December 4, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: On the Student Assembly’s fiduciary duties

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To the Editor:

The primary duty of the Student Assembly is to make decisions in the best interest of the entire student body. This past semester, the Student Assembly undertook one of its most important responsibilities — allocating the Student Activity Fee for the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 academic years. Our sole guiding principle has been to set and allocate a fee in the best, long-term interests of the undergraduate student body, and we firmly believe that the Undergraduate Student Activity Fee allocations as the Assembly has set them fulfill that intention.

The new fee gives substantial increases in funding (averaging 14 percent and totaling $185,000) to 15 different campus organizations: ALANA, Alternative Breaks, Class Councils, Convocation Committee, Cornell Concert Commission, Cornell University Programming Board, Cornell University Emergency Medical Service, Haven, International Students Union, Multicultural Greek Letter Council, Orientation Steering Committee, Outdoor Odyssey, Slope Day Programming Board, Student Activities Funding Commission and Welcome Weekend Committee.

Eight organizations saw no change in funding: Big Red Bikes, Club Insurance, Community Partnership Funding Board, Empathy Assistance and Referral Service, Cornell Environmental Collaborative, Cornell Minds Matter, Senior Days and the Women’s Resource Center. Only one of these organizations applied for an increase which was not granted; for the other seven, the Assembly approved their full request for funding.

Seven organizations saw a decrease in funding: Cornell Athletics and Physical Education a $1.22 (per student) decrease, the Collegiate Readership Program (managed ex-officio by the S.A. vice president for finance) a $4.00 decrease, C.U. Tonight Funding Commission a $0.73 decrease, Slope Media Group a $0.35 decrease and the Willard Straight Hall Student Union Board a $1.64 decrease. The Student Assembly also cut itself by $1.13 per student. And, as you may already know, Cornell Cinema was removed completely from the Undergraduate Student Activity Fee.

The fact that the total Activity Fee happens to be slightly lower is not important, except insofar as tuition will be that much lower next year. What matters to us is that organizations that promote diversity and inclusion, that lift up underrepresented students, that promote autonomous student leadership and that provide excellent, well-attended and efficiently managed undergraduate experiences will be receiving approximately $185,000 more next year than they received this year.

We fully recognize that a few of the decisions the Student Assembly made were controversial, namely the vote to discontinue Activity Fee funding for Cornell Cinema. We cannot overstate how saddened and sorry we are that this decision might negatively impact some Cornell students’ experiences. Throughout the entire month of November, the Assembly spent countless hours debating, researching, and engaging stakeholders to reach a decision. At first, representatives were deeply divided on how much, if at all, to fund the Cinema.

In the case of the Cinema, we found that although the Cinema staff agreed to cease directly withdrawing more than $35,000 per year from the activity fee account, the Activity Fee would still subsidize full-time staff wages. Wages made up 70 percent of the organization’s total expenditures. Multiple times, we were assured that because all of the funding would make up 100 percent of their programming budget, and would not be used towards staff compensation, that the S.A. would only be paying for programming, not staff compensation. This is true, but it ignores the real problem. If the S.A. subsidized the Cinema’s entire operating and programming costs out of a separate Undergraduate Student Activity Fee account and all of that account went only towards operations and programming, then the Cinema would still charge students, graduate students and Ithaca residents to see movies. This earned revenue derived from the programming that the student body already purchased would then be used on staff compensation. For all other S.A.-funded organizations, earned revenue derived from purchases made by the Activity Fee account does not subsidize staff compensation – any such revenue simply reverts back into the Activity Fee account to support more programming.

If the S.A. subsidizes 100 percent of the cost of something, undergraduate students should expect to get that program for free, or else the earned revenue should be used to subsidize more programming. If the Student Assembly’s account purchases Finding Nemo for all students to go see, it would be wrong for the Cinema to still charge students to go see Finding Nemo after the S.A. already paid for it entirely. But this is how the Cinema operates. Importantly, that subsidy model created a troubling incentive for Cinema staff to adamantly oppose even nominal programming budget cuts proposed by past Assemblies because of the clear link between the quantity of programming and the staff compensation budget.

This inappropriate relationship, therefore, did not belong on the Activity Fee. The Student Assembly is comprised of 18-22-year-old undergraduates who should never have to make human resource management decisions publicly. In fact, after the vote, the most recurring criticism Assembly members received was that they “put the livelihoods of staff in jeopardy.” And yet, the Assembly as a body came to an overwhelming consensus (19 ayes, 5 nays, 3 abstentions, 1 absent) because they agreed that staff compensation should be paid out of staff budgets managed by the University, not by students. It is almost unheard of that a supermajority of the 28-person membership would agree on such a controversial decision.

Finally, we recognize that important campus organizations are impacted by the new Undergraduate Student Activity Fee, but we hope that the campus community recognizes the judiciousness and precision with which the Assembly, through the Appropriations Committee, makes funding decisions.

We thank the Student Assembly representatives, the Appropriations Committee members, the S.A.-funded organizations and the community members, for coming together to build the Undergraduate Student Activity Fee for the 2018-2020 By-Line Cycle.


Jung Won Kim ’18
president of the Student Assembly

Gabriel D. Kaufman ’18
vice president for finance of the Student Assembly