Money to Burn

The UC should not misinterpret its mandate from two years ago

In the spring of 2004, the Undergraduate Council (UC) was still in the business of campus-wide event planning, but they were a bit short on cash. Back then, the student termbill fee was a mere $35, and even with the cash leftover from previous years’ surpluses, there simply wasn’t enough funding to throw a party the size of, say, last spring’s Yardfest. (The Office of the President was generous enough to pay for that spring’s Busta Rhymes concert.) So, the UC called a referendum to ask for permission to raise the termbill fee to $75, with proponents of the raise touting “a better Harvard” through more campus-wide events, and such social events were the sole goal of the extra cash. Students narrowly approved the hike.

Unfortunately, the new “campus-wide events” didn’t turn out so well. The UC’s Campus Life Committee (CLC), flush with cash, petered it away on poorly planned and expensive events, culminating in a $30,000 cancellation fee for last fall’s Wyclef Jean (non-)concert. After that debacle, the Council effectively un-funded the CLC, divvying up some of what was left of its $100,000 budget among House Committees (HoCos) and party funds. Then the UC lopped off the CLC and left campus-wide social programming to the new College Events Board, which has a $200,000 budget from the College Dean’s office.

But the UC still receives all of the money once spent on the CLC. As the new Council takes office this week, it is imperative that it publicly discuss how it will spend the money originally attained with a mandate to organize campus-wide social events.

House Committee funding, where much of the old CLC funding is already earmarked, is a good start. In the past we have argued that supplying HoCos with the resources to throw house-wide events is one of the best ways to build community on campus. Additionally, various HoCos often work together to plan (or enhance) large-scale campus events, such as the annual Harvard-Yale tailgate. An increased party fund is also a worthy use of some of the funds, too—and last year, some CLC money was spent there—since the UC requires its funded parties to be on campus and open to all undergraduates.

But increased HoCo and party funding accounts for a bit more than half of the old CLC budget, and the UC must consider where to put the rest—which amounts to about $50,000, or a little over 10 percent of the Council’s total budget. (Last year, $30,000 was lost with Wyclef, and the rest was divided between First Year Social Committee grants, a few stein clubs, subsidized shuttle busses, and a few other projects.) What the UC should not do is simply pour the balance into its general grants fund for student groups. While student groups, as a whole, add to the campus-wide community, most of their individual projects do not rise to the level of the sort of large-scale events that the referendum supporters envisioned.

So where to spend the money? One possibility is to fund creative, large-scale social events that might not be organized by any particular student group. Currently, groups of students not affiliated with any particular student organization cannot receive UC funding, even if they have grand plans for a large-scale event. This sort of funding would assist ideas like last year’s Junior Class Commission’s dance in Annenberg, and other ideas that are fun, creative, and not limited to specific, existing student groups. The emphasis should remain on events with a wide appeal in order to foster a “better” Harvard as a whole and not just better student-group-specific social activities.

Another possibility is to fund specific areas in which student groups might face new financial challenges, and two come to mind. Perhaps the UC could reimburse student groups for the new fees charged to gift account deductions until a more permanent solution is found. Or the UC could increase its subsidy on T tokens for volunteer groups, given the steep increase in T fares.

What cannot happen is for the remaining money to simply inflate the student group grants fund (which last year was already over $280,000), at least not without a sense that that’s what students would want.

And if the UC cannot decide the appropriate way to spend the money, or if students prefer that the money not be spent at all, then the Council should reimburse a portion of students’ termbill fees—even if it only means sending a couple of dollars to each student. The UC should not misinterpret its mandate from two years ago. At the least, it must hold a visible debate, with plenty of input from students, about where to spend the remainder of the money. If not, its databases have our campus addresses in them. We wouldn’t mind a few dollars back.