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Saxa Politica: Let students decide funding

March 24, 2011


Next week, the Georgetown University Student Association will vote in the student activities fee budget, concluding a months-long process that determines how to dole out $800,000 in club funding. Under the present model, GUSA is the only body with power over the budget, and GUSA senators ultimately make subjective decisions as to what constitutes an important contribution to student life.

But, given that club funding exists for their benefit, students should have a greater say in how the funds are allocated.

Consider, for example, the debate over how to spend an increased allocation for the Center for Social Justice student groups.

“We had to say, ‘What of these new initiatives do we think would be fun? Which do we think are strong? And how much more money can we give them to expand and do good programs?’” said Colton Malkerson (COL ’13), chairman of the Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Meanwhile, the 260 percent increase in the Student Activities Commission’s allocation—by far the largest gain of any advisory board—had little to do with any sort of objective reassessment of funding needs or priorities. Instead, FinApp designed the SAC budget to fulfill 83 percent of budget requests, the same percentage as last semester. Malkerson calls this an appropriate allotment to provide money while encouraging participation from the groups.

This is not the right way to write a budget. An ideal student activities fee allocation would reflect the priorities of the student body, not simply recycle last year’s numbers and arbitrarily decide what is an appropriate rate of funding.

If students could determine where some or all of the money they pay in student activities fees goes, decisions like these would more accurately reflect the will of students.

One option is to break the $125 student activities fee for fall 2011 into points that students can distribute among clubs based on their interests. In such a system, groups would solicit allocations from regular students, advertising how much a given level of student support would buy in terms of programming. Students would then allocate based on what they feel is the most worthwhile use of their money.

There are certainly normative issues with this proposal. For example, one can make the case that groups have an intrinsic value beyond the number of members they draw.

“Many people on this campus forget how important theatrical performance, dance, and music are for a comprehensive liberal arts education, and it is immensely discouraging to us as an advisory board,” Bobby Gregory (COL ’11), a member of the Performing Arts Advisory Council, wrote in an email. “It is our job to remind them not to forget about this integral component of one’s educational experience that was so near and dear to St. Ignatius’s heart.”

At the same time, these value judgments are already being made by ostensibly elected GUSA senators and the unelected advisory boards. In practice, both groups rely on precedent more than anything else as a guide to setting their funding. But, at any time, either of these groups could arbitrarily decide that a given club does not meet its definition of a valuable contribution to student life.

If club funding is meant to create a vibrant student life, it must also reflect the wishes of the student body as a whole. As it stands, GUSA’s centralized funding system risks alienating itself from students’ needs. The obvious solution is to increase the rank-and-file student’s voice in the budgetary process.

Find out how many points it takes to buy John for the night at jflanagan@georgetownvoice.com



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Comments 4

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    I agree that just relying on the previous year’s numbers and not reevaluating campus priorities based on student input is the wrong way to budget. The example used of funding SAC to meet 83% of its requests – just because of last year – is a perfect example.

    I prefer the idea of zero-based budgeting. Each Advisory Board would justify their entire budget, not just the increases. And the committee would have to justify why dollars went to one board and not another, not just why a particular board got an increase or a decrease. The problem there, however, is that there might be a lack of continuity from year to year – which is important for clubs and boards. They need to be able to reasonably plan and anticipate funding levels. So there has to be some compromise.

    The writer’s suggestion that all students would take part in some mass form of direct democracy and award points to their favorite groups is nice to think about but highly impractical and would turn out terribly. Bobby Gregory gave one of the reasons why.

    But the thought is a good one. I’ve suggested to the previous Chairman that a certain portion of the allocation (say like, 30K-50K) should be open to direct student allocation, facilitated by a website that gives options between possible funding areas (or ones submitted online). It would give students a way to engage in the process and have some say in where their money goes. I hope the Committee further explores that or a similar idea.

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    Thanks for the input, Nick. I certainly recognize that student activities funding also has a lot to do with providing an educational experience. I don’t think we’d be better off, for example, making savage cuts to The Voice or to the theatre groups to give more money to some of the more more popular clubs, for example. Then again, as I said, club funding is also about meeting student needs.

    Also, there is a slight error that must have creeped in during the editing process. I originally said “Instead, FinApp modeled the SAC budget to honor 83 percent of budget requests based on last semester’s numbers.” What I meant is that GUSA agreed to honor 83 percent rather than 73 percent of requests, but this “need” is based on last year’s numbers.

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    John,

    Your proposal is not a bad idea in theory. In fact, it’s been proposed several times over the past decade or two. For one, it would completely cut out the middle-men of SAC and GUSA, and all the attendant red tape that that entails. If students vote to give $5000 to the College Democrats directly, then they are absolutely free to spend it how they choose (barring, of course, condoms and such). No need to go to SAC or the GUSA Fund. That part is great.

    The downside is the effect it would have on big and small clubs. Big clubs would get overfunded and small clubs underfunded. We have $125 to spend. Let’s break it down in $5 increments — so you get 25 ‘points’ to spend.

    There are over 90 SAC clubs, plus a dozen+ sports teams, several newspapers, dramatic and performance groups (SaxaTones, Phantoms, Mask & Bauble), service groups, religious groups and more. With 25 points, you can’t even hit everything; hell, with 125 $1 points you couldn’t even do so. Many, many clubs will be left out of the loop here.

    Because the minor clubs will be left out of the loop, the bigger clubs will get widely disproportionate funding. How many people will chip in a point or two to the College Dems? I’d wager to say a lot. And the more active members may add in much more points. Even if the College Dems got an average .5 point per student on campus, they would wind up with a budget of $17,500! Meanwhile, smaller clubs like the Medieval Club (to take an example) would need to have members allocate almost ALL their points to them to receive adequate levels of funding. If the Medieval Club has, say, 10 members, they’d need all to wager 25 points so they can get $1,250 for the year — perhaps just enough to cover the annual medieval barbeque/pigroast in Red Square.

    It would convert the jobs of club leaders from actually leading clubs and planning activities into fundraisers and party whips.

    Overall, good idea, bad execution.

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    I do like Nick’s idea above, though, of reserving a certain portion of the funds for direct vote by the students. I think it would especially help to get in broad-based and individual ideas that don’t revolve around student groups or clubs, which I think the process (somewhat necessarily) favors.


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