Controversy surrounding the Student Assembly Finance Commission’s budget funding process has returned to the limelight since the Student Assembly passed a moratorium on the creation of new student groups last Thursday.
“A moratorium ... will provide an opportunity to adequately assess and audit currently registered student organizations and the method by which they are allocated funding,” stated one of the six clauses in Resolution 21. The ban came into effect yesterday.
The funding procedure of the SAFC has long been the bull’s-eye for student criticism. Over the past few years, the SAFC has rejected funding for several influential student organizations on campus, including the Cornell Lunatic, a student-run humor publication, and the Cornell Organization for Labor Action. Kitsch Magazine, a bi-annual features magazine with a circulation of about 3,000 copies, was prevented from applying for SAFC funding this semester because the group missed the online pre-application deadline.
“The consequence resulting from such an infraction is so disproportionate … it’s absurd and unfair,” said Peter Fritch ’09, editor in chief of Kitsch.
The SAFC makes amendments to its policies every semester and announces these changes on its website. The co-chairs of SAFC, Yuliya Neverova ’10 and Varun Gehani ’10, agreed that the commission is usually “very receptive.” But many students still struggle with the red tape of the system. Gleb Drobkov ’12, treasurer of COLA, called the funding system “rigid and unforgiving.”
“If we list an event on our budget form as UNITE Workers Union tour, and then at some point decide to print [a] poster calling it an HEI workers tour — which is the company we are challenging right now [and] whose workers are part of UNITE — we do not get funding for the event,” Drobokov stated in an e-mail.
Other students also voiced complaints about the rigidity of the committee.
“They are completely deadline-oriented and not understanding at all,” said Mathew Sevin ’11, treasurer of the College of Industrial and Labor Relations Sports Management Club. Sevin’s club was denied funding last semester because a price quote was submitted in an improper format — he had copied the e-mail into a Microsoft Word document.
In order to apply for SAFC funding, presidents and treasurers of student groups are required to pass a mandatory online test that is comprised of six short multiple-choice quizzes. They then have to complete an online budget pre-application and submit a completed budget packet, which has to be picked up in the first week of class in paper format. The SAFC’s funding guidelines book, which was compiled in April 2008, is 48-pages long.
“There is a lot of bureaucracy,” said Clara Ng-Quinn ’10, president of the Asian Pacific Americans for Action, who recently spent four to five hours completing the budget packet. The packet was due on Tuesday, 15 days after classes resumed for the semester.
The SAFC will review 377 funding applications this semester. It also manages a yearly sum of approximately $1,020,000, according to Ari Epstein, assistant director of the Office of the Assemblies, which plays an advisory role with the SAFC and manages its financial transactions.
Various S.A. and SAFC representatives agreed that it is not uncommon to see student groups apply for more money than is needed. Over the past five semesters, the percentage of funds unused and reverted back to the SAFC account fluctuated between 23 to 36 percent of the total allocations, amounting from $100,000 to $190,000 each semester, according to statistics provided by Terry Ector, accountant representative of the SAFC.
“When SAFC makes an allocation, it isn’t really giving the money to the organization; rather, it’s budgeting funds for specific activities occurring in a specific period of time. If the funds are not used for the purpose for which they are allocated, they revert so the commission can reallocate them in the next semester toward other specific activities,” Epstein explained.
Last semester, in order to address the problems of the SAFC funding procedure, a weekly meeting was held among representatives from the S.A., SAFC, the Office of the Assemblies and Student Activity Office, according to S.A. President Ryan Lavin ’09. Although the series of meetings were initiated to discuss “problems with the SAFC processes,” it was concluded that the root of the problem lies with the vast number of student groups on campus.
“Much of the problem stems from the student-activities side and from the registration process,” Lavin said. A moratorium was therefore necessary to address long-term problems in the system, he said.
Lavin also said that one of his primary goals in the task force is to reduce bureaucracy and introduce a “human element” to the SAFC funding procedure.
“Once you get very bureaucratic, the funding results may not match [the SAFC’s] intentions,” Lavin said.
Gehani, however, denied the allegation that the SAFC may be bureaucratic.
“That is totally untrue. We always try to be helpful … objective and unbiased,” he said.
Neverova also refuted the notion that SAFC’s funding process is problematic.
“Personally, I think an investigation will make the [funding] process more efficient. We can look [into] … how to do things differently,” she said.
The co-chairs of SAFC stressed that the moratorium would not intervene with the commission’s funding process this semester.
Meanwhile, an Auditing Task Force — spearheaded by the S.A. and chaired by its Vice President for Finance Greg Mezey ’09 — will review problems in the current system of student organizations, including the duplication of student groups with similar objectives and the tendency for groups to apply for more funding than needed.
“The goal of the task force is by no means to cut groups from campus, but to take a good hard look at student groups and the system,” Mezey said. He emphasized that student groups will not be evaluated on an individual basis, and the task force will not limit the diversity of groups on campus.
There are no concrete plans as to how the task force will be conducted, according to Lavin. The task force will first put student organizations into several categories and “then we’ll work from there,” he said.
The S.A. and SAFC conduct two separate funding processes for different groups. The S.A. determines funding for 23 large campus groups by examining the groups’ budgets as well as other factors, ranging from the number of participants to the quality of the program.
On the other hand, the SAFC funds student groups based on an entirely objective system, which means it funds all organizations that follow its protocols.
The vast number of applications made it impractical for SAFC commissioners to assess every budget beyond making sure the numbers are accurate. The SAFC co-chairs estimate that each of the 377 funding applications this semester will get an average attention span of 15 minutes, but the time will vary on an individual basis.
While Neverova and Gehani both claimed that they are open to changes, they simultaneously praised the current system as objective and fair.
“I like the system now because bias is not involved. Once you introduce doors to subjectivity, it can lead to more problems,” Gehani said.
Although both SAFC co-chairs stressed the fairness of the funding process, the distribution of funds to student groups also raises questions of the equity of the system.
“The SAFC depends on arbitrary caps placed on all organizations, so a group that uses its money more efficiently or organizes programming that has greater reach receives the same amount as an organization that may not be quite so effective,” Epstein stated in an e-mail.
Although some students may wonder if funding application deadlines — usually within the first few weeks of a semester — can be made less rigid, the SAFC co-chairs believed that giving late submissions a second chance is both unrealistic and unfair to groups that obey the rules.
“Once you make an exception for one group, hundreds of groups with problems will [also ask for exceptions.]” Gehani said. “The caps will also become lower for everyone.”
He explained that the SAFC usually sets apart a certain amount of money for groups that are dissatisfied with the commission’s initial funding decisions but are later allocated money after a successful appeals. If second chances are allowed for groups that file late, then the commission has to set apart a larger amount of money to begin with. As a result, the remaining sum of money — used for funding groups that submit their applications on time — will be reduced. The caps for all groups will therefore be smaller.
“The first groups [that were on-time] will get very little funding,” he added.
S.A. and SAFC representatives both denied that the task force was initiated by the financial crisis. The recession, however, provides a good opportunity for student groups to “play [their] parts,” according to Lavin.
Catherine Holmes, associate dean of students for student activities, previously served as advisor to the SAFC for four years. She advices student groups to “actively strive to use existing resources wisely.”
“People are losing their jobs here at Cornell and campus departments are grappling with funding shortfalls. I’ve seen colleagues cringe when they hear about events that cost incredible amounts of money, especially when colleagues are laying off peers and trying to find a way to break even by year’s end,” Holmes stated in an e-mail.
The rough percentage of student groups with approved SAFC funding has steadily declined over the past five semesters. In Fall 2006, 307 out of 342 groups’ funding applications — 90 percent — were approved. Last semester, however, 304 out of 387 groups received SAFC funding, which marked a 79-percent budget approval rate.
These numbers, however, may not be an accurate reflection of the percentage of successful funding. The number of total applications includes student groups that submitted an online application form for funding online, but did not submit the subsequent paperwork to complete the application process, according to Ector. The total number of student groups that received funding was also underestimated, as successful appeals were excluded from the statistics.
From the archives:
R.C. Approves Revised SOP For 1953-54 Budget Structure, Feb. 20, 1953
The Student Council approves a revised budgeting procedure to allocate funding provided by the student activities fee.