body can support our larger community is through financial contributions. We should continue to think creatively about supporting our community virtually, but we, as privileged members of the greater Providence community, should also embrace a responsibility to support our neighbors financially. The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated — by providing resources like food, water and shelter, this money can literally save lives.

These contributions will, we acknowledge, require an ongoing re-evaluation of the role of UFB. De Georgia cites UFB’s constitution as a barrier to donating funds to non-Brown organizations. But UFB cannot hide behind policies that were created before the full weight of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Brown and Providence communities. In the coming months, UFB must reconsider donating student organization funds to Providence community partners, given the Brown student body’s likely inability to engage with our surrounding neighbors through traditional contributions of time and effort. The current crisis reveals the importance of giving future generations of Brown students the option to contribute financially to the greater community — and UFB should amend its constitution to allow them to do so. We believe that this re-evaluation will be worth it and know it to be the responsibility of the Brown student body to our larger community in an unprecedented time of change and uncertainty.

In addition, De Georgia’s op-ed neglected to engage with another valid option for UFB: Allocate the money to Brown students who need it. In previous correspondence between UFB, HOPE and Student Activities Office administrators reviewed by The Herald, UFB articulated that while it broached that topic with the University, they collectively decided that “there wasn’t a specific unmet need” UFB could fill. This is a startling statement. As Jack Ostrovsky ’23, Jason Carroll ’21 and Samy Amkieh ’21.5 articulated in their April 30 op-ed, the University’s measures to support the community in the context of COVID-19 — including the Emergency Funds, Curricular and Co-Curricular Gap (E-Gap) Funds — are often inaccessible and insufficient. UFB, with immense flexibility and hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal, is uniquely suited to fill this gap.

Many of UFB’s parallels at peer institutions have set critical precedents here, as well. Washington University in St. Louis’ Student Union donated $80,000 of its student activities fees to the university’s crisis response fund. The Wesleyan University Student Assembly pledged $100,000 to a fund to support first-generation, low-income students on its campus. The Brown student body should be demanding that our peers, who serve as our elected officials, do the same. UFB must reject University leaders’ absurd assessment that there is no “unmet need” among the Brown student body.

Let’s also not allow ourselves to operate under the ludicrous assumption that UFB is financially constrained. Don’t forget that in the past 10 years, after a decade of not spending enough of its funds, UFB accidentally accrued a budget surplus of $1 million, as reported by The Herald April 9. It should be emphasized that this is not the fault of this year’s board specifically — rather, we have UFB’s push toward greater transparency to thank for this realization. But, we cannot think of a better way to relieve UFB of its unnecessarily-acquired surplus than by either returning that money to Brown students — for whom these funds would make a considerable difference — or to Providence community members who are most threatened by the ongoing pandemic.

De Georgia is right in noting that accommodating our requests today will place the UFB of tomorrow in a challenging position. But the UFB of tomorrow will find itself in uncharted territory whether we like it or not. In the semesters — or, perhaps more likely, the years — to come, UFB will need to re-evaluate how it uses its millions of dollars. Across campus, the activities of student organizations at Brown will be dramatically altered by the persistent threat of the coronavirus. Activities like club meetings, dance performances and even massive gatherings of the student body such as Spring Weekend — all funded, at least in part, by UFB — will be challenging if not impossible to execute in the years ahead. What will UFB do with the millions of dollars it is allocated to serve the Brown student body?

It’s our hope that the Brown student body will push UFB to use these funds to meaningfully address the emerging needs apparent in our community. UFB has a plethora of options at its disposal. It can allocate funds to community partners at the frontlines of the pandemic, supporting organizations financially when we can’t do so in person. Or, it can return money to Brown students dealing with the financial impacts of the pandemic. Instead, UFB is trying to add hundreds of thousands of dollars to its already-overblown surplus, at a time when our community needs it most. We hope UFB will make the right decision, and use its unparalleled resources and flexibility to meet the growing needs of Brown students and Rhode Island residents.

Dhruv Gaur ’21 is one of HOPE’s co-directors, and Melissa Lee ’21 is HOPE’s outgoing Fundraising Chair. Dhruv can be reached at dhruv_gaur@brown.edu, and Melissa can be reached at melissa_lee@brown.edu. This op-ed was written with support from outgoing members of HOPE’s leadership team Michael Gold ’20, Will Gomberg ’20 and Nathaniel Pettit ’20. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. I did not read the De Georgia op-ed before, but found that op-ed to be more convincing. This op-ed calls it “incomplete” but the De Georgia op-ed explains that donating student activities fees to the community was a policy decided together with service groups and the UFB in March, and that making judgment calls about exceptions sets a precedence for future crises which is beyond the scope of what UFB should do. Yet this op-ed again asks for both.

    One idea here that has some merit is giving the 1 million leftover fees directly to students. But I think that warrants a discussion beyond what UFB should be able to decide alone, as it involves taking money charged to past students (alumni) under the guise of supporting student activities for them, and transferring it solely to current students as a one-time appropriation.

  2. ttmcgrane says:

    when you are charitable with money belonging to others it’s called theft.

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