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When U.C. Doles Out Money, Scales Are Sometimes Weighted

News Feature

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

The Undergraduate Council's Finance Committee met this Halloween to decide how to dole out part of the $36,000 it gives to student groups each semester.

Up for discussion was a group that is politically correct by all measures.

In its quest to educate the community about an important social problem, the group, like hundreds on campus, has come to rely on the council for a major share of its budget.

The process is supposed to be content-blind. The council's five-student subcommittee that weighs funding decisions, however, had a distinct bias.

Budget hawks on the committee wanted to deny 25 percent of the group's $400 request. They argued that some of the requests were extravagant, particularly in the context of the council's limited budget, under which many groups are denied funding altogether.

The money was cut.

But as soon as the request was axed, one member had second thoughts. Educating the community is a positive thing, the member insisted. It's a good, proactive, socially liberal cause.

The committee agreed. The group is doing something the council likes, after all. The money was restored.

Content-Blind?

Funding from the Finance Committee of the Undergraduate Council is literally the lifeblood of scores of student organizations.

Reviewing some 130 applications from student groups per semester and dispensing some $72,000 per year to many of them, the committee has the power to ignite--or snuff out--a group's ambitions for an entire semester.

Many student groups count on the committee to evaluate their financial status fairly and objectively, with an eye towards preserving a diverse array of groups on the campus.

The council insists that it does this. But efforts to be fair are far from perfect.

At one particular subcommittee meeting, five applications were reviewed. Two of them received a boost in funding for decidedly content-related reasons: committee members deemed the groups socially worthy.

While council members have long denied the existence--and railed against the possibility--of a politicized grants process, the truth is more vague than many council members like to acknowledge:

"Members are quick to remind each other that they're supposed to be objective," says Brian J. Chan '99, who served on Finance Committee last year.

"In the meetings, they'll say 'Please ignore the fact that their group is doing such and such an event,"' says Chan, who is a Crimson editor. "Who's to judge which group is better than another? They try to keep it focused on the numbers, not the events."

Indeed, many student groups criticize what they say is an unclear, unfair and confusing grants process.

The procedures themselves seem straightforward enough.

During the first few weeks of the semester, groups submit applications detailing projected expenditures and other sources of income. The Finance Committee then considers each organization during the semester and recommends a grant, which the entire council must approve once all groups are considered.

The committee's decisions are often made at night, during meetings which can last anywhere from one hour to marathon sessions into the morning.

Members of the committee say perceptions of unfairness will always exist because it's no easy task for them to split hairs over how they will distribute thousands of dollars to student groups each semester.

Former Finance Committee chair Clay M. West '97, for one, admits that the process can seem "random, harsh and abstract," but insists the committee tries to consider all groups objectively.

Indeed, despite evidence to the contrary, council members maintain that the committee's only considerations in the grants process are an organization's financial need and impact on campus.

"If [ideological bias] does influence anyone's decisions, it doesn't come up during the meeting, probably because we don't have a lot of ideologically extreme groups [applying]," says Stephen E. Weinberg '99, the committee's current chair.

Weinberg does point to certain precedents that help govern the council's decisions.

Restrictions are usually imposed on the amount of money an organization can receive for publicity, reception costs and plane tickets, among others.

In addition, the committee sometimes uses precedent from past grants to determine a group's allocation, according to Chan.

"Sometimes someone will say, 'Well, we gave another similar groups so much money, so we should give this group a similar amount,"' Chan says.

Many student leaders also complain that they are not kept well-informed of their group's application status.

"It took a long time for them to get back to us," says Joshua D. Powe '98, treasurer of the Black Students Association. "I think it was about five weeks before we heard from them, which I thought was frankly absurd."

Kyle W. Niedzwiecki '98, co-chair of Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association (HRSFA), says that finance committee representatives were not helpful in helping his group find other sources of funding.

"I was not left with the impression that the council encourages organizations to raise money or find other sources of income," Niedzwiecki says.

However, council members argue that the Finance Committee is doing its best with limited human resources.

"There should be closer interactions with groups other than just the 20-minute interview," West says. "But the Finance Committee is really bogged down as it is."

The Welfare State?

The Finance Committee maintains the lowest profile on the council, usually keeping out of the sometimes vicious spats that characterize debates in Student Affairs and Campus Life, its more controversial siblings in the council structure.

But this year, discussion of the Finance Committee has become increasingly vocal, shifting the focus onto a committee whose grants process has been compared by some observers to a bad welfare program.

In particular, the council has been heavily criticized for its financial requirements that an organization's funds must be almost depleted for it to qualify for a grant.

Large ethnic groups, such as the BSA, the Asian American Association (AAA) and the Minority Students Association are among the loudest protesters.

"It's not fair that these ethnic groups which serve such a large portion of the student body see almost none of the money we pay in our term bill," says Sharon W. Gi '98, co-president of AAA.

Members of these groups say that the grants process encourages fiscal irresponsibility.

The BSA's Powe says that the group was penalized last fall for its shrewd financial planning.

"It was not even a question of our group being historically stable, but rather we had worked extra hard that semester to save some money," he says. "It seemed somewhat hypocritical and a disincentive to getting outside funding."

Weinberg denies that the current grants process encourages irresponsible spending.

"A U.C. grant is not worth enough that a group would purposefully empty its accounts just to get one of our grants," he says.

The average grant during the spring was $290.

Weinberg also disputes the theory that the small groups the council usually funds spend their money irresponsibly.

"These are not financially irresponsible groups," he says. "They keep very good track of their money, just because they have so little."

Nonetheless, many student leaders were disgruntled with the process. Two weeks ago, they came before the council to call for a Student Groups Merit Fund, a separate grants fund to be earmarked for distribution on a need-blind basis.

Although the fund was voted down for procedural reasons, the Finance Committee did agree to set aside some money to be considered on a need-blind basis.

Council members and student group leaders came out wholeheartedly in favor of the reform.

"I think it could be one of the best reforms we've ever had," says council President and former finance chair Robert M. Hyman '98. "Until the new fund was created, the large student groups, particularly the ethnic groups were ignored."

And while the administration has no role in the determination of grants, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III also says he approves of the council's reform.

However, while most council members favor the new fund, some are adamant that the smaller groups the council traditionally funds not be pushed aside.

Weinberg makes it clear that he is unwilling to divert any more money from the normal fund to the new, need-blind fund.

And indeed, the money for the new fund will come from roll-over and an increase in funding allocated to the Finance Committee.

"I have no qualms about giving the lion's share to these small groups," Weinberg says. "These are groups that without us, would not survive. It's hard to conscience taking money away from [them]."

"It's very important for Harvard students to have a variety of these programs around," he says. "They are vital to our campus."

Weinberg points to the Harvard Computer Society (HCS) as an example of a small council-funded group that performs a great service.

Last spring, HCS received the second largest council grant--$800--to purchase computer equipment that is used by many organizations in the College.

The Future

Council members say they have even more reforms in store, but point to the rapid progress the committee has made in the last few years.

Two years ago, the council only allocated $25,000 in grants, far below the $36,000 they had available. Today, the committee gives out their entire allotment and members say they could use a lot more.

"[Underfunding] frankly disgusts me. I can see so many ways that I could give out twice as much money," Weinberg says.

Weinberg says the change accompanied the creation of the Progressive Undergraduate Council Coalition (PUCC), a now-defunct council reform party.

Council members are confident that the change this year will continue with the leaders of the council.

Hyman and Vice President Lamelle D. Rawlins '99 say they advocate greater allocations to be given out in grants, a stance that was part of their campaign platform in the campus-wide elections last spring.

But the new funds for grants would have to come from the council's committee fund, which bankrolls the events of the Student Affairs and Campus Life Committees.

Some say that further increases would hurt the council's events more than they would help student groups.

"The wrangling over the extra 1.5 percent is really trivial," says council Treasurer John J. Appelbaum '97. "The money is not going to significantly impact student groups, but it could be used to fund U.C. shuttle buses."

Some council members argue that expansion of the grants budget is necessary to keep up with ever-growing demand.

"The number of student groups has grown tremendously in the last few years, while U.C. funding has not," says Michael A. O'Mary '99, the council's newly-created director of student groups.

However, others say that the Finance Committee can help student groups in alternative ways.

"I don't think throwing the whole of the U.C. budget into the grants fund is the solution," West says. "There are a lot of other roles [the council] can play."

West suggests that the council be a "central financial clearinghouse" for student groups, helping them organize their finances and serving as a resource for information on sources of funding.

Many students agree that finding funding is a complex and frustrating process.

And with limited funding and inconsistent criteria, grants decisions can be random.

"The process is similar to the admissions process," Chan says. "It's not an exact science; otherwise, there'd be no debate whatsoever. We'd just punch the numbers in."Crimson File PhotoCouncil President Robert M. Hyman '98 has been pushing for more grants to student groups--a move some say is narrowing the scope of the council.

"Members are quick to remind each other that they're supposed to be objective," says Brian J. Chan '99, who served on Finance Committee last year.

"In the meetings, they'll say 'Please ignore the fact that their group is doing such and such an event,"' says Chan, who is a Crimson editor. "Who's to judge which group is better than another? They try to keep it focused on the numbers, not the events."

Indeed, many student groups criticize what they say is an unclear, unfair and confusing grants process.

The procedures themselves seem straightforward enough.

During the first few weeks of the semester, groups submit applications detailing projected expenditures and other sources of income. The Finance Committee then considers each organization during the semester and recommends a grant, which the entire council must approve once all groups are considered.

The committee's decisions are often made at night, during meetings which can last anywhere from one hour to marathon sessions into the morning.

Members of the committee say perceptions of unfairness will always exist because it's no easy task for them to split hairs over how they will distribute thousands of dollars to student groups each semester.

Former Finance Committee chair Clay M. West '97, for one, admits that the process can seem "random, harsh and abstract," but insists the committee tries to consider all groups objectively.

Indeed, despite evidence to the contrary, council members maintain that the committee's only considerations in the grants process are an organization's financial need and impact on campus.

"If [ideological bias] does influence anyone's decisions, it doesn't come up during the meeting, probably because we don't have a lot of ideologically extreme groups [applying]," says Stephen E. Weinberg '99, the committee's current chair.

Weinberg does point to certain precedents that help govern the council's decisions.

Restrictions are usually imposed on the amount of money an organization can receive for publicity, reception costs and plane tickets, among others.

In addition, the committee sometimes uses precedent from past grants to determine a group's allocation, according to Chan.

"Sometimes someone will say, 'Well, we gave another similar groups so much money, so we should give this group a similar amount,"' Chan says.

Many student leaders also complain that they are not kept well-informed of their group's application status.

"It took a long time for them to get back to us," says Joshua D. Powe '98, treasurer of the Black Students Association. "I think it was about five weeks before we heard from them, which I thought was frankly absurd."

Kyle W. Niedzwiecki '98, co-chair of Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association (HRSFA), says that finance committee representatives were not helpful in helping his group find other sources of funding.

"I was not left with the impression that the council encourages organizations to raise money or find other sources of income," Niedzwiecki says.

However, council members argue that the Finance Committee is doing its best with limited human resources.

"There should be closer interactions with groups other than just the 20-minute interview," West says. "But the Finance Committee is really bogged down as it is."

The Welfare State?

The Finance Committee maintains the lowest profile on the council, usually keeping out of the sometimes vicious spats that characterize debates in Student Affairs and Campus Life, its more controversial siblings in the council structure.

But this year, discussion of the Finance Committee has become increasingly vocal, shifting the focus onto a committee whose grants process has been compared by some observers to a bad welfare program.

In particular, the council has been heavily criticized for its financial requirements that an organization's funds must be almost depleted for it to qualify for a grant.

Large ethnic groups, such as the BSA, the Asian American Association (AAA) and the Minority Students Association are among the loudest protesters.

"It's not fair that these ethnic groups which serve such a large portion of the student body see almost none of the money we pay in our term bill," says Sharon W. Gi '98, co-president of AAA.

Members of these groups say that the grants process encourages fiscal irresponsibility.

The BSA's Powe says that the group was penalized last fall for its shrewd financial planning.

"It was not even a question of our group being historically stable, but rather we had worked extra hard that semester to save some money," he says. "It seemed somewhat hypocritical and a disincentive to getting outside funding."

Weinberg denies that the current grants process encourages irresponsible spending.

"A U.C. grant is not worth enough that a group would purposefully empty its accounts just to get one of our grants," he says.

The average grant during the spring was $290.

Weinberg also disputes the theory that the small groups the council usually funds spend their money irresponsibly.

"These are not financially irresponsible groups," he says. "They keep very good track of their money, just because they have so little."

Nonetheless, many student leaders were disgruntled with the process. Two weeks ago, they came before the council to call for a Student Groups Merit Fund, a separate grants fund to be earmarked for distribution on a need-blind basis.

Although the fund was voted down for procedural reasons, the Finance Committee did agree to set aside some money to be considered on a need-blind basis.

Council members and student group leaders came out wholeheartedly in favor of the reform.

"I think it could be one of the best reforms we've ever had," says council President and former finance chair Robert M. Hyman '98. "Until the new fund was created, the large student groups, particularly the ethnic groups were ignored."

And while the administration has no role in the determination of grants, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III also says he approves of the council's reform.

However, while most council members favor the new fund, some are adamant that the smaller groups the council traditionally funds not be pushed aside.

Weinberg makes it clear that he is unwilling to divert any more money from the normal fund to the new, need-blind fund.

And indeed, the money for the new fund will come from roll-over and an increase in funding allocated to the Finance Committee.

"I have no qualms about giving the lion's share to these small groups," Weinberg says. "These are groups that without us, would not survive. It's hard to conscience taking money away from [them]."

"It's very important for Harvard students to have a variety of these programs around," he says. "They are vital to our campus."

Weinberg points to the Harvard Computer Society (HCS) as an example of a small council-funded group that performs a great service.

Last spring, HCS received the second largest council grant--$800--to purchase computer equipment that is used by many organizations in the College.

The Future

Council members say they have even more reforms in store, but point to the rapid progress the committee has made in the last few years.

Two years ago, the council only allocated $25,000 in grants, far below the $36,000 they had available. Today, the committee gives out their entire allotment and members say they could use a lot more.

"[Underfunding] frankly disgusts me. I can see so many ways that I could give out twice as much money," Weinberg says.

Weinberg says the change accompanied the creation of the Progressive Undergraduate Council Coalition (PUCC), a now-defunct council reform party.

Council members are confident that the change this year will continue with the leaders of the council.

Hyman and Vice President Lamelle D. Rawlins '99 say they advocate greater allocations to be given out in grants, a stance that was part of their campaign platform in the campus-wide elections last spring.

But the new funds for grants would have to come from the council's committee fund, which bankrolls the events of the Student Affairs and Campus Life Committees.

Some say that further increases would hurt the council's events more than they would help student groups.

"The wrangling over the extra 1.5 percent is really trivial," says council Treasurer John J. Appelbaum '97. "The money is not going to significantly impact student groups, but it could be used to fund U.C. shuttle buses."

Some council members argue that expansion of the grants budget is necessary to keep up with ever-growing demand.

"The number of student groups has grown tremendously in the last few years, while U.C. funding has not," says Michael A. O'Mary '99, the council's newly-created director of student groups.

However, others say that the Finance Committee can help student groups in alternative ways.

"I don't think throwing the whole of the U.C. budget into the grants fund is the solution," West says. "There are a lot of other roles [the council] can play."

West suggests that the council be a "central financial clearinghouse" for student groups, helping them organize their finances and serving as a resource for information on sources of funding.

Many students agree that finding funding is a complex and frustrating process.

And with limited funding and inconsistent criteria, grants decisions can be random.

"The process is similar to the admissions process," Chan says. "It's not an exact science; otherwise, there'd be no debate whatsoever. We'd just punch the numbers in."Crimson File PhotoCouncil President Robert M. Hyman '98 has been pushing for more grants to student groups--a move some say is narrowing the scope of the council.

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