USA constitutional reform should include fiscal transparency
Patrick Healy, Opinion Editor
I’ve got no problem with Josh Allen. He’s a great quarterback with a cool personality and, yeah, he looks good in shorts. He deserved his mammoth contract from the Buffalo Bills and deserves to be compensated for speaking events.
1,250 undergrads will be able to pack the KAC to hear Allen during his April 23 event. 90 of us will have the opportunity to be in a group picture with Allen. Students can increase their odds of winning a group photo ticket by attending upcoming SPB-sponsored events. Any student can submit a question to potentially be asked of Allen. All of this is a logistically impressive feat by the SPB and Student Life.
USA will spend $75,000 — plus a few thousand on security-related and other expenses — for a couple of hours of Mr. Allen’s time. $75,000 for one event may not sound like much, but consider how it works out: about $40 per undergraduate, or multiple students’ tuition for a year. Or about one full-time professor (probably quite a few adjuncts though).
The Griffin certainly isn’t complaining about an interesting story to cover. Josh Peck’s 2019 visit gave us plenty of material, and Mr. Allen’s visit promises just as much. However, these big-ticket events do raise concerns about the use of student tax money.
Coincidentally, Canisius’s event with Allen was announced by Canisius just one week before the new Bills stadium deal was announced by Erie County. While student activity fees and government bonds are not the same, both greatly subsidize football-related entertainment using capital money rather than user fees. County Executive Mark Poloncarz said that the stadium deal will not raise taxes, because it employs the projected budget surplus and replaces prior debt obligations. This is true, but it obviously ignores that the money could have been used elsewhere or not at all.
The same argument applies for USA’s expenditure. With a near million-dollar budget, $75,000 for one great event is an appropriate use of funds this year. Acknowledging that the USA Senate approved this use of money and that no speaker would ever appeal to every student, Mr. Allen’s event is a good use of money, particularly given SPB’s intelligent incentives which encourage students to attend other club events in exchange for photo opportunity tickets.
So it’s not that expending $75,000 on this one marquee event is a poor choice of a million-dollar budget. It’s that, maybe, USA shouldn’t have a million-dollar budget.
Tax and spend
President Alyssa Deacon and the current executive board have worked hard to streamline the USA’s lengthy constitution. Their next task is to fix its student bill of rights. Their final task should be to review Article II Section I of the USA constitution, which levies a student tax of 1.61% of tuition to fund club activities. Arguably USA’s most important power — there’s a reason it’s the second paragraph of the 46-page document — the student tax (the activities fee on your bill) should be evaluated next.
Students’ annual activity fee (currently set at $460) is disbursed by the Undergraduate Student Association and its Finance Board to clubs. With about 1,750 full-time undergraduates, the total pot comes at about $800,000.
Students complain frequently about the cost of college. Well, the only part we have direct control of is the student tax. $460 isn’t a lot compared to the tuition; however, it can’t be covered by scholarships or financial aid; every student, as far as I know, pays it regardless of their financial need (Dr. Hardwick might call it a regressive tax). We shouldn’t keep it at 1.61% just because that’s the way it is. Decreasing it may well save money for students while encouraging clubs to value every dollar.
Either way, I’d like to see it justified. The current tax provides about $800,000 to USA. That’s $28,000 per week during the semester (almost one student’s entire tuition). Do we really allocate that much? If so, do we need to? If it’s found that clubs only need $600,000 rather than $800,000, that saves every undergraduate $100 per year. While it’s no panacea for student debt, that would cover a textbook or two or a few dozen coffees at Tim’s.
When President Alyssa Deacon asked for potential revisions to USA constitution’s “student bill of rights,” senators argued that students should have the right to transparency from USA. Well, here’s one concrete way to do that: track and publish spending. I realize that they can’t control clubs’ use of Student Life credit cards, but USA should take responsibility for better communication between itself and Student Life.
And USA should include its own spending in these totals. One of the biggest topics at USA presidential debates was the lack of trust that clubs have in USA. Though USA was well within its rights to do so, enforcing participation at the Council of Representatives was nevertheless unpopular.
USA members do much for the student body, but their spending shouldn’t be treated differently from that of clubs.
A few things about club events seem to be true: 1) The more events that are hosted, the fewer students attend each event. 2) In order to entice participation, clubs must offer prizes and/or food. 3) Prizes are very expensive, and food is often wasted.
A tightened belt might force more clubs to work together to host events rather than host two separate ones. This is easy for me to say, granted, because The Griffin is one of the few clubs to receive a large annual budget and to not host many events. Nevertheless, as an e-board member of other clubs, I think it’s obvious that the biggest struggle for most clubs is participation.
Not to go all analytic philosophy, but a few things seem obvious about the lack of participation: 1) Everyone is busy. We all have jobs, internships, school, family commitments, friends and other clubs. 2) Social media/video games/streaming services are tempting and require less effort. 3) There are a lot of clubs.
Maybe that means more creativity in assigning roles to e-board members, rather than the traditional president/VP/secretary/treasurer rollout — club constitutions be amended or damned. Maybe it means events are less frequent but longer, so that a student can commit to one night rather than two.
Kudos to Director of Student Engagement Jason Francey for sitting down with every club leader to ascertain their needs and ensure they can continue next semester.
Students looking to start new clubs should be encouraged to reach out to existing clubs with similar missions. This way they can spend time working with the existing club to plan events rather than gathering an e-board and spreading awareness of the club. The excitement at inception can be outweighed by the disappointment knowing the club won’t continue once the original leader(s) graduate(s).
93 clubs received an initial allocation this year, yet only about 30 clubs send an e-board member to the monthly, mandatory Council of Representatives. The minimum $50 given to each of the inactive clubs will be recovered by USA at the end of the year. The problem is that nobody’s ever quite sure which clubs are active and, if they are, who its leaders are.
At this week’s Senate meeting, USA Vice President for Business and Finance Matthew Johnson said the Finance Board decreased the number of Commuter Student Association hoodies they would fund in order to, obviously, save money, but also to encourage students to get to the event early. A “win-win,” he called it. I think this logic could be applied to the overall club budget.
The enthusiasm and dedication of club leaders over the past year are praiseworthy. I think the student tax could be decreased without strangling clubs for resources. USA should try to find that balance by using club expenditures from the past year to map out roughly how many fees are actually needed, rather than relying on the seemingly arbitrary figure of 1.61% of tuition per student.
Though a few have been modified, I can’t recall an appeal that was denied by the Finance Board or the Senate this year. Coming out of the pandemic, this was an important enticement for clubs to start planning events again; however, as we unmask, I do think money could be more efficiently spent.
In conjunction with tighter controls on club spending, events could be better planned. This has been a recurring topic at the Council of Representatives meetings. Hopefully, there is a tool on the way.