Updated with graphic 5/13/12.
After eight hours of presentations and deliberations, the four undergraduate student councils and five governing boards reached an agreement on funding allocations for the governing boards last week.
For the first time, governing boards were allowed to have some veto power over decisions during this year's Funding at Columbia University process. Some governing board members had said they felt disrespected during their presentations at last year'sF@CU summit.
“I think it went a lot better than last year—like infinitely better than last year,” outgoing Columbia College Student Council Vice President of Finance Kevin Zhai, CC ’12, said. “This year’s F@CU was definitely a step in the right direction.”
The F@CU committee is made up of the incoming and outgoing presidents and vice presidents of finance of CCSC, the Engineering Student Council, the General Studies Student Council, and Barnard’s Student Government Association. It meets every spring during reading week to dole out student life fees to the governing boards, which then distribute the funds to student groups.
Earlier this year, some student council and governing board representatives expressed a desire for governing board members to be more involved in F@CU’s decision-making process, and for the overall process to be more transparent.
F@CU members agreed last month that final funding decisions would need to be approved by at least three of the five governing boards, in addition to the usual 13 out of 16 F@CU members. The Activities Board at Columbia, which was the only governing board to see its funding cut relative to last year, was the only governing board not to vote for this year’s allocations.
“While there was still some tension in the room, where there was an ‘us versus them’ mentality between the governing boards and the councils, everyone was very respectful,” Zhai said.
“I never felt disrespected,” outgoing Student Governing Board chair Barry Weinberg, CC ’12, said of this year’s F@CU. “People were really making an honest and genuine effort to meet each other halfway.”
‘A massive change’
On the first day of the F@CU process, each council and governing board made a presentation about its allocations, followed by deliberations on the second day. After this, representatives for each of the councils drew up a set of nine numbers—how much they thought each council should contribute to the F@CU pot from student life fees, and how much they thought each governing board should receive from that pot.
Governing board members were invited to the deliberations for the first time this year.
“We provided reasons for our decisions, and it was a live conversation with the governing boards in which they were allowed to respond,” Zhai said.
Ultimately, F@CU members voted for CCSC to contribute $610,525, ESC to contribute $190,791.84, GSSC to contribute $81,500, and SGA to contribute $91,000.
This combined total of $973,816.84 will be divided among the five governing boards, with ABC receiving $400,059, SGB receiving $236,924.00, the Club Sports Governing Board receiving $219,905.84, Community Impact receiving $85,558, and the InterGreek Council receiving $32,000.
Fifteen of the 16 F@CU members and all of the governing boards but ABC voted for the final allocations. Several council and governing board members said that this year’s process was more effective than last year’s.
“We’re talking about a massive change from last year—it was really improved,” Weinberg said. “The governing boards could come together and help reach a clearer understanding of everyone’s needs and goals.”
Weinberg cited GSSC’s decreased contribution as one result of the changes to the process. Weinberg said that GSSC had been paying too much, as GS students are less involved in clubs than CC, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Barnard students are.
Zhai, though, said that the process could still be improved, because “for the most part, it was still the councils making the decisions.”
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in order for the F@CU summit to be an environment in which everyone can see themselves as stakeholders in a collective enterprise,” Zhai said.
Zhai said that the “very clear next step” toward putting the governing boards and councils on even footing is for the councils to fill out more paperwork explaining their contributions, similar to the allocation packets that governing boards fill out every year. He would also like to see the governing boards draw up the same set of nine numbers that the councils do.
“Creating a proposal forces you to go through the documentation and come up with arguments and reasons for why a particular group should have more or less money,” he said. “It will be more work for everyone involved, but I think it will lead to a better process.”
Room for improvement
Both Zhai and ESC president Nate Levick, SEAS ’12 and F@CU chair, called F@CU an “imperfect” process. Because only three of the five governing boards need to approve the final allocations, Zhai said, “it may be the case that not everybody could be totally satisfied.”
ABC President Saketh Kalathur, CC ’13, said that he was “disappointed with several aspects of F@CU this year.”
“The Activities Board received a cut in funding, and no one ever actually explained to me why,” Kalathur said in an email. “Council members said they agreed with many of our requests for increases … The explanation for ABC’s funding seemed contradictory and inconsistent.”
Kalathur added that council members misunderstood how ABC covers the debt of its groups, which he said was partly to blame for its lower-than-expected allocation.
“Even after I clarified this mistake multiple times … no one ever addressed the issue or made an effort to resolve it,” he said. “The desire to leave the room outweighed the necessity of having further conversations and clearing up any misunderstandings.”
Zhai said that ABC “kind of received the short end of the stick,” although he added that he “wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a mistake.”
“Once people saw that this funding distribution was something they could vote on … I think they just went for it,” he said.
F@CU members distributed a total of almost $974,000, up from last year’s approximately $935,500. No governing board received as much money as it requested, although this has been the case in previous years as well.
“We’re dividing a limited pool of resources, and everyone just wants what’s best for their constituents, and unfortunately, not everyone can get 100% of what he/she wants,” Levick said in an email.
Levick added, however, that “the mentality that we’re all on the same team began to finally become apparent.” Incoming CCSC Vice President of Finance, Daphne Chen, CC ’14, said that CI and SGB demonstrated this mentality by volunteering to take cuts.
“When everyone started to realize that there was no way that they were going to get their full requests … the governing boards started to volunteer cuts to themselves,” Zhai said. “And that to me was evidence people really started to see their role in a different light.”
In addition to determining funding allocations, F@CU members also discussed possible ways for the student councils to provide more money to student groups directly.
CCSC, ESC, and GSSC currently oversee a facilities and securities fund from which groups can request funds. Facility and security costs can be volatile and unpredictable, and the parliamentary debate team, for instance, has used the council funds to cover extra security costs at conferences.
At the F@CU summit, some council members proposed the creation of two similarly structured funds, one for capital development and one for travel costs. These funds would help governing boards keep allocations to their groups relatively stable from year to year, Zhai said.
“The capital development fund is essentially a fund that’s meant to be drawn from if a group needs to make large purchases, but on a very irregular basis,” Zhai said. “That’s something that the governing boards’ structure … isn’t really capable of handling.”
According to Zhai, a travel fund would be particularly useful for club sports teams that make national competitions.
“It’s difficult to predict when they’re going to make nationals, but when they do, it’s a huge cost,” Zhai said.
“That’s difficult to deal with at the governing board level and even more difficult to deal with at the club level,” he added.
F@CU traditionally takes places during reading week each spring, but at last week’s summit, some council members proposed moving the times to avoid conflicts with studying and exams.
“Obviously it’s still a little problematic that this is during reading week … but that’s been a perpetual concern,” Zhai said. “I don’t really have any solutions on hand to solve it.”