March 17, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Frustrated with SAFC bureaucracy

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To the Editor:

Re: “Dozens of Cornell Student Groups Appeal Recent SAFC Funding Decisions,” News, March 10

As the officers of the Cornell Herpetological Society at Cornell, dealing with the SAFC has been a frustrating and tedious process. But before delving into this issue, I would like to address what herpetology is. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, and for xkcd fans, there has been a recent cartoon illustrating this wonderful profession. This club has been around since 1992 and is composed of undergraduates, graduate students and interested faculty and staff. Primarily a club with an academic focus, CHS invites three to four guest speakers from around the country to travel to Cornell each semester to present an hour-long research or conservation based seminar. The speakers are typically academics from other universities and research institutes and usually need to be booked months in advance due to their busy schedules.

Like many other clubs, we rely on the SAFC to help us cover the travel costs of our guest speakers. Unsurprisingly, our long-standing relationship with the commission has been one of ongoing frustration. One of the underlying issues is that the SAFC only funds the current semester, with all unspent allocated funds being reabsorbed at the end of the semester. Often, for the fall semester, we do not hear back for our budget until late September. This gives us such a short window of opportunity to schedule speakers, verify events and complete the necessary forms before the deadline. To compound this problem further, once the deadline has passed, e-mail confirmations and supplemental forms that arrive late cannot be used for our budget applications. This is a huge problem when a student club relies on SAFC approval in order to reimburse speakers for their travels. If speakers are driving or have not yet bought their plane tickets, we can tell them in advance that we are unable to fund their trip; but what about the busy professionals who buy their ticket in advance to save us money, or give a seminar early in the semester in order to avoid traveling in bad weather? It happened to us this semester: our budget was flat-out denied. Such scenarios are difficult and embarrassing for any club, especially when having to inform our guest speakers. The situation reflects poorly not just on the integrity of the club, but the entire Cornell community.

Despite supplementary forms of e-mail correspondence between the club, our guest speakers and our club advisor and e-mails conforming the engagement agreement, title of talks, ticket receipts and travel and housing verification, we were denied because we did not include email verification of the room we were using for the event; this seems like a lot of work to be denied on a technicality. I know the SAFC has had trouble with student groups smuggling funds, and has tightened guidelines to prevent this from happening again. However, I am disappointed with its lack of logic and empathy. What is most frustrating of all is that we had reserved the room for the talks and the e-mail for the room reservation did indeed exist; however, we could never prove it because the deadline had passed.

During our budget hearing, the reviewers asked where our room confirmation was; we tried explaining the situation, but a few weeks later we received $3. What purpose do these hearings serve? We are not allowed to bring any supplementary material, and our comments go unacknowledged; perhaps the SAFC are just looking for an opportunity to show off their brand-new red polo t-shirts. In past SAFC hearings they have explained problems in our budget, but still we cannot change the application; we just sit and listen. This year was special, however:  The three SAFC student members sat in front of us, flipping through our extensive paperwork — then, all of a sudden, one student came across something of interest in our application, giggled to herself, and said, “I found something they did wrong!”As if this were a game. The other members looked and smiled, circled the supplemental e-mail and denied funding to one of our speakers.

Moments like this make us doubt the validity of SAFC and the student motives behind this bureaucracy. We feel it spends more time trying to reject student club applications then trying to help them achieve their goals of manifesting their events. We know there are strict guidelines (and with good reason), but rejecting applications on such tiny technicalities is cruel, especially for smaller clubs which rely entirely on funding from Cornell. Even appealing is a painful process; would it be so unfair to allow students to bring their missing documentation, especially for such small technicalities?  SAFC, you frustrate the student body. Many of us view you as a bunch of bullies; We know of several clubs that don’t even bother to apply for funds because of how stressful and upsetting the process can be. If student groups are too afraid to apply for funding from the SAFC, we may be contradicting the principles of Cornell and curbing the diversity of experiences and passions students are allowed to have on campus.

Alex Lebron ’11 and Anna Kusler ’10