Last month, news broke that the Undergraduate Finance Board had made significant cuts to the budgets of many student organizations. Following inaccurate projections and the speedy disbursement of an earlier surplus, UFB’s annual budget decreased from $3.2 million last academic year to $2.1 million this academic year. The news came as an unpleasant surprise for students — many of whom found their clubs short thousands of dollars and were forced to scale back their plans. This disruption did not need to happen. And in order to reestablish trust with clubs and students, the board should expand its oversight mechanisms and communication practices.
UFB’s primary purpose is to manage and allocate club funds. As such, these recent funding disruptions come at the direct expense of clubs, publications and performance groups — essential avenues for students to explore their interests outside of the classroom. Student groups are experiencing the dramatic consequences of the funding reductions already. Members of the South Asian Students’ Association say they will have to cut down on charity fundraisers in order to maintain basic operations; Brown Mock Trial, hot off the heels of national success last year, might have to turn down invites to high-profile tournaments. The most indicative example comes from Brown Concert Agency: Spring Weekend will not be a weekend, but instead a single day after its budget was cut nearly in half.
Last year, the board spent almost all of a $1.2 million dollar forward balance that, until 2020, UFB didn’t realize was there — and which had been accumulating since the 2008-2009 academic year. According to the board, it was “crucial to use the surplus to stimulate student activities in this critical trial period in which many groups faced the question whether they would be able to survive the pandemic related dearth of activity and community or not.” This argument falls apart under scrutiny. It implies that clubs would be strengthened for multiple years by a one-time injection of cash, when they are in fact budgeted year-to-year. And the timing invites further discussion: By fall 2022, nearly every pandemic-related restriction had been lifted for multiple semesters. The “dearth of activity and community” was, by most accounts, over. Drawing down most of a decade’s worth of surplus in a single year was rash, and students are now facing the consequences. Club leaders also appeared unaware that this influx of cash was temporary — leading to student groups requesting a total of $3.6 million this year, far higher than the $2.1 million budget UFB was left with.
And while the board’s spending choices are questionable, the fact that the surplus came to be in the first place is just as concerning. According to a statement from the board in 2020, UFB leaders could not easily see the extent of their funding, and “UFB leadership received too little training to be able to fully understand” their finance management platform, allowing this seven-figure sum to go unnoticed for over a decade. The board announced in 2020 that it would switch to a new platform called “Presence” that would make it easier for UFB to track its money — however, a 2022 update to the statement specifies that the budget has been running through a “Google Drive based system” since the 2020-2021 school year. There are many parts of this saga that are concerning — the failure to properly track the balance, the inadequate software training and the all-or-nothing spending of such a surplus.
Increased oversight is needed to prevent such mistakes from happening again. After the discovery of the accumulated surplus in 2020, UFB said it had appointed a new advisor who would “help oversee UFB and assist with financial projections and data analysis.” This kind of administrative support should be expanded to prevent this disruption from occurring again. A stronger advising backbone could provide greater oversight while maintaining student control.
UFB also needs to increase its transparency. The significant drop in funding was not expected by many student group leaders, leading to hasty budget readjustments. There should be clearer communication between UFB and the leaders of student organizations. The board should take more proactive steps to relay information far beyond its meetings about funding every semester — regardless of whether there is a major change in budget or not. Such transparency will go a long way in repairing trust between UFB and students.
There is, of course, immense value in having a student-led, elected organization handle the money that belongs to the students themselves. This ethos of self-direction is central to Brown’s student culture and should be encouraged. To curtail UFB’s power would be to remove students’ control over their own funding. UFB also gives students the opportunity to build financial management skills and knowledge, preparing Brown students to apply experience developed in their undergraduate education post-graduation. But this learning experience should not come at the expense of our community’s ability to explore and get involved in campus organizations. Above all else, the board needs to be able to accomplish its basic function — tracking, distributing and communicating budgets for student organizations at Brown.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board and aim to contribute informed opinions to campus debates while remaining mindful of the group’s past stances. The editorial page board and its views are separate from The Herald’s newsroom and the 133rd Editorial Board, which leads the paper. This editorial was written by the editorial page board’s editors Kate Waisel ’24 and Devan Paul ’24, as well as its members Paulie Malherbe ’26, Alissa Simon ’25, Rachel Thomas ’25 and Yael Wellisch ’25.