Finding Ways to Waste Money
Or, How the UC Proposes to Hoard More of Our Dollars, Without Our Consent
In a recent Crimson survey, fewer than half of Harvard undergraduates could identify two events for which the Undergraduate Council has sent their money. Indeed, the council's management of activity funds has been wasteful at best.
But despite the fact that the council's actions do not benefit most of the student body, the council still believes it needs more money. Earlier this week, the council voted to increase the amount of student "contributions" by 50 percent, from $20 to $30. While the council fee hike has attracted much attention, another of its proposals, which is likely to have a much larger impact, has virtually escaped notice.
The proposal? To eliminate the possibility of receiving a refund of the council fee charged to every student's term bill. The council wants to force all students who want their tax refunded to go through the hassle or writing to Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III.
While this may not seem like such a terrible requirement, it has two significant flaws. First, of it is passed, almost all students would be unable to obtain a refund of their council "contribution." And second, the council would receive a windfall with which it could do as it pleased, thereby encouraging profligate spending.
I am painfully aware of just how difficult it is. I have been trying to secure a refund from the council for more than four months now. Despite all the time and effort, the check still hasn't come.
Last summer, I did not check off the refund box on my term bill. Sometime last fall, I called the Term Bill office and asked whether it was still possible to get a refund. I was informed that he had to contact the Dean of Students' office. I then called the office, but was told in was not certain whether I could still get a refund since I had not requested one on my term bill.
I tried to get in touch with the Undergraduate Council itself, but was repeatedly greeted by an answering machine. So I waited a week and called the Dean of Students' office again. This time, I was told it was possible to obtain refund. I had to write two letters: one to the council, requesting a refund of $16.67, and one to the Dean's office for the remainder.
Although I had already gone through a good deal of hassle, I wrote the letters and was satisfied that I would get the full $20 back. It didn't happen.
This February, having received no refund by mail, I contacted the Term Bill office yet again. I was told that I had only been refunded $3.33 out of the $20 council fee. The council was of no help, so I proceeded to call the Dean of Students' office and was informed I would be issued the outstanding amount if I wrote a letter asking for the refund. I wrote the letter.
Earlier this week, I noticed that I had not received confirmation of the letter. I called the Term Bill office yet again to inquire about the $16.67. This time, after being put on hold for a lengthy period of time, I was told that it was simply "too late" to get any of the refund back (this seems impossible, since the spring grants deadline has not yet passed).
The deadline, according to the Term Bill office representative, was Registration (again, this could not be true since, after all, the refund of $3.33 was issued after Registration). I was also told that the people I had talked to before had been mistaken. In other words, I was out of luck.
I called the Dean of Students' office and Undergraduate Council again to check on this and found out that what the Term Bill office has said was incorrect. A member of the Undergraduate Council said to write to the Dean of Students for a full refund, while someone at the Dean of Students' office said that the long delay was to be expected, and that refunds will probably be processed later this year.
But after over a third of year and repeated phone calls and letters to three different offices, I have yet to receive a complete refund.
This example demonstrates how difficult it is to get a refund. No one seems to know exactly what is going on, making the effort to get the money back extremely laborious. Obviously, asking for a refund on a term bill is much easier. But the council, which supposedly represents the student body, is not in the business to making things easier on students.
It no longer wants to allow students the straightforward option of term-billing the refund. Instead, it wants all students to try to find their way through a jungle of offices and paperwork.
The rationale for this is clear: the council is hoping that students will not bother with all the hassle, thus providing it with money to dispose of at its discretion. Although the council may not have deliberately set up every procedural roadblock which students have to overcome, it has done nothing to alleviate the problems. In fact, it has a vested interest in maintaining this system in which students are effectively prevented from obtaining refunds.
For the sake of fairness and efficiency, the council should not make it more difficult to get a refund. Term bills should provide students with the option of contributing to the council.
Indeed, the council's status as a 501-C3 non-profit organization means that it solicits voluntary contributions for support. If the council charges students $20 on the term bill and then makes it virtually impossible for them to get a refund, the money students pay cannot fairly be called a contribution.
Allowing students the option of contributing to the council would benefit the council as well. Most students do not believe the council does anything of value and would likely not contribute to it, which would cause an immediate decline in revenues. This means that the council would not be able to waste money if it wished to continue receiving contributions.
Two things could happen. First, students might not be affected by the council's decreased spending. This would show that the students made the right choice by not contributing.
But if the council as it stands really has an impact on student life, then students would notice a dramatic decline in activities. If this were to happen, contributions would likely increase the next year, or independent student groups might pick up the slack, organizing activities and securing funding in a less devious manner.
Either way, the students would have activities and the council would have less money to waste.