Over Thanksgiving break, I used my brief leisure time to do something I generally don’t get to do: read a book for pleasure. I picked up Doris Kearn Goodwin’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson and found myself immersed in the account of Johnson’s college years, which detailed his early involvement in the politics of student government. Upon discovering the “tremendously inequitable distribution of the student activities fund” at his alma mater, San Marcos College, Johnson instilled in his peers “a discontent with the present surroundings and achievements.” The rules of these surroundings were defined by a society of jocks called the Black Stars (evidently the precursors to the group Tina Fey would later coin “The Plastics”). Capitalizing on the discontent and using procedural tactics to reward patronage, he replaced the Black Stars with his own motley intellectual crew, which he named the White Stars.
First, it’s shocking to me that no one has made a movie out of this yet. Second, I had this in mind when I read The Herald’s feature recounting the history of student government at Brown (“Student government evolves to effect change,” Nov. 29). By no means did the feature remind me in the slightest of Johnson’s dramatic tactics. But I was struck by Johnson’s keen awareness that the allocation of the student activities fund — coupled with administrative politics — were the key to effecting change on his campus and signified the true locus of power. At Brown, this power lies largely with the Undergraduate Finance Board. Meanwhile, the Undergraduate Council of Students — which is perceived as a more politically relevant institution — varies significantly in its influence, relying upon the presence of a proactive leader with a clear-cut agenda. As current UCS President Viet Nguyen ’17 recently wrote in an email to The Herald, with “conscious effort and intentionality,” UCS can be “used as a lever to advocate” and be involved in political efforts on campus. While the potential is there, the energy and focus necessary to make UCS an operative agent of change is not a given. In addition, its involvement in political efforts is vaguely defined and relatively symbolic. I’m happy when I get free tampons, but I’ve also been jaded by the overzealous platforms promised under the auspices of UCS campaigns or when those tampons run out.
Meanwhile, the power that most students care about — power of the purse — is under the control of the Undergraduate Finance Board, which is undoubtedly perceived as a more apolitical institution. According to former UCS President Tony Affigne ’76 MA’91 PhD’92, when UCS lost the job of allocating the Student Activities Fee in 1985, it was less able to directly fund and support important campus movements and groups. In the current setup, UFB serves as a “central budgeting group,” as its charter states, and it is “beholden to the UCS Constitution and is a subsidiary of the Undergraduate Council of Students,” according to its website.
The current chair and vice chair of UFB ran unopposed. The last administration’s chair and vice chair also ran unopposed. The story is the same for the year before that. The last time the chair position was contested, the election happened when most current seniors were still in high school. Current UFB Chair Jordan Ferguson ’17 ran unopposed on the platform that he would “seek to reduce transportation- and facility-related costs for student groups as well as implement the release of end-of-semester reports on UFB’s activities,” while Vice Chair Adwa Habtu ’17 “stressed transparency of UFB policies, pledging in her platform to send out campus-wide emails detailing UFB policies and changes.” I have yet to receive an email from UFB, and my request for an end-of-semester report went unanswered. This is not to blame the current board, but to point out the lack of accountability under which they operate and our funds are disbursed.
I understand the reasoning that caused the cleavage between UCS and UFB and buy the argument that the division of labor encourages efficiency. And in fact, UCS does have important checks on UFB (a particularly important one is categorizing student groups), though I’m worried neither about rogue decision-making nor a student government coup. Rather, I want to see more attention paid to the institution that actually controls the finances of our clubs, distributes our student activity fees and funds campus-wide initiatives. And I believe there are important and overlooked issues to discuss in this arena.
For example, there’s a clear overabundance of events on campus — one that saturates the market, resulting in sparse turnout, desperate advertising and decreased salience. This results in groups exerting effort on pursuing logistically complicated events with limited appeal instead of on other, more deeply and internally meaningful parts of their mission and organization. There is also an overly generous amount of funding going to groups that only serve the purpose of hosting events. As much as I enjoy Special Events Committee or Class Coordinating Board affairs, the amount of funding they get is disproportionate to their contributions to campus life. In addition, UFB allocates a significant budget outside of funding student groups that seems to be unquestioned and relatively wide in scope. As The Herald reported, “Portions of the almost $1.5 million budget are dispensed to the Brown Center for Students of Color, Pride Month, Women’s History Month, an attorney for all students, club sports and other groups and events that aren’t officially Category 3 student groups.”
But whether or not you agree or disagree on these issues, the lack of discourse about UFB’s operations and accountability is unexpectedly small given its significant sway. Behind its technocratic veil lies an important vehicle for student action that deserves more attention.