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Will Wray '10: Undergraduate Central Planning Board

Clerestory, Issues, Jug, VISIONS, Ziggurat, Catalyst, Journal of World Affairs, Watershed, Contemporary, Awaaz, African Sun, the Round.

Can you identify more than a few of these student published magazines? You should be able to: You are paying for them.

Every year, $170 of your tuition goes towards a "student activities fee." Many of you won't see a dime of this money, except in the form of a friend recounting his all-expenses-paid trip to a debate tournament in Thailand, or, as with the above examples, as a glossy literary arts compilation that entertains you for the 30-foot walk from where you picked up the magazine to the nearest recycling bin.

The million dollars of student activities fees is allocated by the Undergraduate Finance Board, a 12-person council (elected by only a fraction of Brown students) whose blandly bureaucratic name conceals a more controversial purpose: spending your money better than you can. Every week, according to an unpublished policy manual, UFB distributes the student activities fund to groups who present funding requests.

The most obvious problem with this system is that it leads to concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Many groups receive disproportionate funding for a small group of students. How many students do you know on the Brown Ballroom Dance team? You should ask them for a thank-you note: Every year, UFB dishes out more than 1 percent of the student activities fund for them to buy costumes, travel to colleges across the country for competitions and hire a coach at the cost of more than $8,000 a year to us students.
VISIONS, an Asian literary arts magazine, doesn't even bother with the facade of serving the entire Brown community: They deliver their magazines directly into the mailboxes of Asian students.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn't have 17 literary arts magazines, or that the ballroom dancing team is useless. I cannot tell which group best serves Brown students or boosts our reputation any better than UFB can. All I suggest is that no student group has the right to spend your dollar unless you give it to them. We could ensure that the greatest number of Brown students is best served by distributing our own student activities fee.

Here's how it could work: At the end of each school year, every student would log into his or her account, see a list of category three groups, then allocate $170 as he or she sees fit. There would not be less money going to student groups; it would simply be more fairly distributed.

I can already imagine the protests from the small but vocal minority of students who receive more than $170 from the student activities fund, from obscure groups and redundant publications insisting that their vital contributions to the community would be eliminated in such a system. "Common good!" would be their rallying cry.

Is the "common good" invisible? If a group could not find anyone to fund its initiative voluntarily, then why should it be entitled to take money involuntarily? If we distributed our own student activities fee, the only way to get more funding would be to have more students active and involved in the group, to come up with a better product and to have more people on campus recognize the group's impact.

This would not signal the death of culture at Brown. Many students who do not write for the Brown Noser would fund it out of appreciation for its laughs; I am not a Janus Forum member but would support it for the intellectual diversity and interesting conversations it engenders on campus. Admittedly, we may see fewer taekwondo club members dropping hundreds of your dollars on plane tickets to national competitions.

There is little to no accountability in how groups are allowed to spend UFB-allocated money and plenty of incentives to engage in creative accounting — ever wonder how your group's parties get free alcohol? — and dip deeply and frequently into the common funds.
If we eliminate UFB, we eliminate the tendency of groups to request unnecessary funding. Each group would be limited to the amount it was allotted by members and appreciative Brown students, and group funds would be spent as wisely and responsibly as possible in order to ensure continued funding the following year.

The principle underlying UFB is that twelve undergraduates and an unpublished policy manual have the "common sense" to fund the right groups at the right time for the right reasons. Is there such a thing as "common sense" at Brown?

To those aggrieved UFB members who are undoubtedly fond of their positions as central planners, I apologize. If your hobby is spending other people's money in the way that you deem best, with no other reference for the community's value or investment returns than your own opinion, then may I suggest a run for Congress?

Will Wray '10 is going to allot all $170 to Brown Ballroom Dancing. Sorry.


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