The Transparency of Student Government
On each student’s bill from Yeshiva University, right below the $37,930 tuition, lies the smallest of the fees, a comparatively trivial $150 allocated for student activities. This seemingly small sum comprises the budget for all clubs and events, over $300,000. To put this number into context, it can purchase 20,000 Lake Como pizza pies, enough pizza to give a slice a day to 2000 undergrads for 80 days in a row. To borrow from Stan Lee, with great pizza comes great responsibility. Who is responsible for allocating the pizza for clubs and activities and how does the allocation process work?
One of the main jobs of student leaders is to allocate funding for events around campus with the money that comes from the $150 student activity fee. When wanting to plan an event, the club head submits to the student council (either SOY, TAC, YSU, SCWSC, YCSA, or SYMSSC) associated with that club a projected cost of event which takes into account food, drinks, busses, cost of the speaker, and the number of students projected to attend. Then that council approves the event, deciding how much of their own budget they want to contribute, with multiple clubs occasionally contributing money. This signals to the Office of Student Life (OSL) to book a room and to order the food using the funds of that council.
However, this budget allocation process remains private. During their training, student leaders do not undergo any kind of finance or budget training to aid them in their allocation decisions. Also, no standardized policies currently exist across the councils to help determine the sum events receive or whether councils should inform student leaders of the cost of event. Each council president acts as he/she sees fit. Some councils inform club heads of changes, others do not. Moreover, no person outside of the student presidents and the OSL, not even some vice presidents or secretaries on the council, know how the different councils’ budgets are spent and distributed among the different events and clubs throughout the year. Both SCWSC President Rachel Rolnick and YCSA President Josh Nagel confirmed the lack of transparency policies in student government, with Rolnick noting “we don’t typically think of anything we do as confidential.”
Universities Moving towards Transparency
However, other colleges trumpet the fiscal transparency of their student councils. A recent resolution passed by The Johns Hopkins University Student Government Association (SGA) writes that “the SGA members and the student body as a whole reserves the right (emphasis mine) to know how SGA members spend and distribute money allotted to the SGA,” invoking transparency for student council spending as a student right in itself. Entire websites exist to helping college students create policies that lead to more economically transparent student councils. Interestingly, Landers College for Men Vice President Mendy Eisenberg promised in a campaign speech to improve the transparency of the student government. Institutions such as University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University contain detailed, publicly available budget breakdowns (to the dollar) of each club’s spending, an impressive feat considering Penn and Columbia boast large student populations and millions of dollars in available funds for student activities.
These publicly available documents show funding for clubs across several academic years, giving reasons for increasing or decreasing a given club’s budget. For instance, the Activities Board at Columbia (ABC), one of the councils responsible for allocating funding, decided for the 2014-2015 academic year to decrease funding from the Korean Students Association from $6239 to $5890 (although they requested $7030) because the club “has been spending unnecessarily on their events,[and] need to spend more responsibly.” ABC also released “Allocation Discussion Guidelines” in which they spell out policies for allocation decisions.
In additions, the documents contain impressive scope, showing every cost involved in the event, from large costs, such as the $250,000 the SPEC (Social Planning and Events Committee) at Penn spent on the production of a concert, to small costs, such as the $250 they used to advertise for the concert. In contrast, the student government at Yeshiva lacks the same fiscal transparency, allocation policies, and attention to detail found in other universities.
It is important to note that public budget allocations for student clubs cannot be found at many other universities. Student governments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and NYU do not present any publicly available budget allocations to their different clubs.
Yet, when considering the significant differences between Yeshiva and other colleges, Yeshiva’s current system succeeds in preventing misuse of funds. First, Penn and Columbia are large universities with hundreds of clubs, which necessitate larger, more complex, and completely transparent policies to prevent abuse of funds. Yeshiva’s smaller size does not require the same level of transparency to prevent abuse of funds. Also, according to Nagel, the OSL acts as “supervisors to ensure there is no corruption.”
A second major difference is the disparity in budget size. For example, as mentioned above, the budget for all clubs and events at Yeshiva is around $300,000. Comparatively, the aforementioned concert at Penn brought in over $300,000 in revenue this past year alone. Furthermore, the budget of all the Penn student councils was projected to be over $2,000,000 for the academic year of 2015-2016. The student councils’ budgets at Yeshiva pale in comparison to the massive and complex budgets of other universities, which makes oversight of Yeshiva’s student council budget much simpler.
Finally, another important difference between Yeshiva and other universities is the method of allocation. Clubs in other universities submit a specific sum at the beginning of the semester to student government and receive an approved lump sum for all their expenses for the year. The club heads themselves decide how best to allocate those funds among different activities and events that they run for their own club’s activities.
At Yeshiva though, the student presidents themselves allocate funds per event to each club, instead of giving each club the discretion to use the money as they see fit. In this respect, the Yeshiva mechanism for funds approval is more efficient and less prone to waste than the system found in other universities, like the problem Columbia had with giving “too much” to the Korean Student Association. However, the Yeshiva model takes fiscal responsibility away from club heads and shifts it towards the council presidents.
Rolnick believes that while “transparency is a generally good idea, there would have to be a greater understanding among the student body about how student government functions and how they reach certain decisions.” Nagel went further, saying, “I’ve never been asked to provide a financial breakdown of how much we spend because club heads don’t seem to care about that. They just want to have the best events for their clubs and our current system still promises to do that.”
Other Forms of Transparency
However, fiscal transparency is not just about preventing abuse of funds, but can also be used to increase student confidence in the student government. President of the ABC Tony Lee CC ’15 said that “Increased transparency, we hope, will lead to better quality allocation decisions, better quality allocation packets, and people's confidence in student representatives in doing their jobs to help the people that elected them.” Informing students and club heads of costs gives students a better perspective and appreciation for the hard work of student leaders.
There is good reason why student leaders do not release information relating to budget allocation. Club heads may complain to student leaders about the funding they receive. Nagel said that “it gets complicated when clubs think 50 students will attend their event while we think only 20 may come. The downside of transparency is that clubs can argue about how a different club got more food, even though we know that event would get more people.” Rolnick believes that Yeshiva’s small student body may even exacerbate this problem since “student council leaders aren't elusive figures here. We are your classmates, roommates, and friends. It could cause unnecessary confrontation.”
Yet, other forms of transparency can increase the confidence of the student body in their student leaders, and even get students more engaged and involved in student leadership roles. For example, many student governments at other universities publish the minutes of the student government meetings and hold “town-hall” style meetings to interface with the student body to get a sense of students’ concerns. Moreover, a closer relationship between the club heads and their student council liaison can help clubs improve the quality and scope of their events.
Indeed Rolnick said, "On the Beren campus, we try to make ourselves as accessible as possible to have open communication with all of the students. Talia (TAC), Alexa (SYMS), and I are planning a town hall meeting next month, and we hope to see many students there, to discuss student life and changes we might want to make to existing policy, or just to get to know us better.”
Nagel added that “Transparency is generally beneficial. It might be time to create new policies to help club heads make smarter decisions for their events. If students are curious to know more about budget allocations, just find us—we’re around.”