The University’s Undergraduate Finance Board faced a $1.5 million gap between the funding requested by student groups and the money it could disperse to them this year, UFB President Arjun Krishna Chopra ’25 told The Herald.
UFB, the student government branch that allocates student group funding, spent aggressively last academic year in an effort to distribute the vast majority of their $1.2 million surplus, according to Chopra. But that spending, which ended up exceeding projections, has created shortfalls this year, Chopra said — creating lower budgets for groups ranging from the University’s South Asian Students’ Association and The College Hill Independent to Brown Mock Trial and the Class Coordinating Board.
According to Chopra, the student activity fee — a part of tuition that UFB distributes between clubs — has increased this year for the first time since the 2018-19 school year from $286 to $300 per year.
But this increase was not enough to maintain the level of funding UFB provided for student groups last year, he said.
A spent surplus
In 2020, UFB gained unprecedented access to and published all of its historical data regarding revenue and costs dating back to the 2008-09 academic year — which is still present on its website but lacks data from the 2020-21 academic year on.
According to the statement accompanying the data release, UFB’s budget mainly comes from two sources: the student activity fee collected from every student and “returns,” or unused funds from student groups and “revenue surpluses from large events like Spring Weekend and Gala.”
Leftover money carries to the next academic year as a “forward balance,” according to the statement. The board aims for the forward balance to stand at $300,000 every year in case of any fluctuations in the return funds that might leave the board with no money to spend.
But heading into the 2019-20 academic year, UFB’s forward balance reached over $1 million — a result of unknowingly accumulating balances throughout previous years, since it only then gained access to its total financial records, which dated back to the academic year of 2008-09, the statement said. This left UFB with a $1.04 million surplus.
“When the surplus was found, UFB at that time realized that there was no point in increasing the student activity fee because they wanted to spend all this money,” Chopra said.
Before the surplus, UFB spending “looked really, really different,” according to Chopra. “After the surplus was found, spending got ramped up,” and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
With COVID-19 restrictions nearly completely removed in the 2022-23 academic year, UFB started with around $2 million from the student activity fee and a $1.2 million forward balance, leaving them with $3.2 million to spend, Chopra said.
We believed that “we need to do this massive stimulus in order to get people involved in clubs and get clubs to flourish as much as possible” after pandemic restrictions eased, he added. “Now we’re in a situation where the stimulus was very successful, and we are in a belt-tightening era” in terms of money.
The group hadn’t intended to spend the entire surplus, instead leaving a forward balance of $150,000, Chopra explained in a message to The Herald. But because of late invoices from both “internal and external vendors,” UFB realized at the end of March that their projections for the surplus were inaccurate.
That left “far too little time to change course in order to preserve a healthy surplus,” he added.
UFB spent around $3.2 million last year, leaving them with “pretty much zero” forward balance heading into this school year, according to Chopra. Consequently, the total revenue for the 2023-24 academic year came only from the revenue from the student activity fee, which was $2.1 million. The amount requested by student groups in annual funding exceeded $3.6 million, leaving a disparity of over $1.5 million, Chopra said.
According to Chopra, UFB requested a $50 per year increase in the student activity fee to $336 per year per student, which he called a “very conservative number.” But UFB was only granted an annual increase of $14, bringing the total to $300.
Even with that increase, the student activity fee revenue would not have brought UFB’s budget back to the $3.2 million it had last year — or even $3 million. “We asked for $50 because we thought that would be a very reasonable stepping stone to getting us back on track,” Chopra said. “That would not have actually maintained that $3.2 million of spending.”
At the start of last year, UFB had planned to spend “ideally almost everything” in their account with the hope of not having a surplus, according to Chopra.
To host events, groups need various University or municipal services — such as Event Operations, the Department of Public Safety, the fire marshall, Facilities Management or Media Services, Chopra said — but those services aren’t free.
According to Chopra, UFB “gives money to (these departments) on behalf of groups to the back-end” so that groups don’t have to request these services themselves and return to UFB with an invoice.
UFB has around $519,000 left this year after allocating for student groups’ annual requests, Chopra said. But this amount needs to cover the back-end support mentioned above — as well as club baseline funding, which all groups receive based on their group category, and supplemental funding requests by groups later in the year.
On Monday, UFB announced in an email to student groups that “there will be limitations on what is automatically covered by UFB” for services from Media Services and Event Operations this year, given the organization’s “present budgetary constraints,” according to the email, which was shared with The Herald.
The email included a list of covered equipment and services and stated that anything else “will require the group to cover the cost either with approved UFB funds or raised funds that are currently available in a group’s account.” On the list, “tech rehearsal support,” “video production services” and “Zoom web conferencing” are “not covered by UFB automatically.”
Last year, groups were able to request services before quotes or invoices went to UFB or the Student Activities Organization, leading to “a number of very surprising invoices for tens of thousands of dollars,” Chopra explained in a message to The Herald.
Chopra emphasized that “safety costs” are UFB’s priority. “That’s one area where we are not doing any budget tightening at all.”
The board has also decided to switch back to an annual model of funding for this school year because seeing “all the budgets together” will help members make “more equitable decisions,” Kim said, especially with reduced revenue to disburse. He added that UFB looked at groups of a specific type — cultural, for example — together, and compared their budgets to ensure decisions were consistent.
According to Chopra, UFB also looked at “per person costs with certain kinds of workarounds in terms of ensuring equity” and “the ability for different clubs to throw different events,” and worked to ensure that events that have historically happened will still happen.
For some groups, this switch has brought difficulties: The Brown University Swing Club has to plan events without group input, Irene Chen ’25, the club’s president, said, while Brown Mock Trial didn’t have its tournament schedule finalized until well past the annual budget request deadline in April, treasurer Christopher Bianco ’25 said.
Less money, more problems
For the current school year, SASA was only granted 28% of the annual budget request they submitted to the Undergraduate Finance Board, according to Roshan Parikh ’24, president of the club. The requested budget was just slightly above last year’s sum received from UFB, accounting for price increases from vendors, Parikh added.
SASA will have to redirect money reserved for hosting fundraisers for charities — such as CanKids, which supports childhood cancer patients in India — to hosting their yearly events due to their funding shortage, said Mimi Sawhney ’25, the club’s treasurer.
Brown Mock Trial, which placed sixth at a national tournament last year, received almost $10,000 less than the amount they requested, Bianco said. He added that the annual request they submitted had already been reduced from the amount that they received the year prior.
According to Bianco, having placed sixth at nationals last year, the mock trial team is getting invites to “pretty prestigious” tournaments that they haven’t gotten in years — but due to budget constraints, they have to turn some down.
“We’re kind of worried that we won’t be able to capitalize off the success of (last) year,” Bianco added.
The Class Coordinating Board — another branch of student government that hosts class-wide activities — received “around 80% of last year’s funding,” according to a CCB statement sent to The Herald. And Swing Club received almost 30% less than last year — which jeopardizes its winter ball, an event essential to the club’s traditions and the larger Providence swing dance community, Chen said.
Lily Seltz ’25, one of The College Hill Independent’s managing editors, said that funding received by The Indy was not enough for printing their full volume in color consistent with previous years.
After polling their staff on how they wanted to proceed, managing editors of The Indy fundraised over the whole summer to print at a normal pace this semester.
“It’s not sustainable for us to be doing this level of fundraising for really any amount of time. It was already a real stretch this summer,” Seltz said, adding that the majority of the donations they received were less than $100.
“We’ve always been … a launchpad into the often very gatekept and forbidding world of literary magazine writing and professional writing,” said Angela Qian ’24, another of The Indy’s managing editors.
“Being fully funded by the University is something that doesn’t just help us now to take a load off our backs,” she added. “It truly does help so many students, past, present and future to really change their lives and shape the course of their careers.”
Kathy Wang is the senior editor of community of The Brown Daily Herald's 134th Editorial Board. She previously covered student government and international student life as a University News editor. When she's not at The Herald, you can find her watching cooking videos or writing creative nonfiction.