March 28, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Time for Productive Change

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To the Editor:

Re: “Letter to the Editor: In defense of the SAFC,” Opinon, March 11

To say the very least, the recent Letter to the Editor written by the SAFC co-chairs was comically out of touch with reality. As someone who has been involved with the SAFC funding process on a dozen occasions, it is quite clear the funding process is broken. Since my platform as a Student Assembly candidate involved a complete reform of the funding process, I figured it is in the interest of the Cornell community to think about some of the possible alternatives to the current system. While it is highly unlikely that any of these feasible alternatives will actually be implemented, it should be noted that the Cornell student body has been unsuccessfully fighting about this issue for over a decade now (just search for “SAFC” on The Sun’s site and you’ll see what I mean).

Alternative #1: Dump the commissioner-based system.

Based off of my calculations, SAFC receives a little north of $1.1 million in funding each year. Is there a reason why 45 students, of which 40 are not elected by the student body, self appoint each other to dictate the funding that effects 14,000 undergrads?  Cornell makes a huge deal about S.A. elections every semester, yet the student body has little influence on SAFC, the organization that actually redistributes the vast majority of the student activity fee.

But why do we need these commissioners anyway? Does Cornell really not have the technology to develop an entirely online based system? SAFC constantly reiterates that the role of the commissioner is to develop objective policy and then interpret their own policy when grey areas occur. What if treasurers could log into a website, plug in some very specific information about the items they need (think a TurboTax-like system), and the system automatically tells them instantly how much funding they will get for the items they requested (up to a cap). Treasurers wouldn’t need to know the rules since the system would prevent them from requesting items that don’t comply with the rules. Critical forms that must be submitted to the Office of the Assemblies would even pop up automatically on the screen, but only when necessary. Surely, the system would know how much funding it can allocate (making application deadlines pointless) and budget caps could be adjusted accordingly. The system would become instant, appeal free, and free from human error. Say goodbye to the possibility of subjectivity, the appointment of friends, and extreme conflicts of interest.

Alternative #2: Keep the commissioners, but create a culture of partnership, not dictatorship

Again, let’s start by electing our commissioners. But why stop there? First off, let’s develop SAFC a website that looks like it wasn’t made by a middle-schooler back in the 90s. Then, let’s organize the content on this site so that it actually is easy to follow and non-contradictory (for example, while I do appreciate the fact that I can see policy changes from April 2008, one comprehensive guide might just reduce the amount of mental illness on campus).

Surely, problems will still exist in this system and appeals will still be necessary. But why is the system a once and done process? Why can’t groups that screw up the first time resubmit with adjustments? Let’s scratch the appeal system and allow groups to resubmit at multiple times throughout the semester if their budget is not in compliance. Shouldn’t we be helping the groups that screw up instead of flat out denying them funding? It seems to me less fighting would occur and more cooperation between SAFC and the groups they’re supposed to be working for would result.

Of course, these two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the only answers. And note that before the SAFC chairs fire off a quick response to this letter, I will be the first to agree with that many of the issues that occur with funding are a result of errors by the student groups themselves. However, if the process was structured properly, these errors should not exist. (On an unrelated note, the SAFC reported that there were only six commissioner errors this semester. I personally appealed for two student groups and won. Is it really possible that I personally account for one-third of all the errors that SAFC committed this semester?)

Can this reform actually occur, though?  The answer is yes. The SAFC is a Student Assembly committee and S.A. has full authority over their committees, regardless of whatever bogus bylaws their committees create. For this reason, the blame falls on the S.A. for not enforcing reform instead of siding with a committee that is simply fighting to keep its autonomy.

To wrap up, there are currently 879 organizations registered with the RSO while only 419 applied for funding. With less than 48 percent of groups applying for funding, it seems to me that no group is stupid enough to deny themselves of up to $5,000 in funding each semester. The logical explanation for this is that the process is simply way too complicated to even bother with. To our newly elected S.A. reps, here’s a tip:  I’ve given you two feasible answers to an issue that affects nearly every Cornell undergrad. Now implement useful change for once so that the lifeblood of Cornell gets the funding it actually deserves.

Matt Koren ’12