November 4, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Funding EARS Reveals Deeper Issues About the Student Activity Fee

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“So this is crazy, but apparently the Cornell Student Assembly actually does things.  I did not realize the extent of their power on campus, but it exists.  You’ll have to excuse my pointedness but if we’re being honest with ourselves, the assembly is mostly an “out of sight, out of mind” idea for many of us undergraduates.” — Brenner Beard ‘24

Upon reading this excerpt from “All EARS: It’s Time to Pay Attention to the Student Assembly”, a column written in The Sun last week by Columnist Brenner Beard ‘24, I think many members of the Student Assembly would be quick to dismiss this well-written piece as a misguided perception of a recent event that took place in the S.A. But, I have to agree with Brenner’s point. Much of the S.A.’s workings and deliberations are exactly an “out of sight, out of mind” idea for most students at Cornell. It’s likely that for many students, the extent of their interaction with Cornell’s student government will simply be receiving follow requests from the candidates’ Instagram pages at the beginning of the year.

It’s understandable that many people were upset by the appropriations committee’s decision to decrease EARS’ funding by 30 cents. Before EARS peer-counseling was put on pause, it was an extremely helpful service to the Cornell community, and I’m sure that as they transition towards peer mentorship it will be the same. 

So, if we all agree that EARS will provide a valuable service to the Cornell community, why did the appropriations committee decide to reduce EARS allocation?

It certainly was not just “thirty cents per student saved”. Even though reducing the Student Activity Fee is an extremely important goal given how many people struggle to pay it.

 When I read EARS’ application for funding, I saw serious issues with how they planned to spend their money. Unfortunately, I cannot disclose many details. Though it is certainly unethical that organization budgets being funded by student tuitions are not public. It speaks volumes about the relationship between the S.A. and the student body when the only details that are public are ones that are on the audio recordings for meetings.

The serious issues discussed during the meeting included massive overspending for non-pertinent materials for counseling, particularly a quote for the cost of T-shirts and hand sanitizer. But, at the end of the day, T-shirts for the staff is at least a justifiable expense. Even if the price being spent per each one is not. But, what about a paid retreat that EARS counselors get to take at the end of the year? Is it justifiable that their funding, which comes from student-paid tuition, is spent on exclusive retreats and social events for staff? Of course not.

Beard ‘24  mentioned virtue signaling, and I do agree, there definitely is virtue signaling when it comes to mental health. But in this case, it was being done by the S.A. 

When the Appropriations Committee asked for a revamped budget to supplement the appeal perhaps showing the plan of increased programming, one was not presented to the S.A. In other words, there was no concrete change that we could see that warranted the increase asked for in the appeal.

By giving back the $4500 requested by EARS  in the name of “mental health” the Student Assembly neglected its duty to spend student money responsibly and did it under the guise of spending more money on the mental health of students. 

By increasing the funding for EARS beyond our recommendation and reasonable budgeting, all they did was give them more money to overspend on items, and the ability to host exclusive retreats and social events for EARS counselors. How is that serving mental health?

The ideas upheld by the actions of the S.A. and (I’m sure inadvertently) Brenner Beard’s ‘24 column are deeply upsetting. The fact that organizations are allowed to irresponsibly spend money paid by student tuition just because they are “mental health” organizations is very troubling.

But, Beard ‘24 made an extremely valuable point. We must reduce the distance between the S.A. and the students they represent. I think one of the key ways we can hold these organizations and the S.A.  accountable, is by making all budgets for student-funded organizations public. It is not fair that students are paying the student activity fee, but are unable to see how their money is being used. And when it is being unethically spent, students need to be able to hold the organizations doing so accountable.

David Nachman ‘25 is a Freshman in the College of Industrial Labor Relations. He serves on the Student Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. Comments can be sent to [email protected] .Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.