This article is the first in a series of articles investigating Finance Board, its allocations of the Student Activities Fund, and its oversight.
This semester, the Student Activities Fund (SAF) will send over 200 students to conferences and competitions. Over 100 have already gone. For people involved in clubs on campus, going to regional or national gatherings can be integral to their experience of involvement at Illinois Tech. The only problem is that Finance Board has started limiting the amount of money they will allocate to student organizations for conferences and the reasons are contradictory and the effect is unclear.
In January, Finance Board publicly announced, “under the recommendation of the current Finance Board Chair Jorge Morin,” they would cap the amount of money they would allocate to student organizations at $600 per person per trip, despite not amending the Finance Board guidelines to reflect this change in policy.
The announcement was made publicly and suddenly on the Finance Board website in a statement rife with grammatical errors. According to Erin Monforti, who handles Finance Board decision appeals as Judicial Board's Chief Justice, the change has “caused orgs confusion.”
Nina Tamras, vice chair of Finance Board, said at the first Student Government Association (SGA) legislative session of the semester on February 13 that “we changed our policy with conjunction with [SGA Judicial Board] because we were realizing that we're spending so much money on conferences per person.” Morin was asked what percent of Finance Board allocations go toward conferences and competitions, to which he responded “it’s in the 30s.”
In the fall 2018 semester, according to Finance Board’s own ledger, 27.6 percent ($210,778) of allocations were made toward conferences and competitions, making it the second most funded of Finance Board’s eight categories. The highest funded category was student organizations’ programming and events with 30.3 percent ($231,395) of Finance Board’s total allocations ($765,000).
Tamras said that these numbers vary significantly over the years, which could explain Morin’s estimate of the number being in the 30s. Neither of those claims can be verified since Finance Board has only made public the allocations from April 2018 to now.
At the February 13 SGA session, Morin defended the policy shift saying “this is where it’s kind of getting a little tricky when it comes to the SAF. Was it meant for the conferences or was it not meant for that?” The Finance Board website at the time of this article's writing reads “The Fund is for sponsoring student activities on and off campus.” This large contradiction was brought up in that meeting, though it was never directly addressed by Morin or anyone on Finance Board.
Despite intimations made by Morin and Tamras that the policy was aimed at cutting costs, spending on conferences went up after implementing the policy fully.
During the February Finance Board hearing, 54.4 percent ($142,808) of allocations were for conferences and competitions. Morin confirmed that conference spending went up after the policy. According to him, “people think when you make a policy, it means cuts.”
When Finance Board hears a budget request, they can fully fund the request, partially fund it, or deny it. Denied requests cannot be made a second time, so Finance Board occasionally funds something at $0.01 (having the request “cut to zero”) so that the student org can request the same thing with slight modifications.
Since the policy change, conference funding not only increased - which might be explained by variance between semesters - the proportion of conference spending requests that were cut to zero decreased (26.5 percent to 21.9 percent) and the number of partially funded requests increased (54.4 percent to 59.4 percent).
Finance Board suggested they were spending too much on conferences, then created an experimental policy that exists outside of their published guidelines to address it. Upon implementing this policy, they increased funding for conferences.
Budgetary concerns aren’t the only reason Finance Board has given for reexamining their approach to conference funding. In justifying the policy, Tamras suggested SAF allocations toward conferences would have a larger impact if spent on on-campus events where more students could benefit. Tamras said that because of conference spending, “we weren’t spending money on on-campus events where we hit a mass of the student population.”
Finance Board requires that requests have the potential to benefit the entire population and not merely the organization or people involved. According to Finance Board’s own guidelines, this means that “a plan to spread the information gained at the conference must be provided.”
Finance Board makes these plans public on their website, under a tab named “Conferences.” In it is a list of all conferences that SAF provided funding for, their dates, and the number of students going. Additionally a column for “Accountability” is listed where Finance Board shares the plans organizations have made to benefit the student population. At the time of this article's writing, this page is up to date listing all conferences and listing their accountability as “TBD.”
Finance Board seems to be arguing that conferences are not benefiting the whole student population despite them not enforcing the policy that makes conferences beneficial. If what Tamras said is truly the reason for the shift, Finance Board is changing the way it is funding conferences as an attempt to solve the problem caused by it not enforcing its own policy.
Finance Board’s recent policy change is not necessarily a bad policy. There are many arguments to be made for it, including its consistency and experimental nature. Everyone on Finance Board dedicates time and energy to making the student experience at Illinois Tech better. But this policy’s implementation has caused confusion and its justifications are conflicting to say the least. What’s more is that many of the claims Finance Board has made about it are completely unverifiable.
For most student organizations, these inconsistencies would be minor and the lack of transparency would be an inconvenience, nothing more. But Finance Board allocates $1.5 million per year of money taken directly from students for their benefit. SGA claims that it is a body tasked with liaising between the university’s administration and students and that it “represents students and their opinions to improve academic and student life at Illinois Tech.”
Representing the student population means maintaining lines of communication and maintaining transparent function when possible. Finance Board seems to be struggling with both of these.