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UC Finance Committee Optimistic Student Fee Changes Will Help Bottom Line

Finance Committee Chair Henry S. Atkins '20, left, and committee member Seth D. Billiau '21 present to the Council at a meeting in late March.
Members of the Undergraduate Council’s Finance Committee—which doles out $300,000 in grants to students groups each year—said Monday they are optimistic that College changes to student funding will benefit their budget, despite a semester marked by financial instability.

According to committee chair Henry S. Atkins ’20, an increase in the total number of student groups at the College, as well as higher funding requests from some groups, combined to form a “structural tidal wave of forces” that placed the committee in a financially precarious position throughout the semester.

The committee was forced to make above-average cuts to its weekly grants pack on multiple occasions, with cuts in at least two weeks topping 30 percent. At one point, the problem was so pressing—with the committee preparing to impose a 43 percent across-the-board cut in one week in early March—that the Council tapped into its $18,000 Emergency Fund.

Nonetheless, committee leaders said they were relieved to have reached the end of the semester without being forced to make unusually large cuts in the semester’s final weeks.

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“I think it took a lot of foresight to be able to get us where we were, a lot of planning on our policy, a lot of planning on our budget, as the weeks progressed, so that we wouldn’t be in a state of shock at the end of the semester,” said Swathi R. Srinivasan ’21, secretary of the Finance Committee.

Still, Atkins said he was disappointed the committee had to impose such large cuts to funding compared to cuts in past years.

“There were times as recently as a year ago, where we were thinking 20 percent was an astronomically high cut,” Atkins said. “So the fact that we kept things below, most weeks, under 30, 35, I’m happy with, but I still wish we could have done better.”

Committee leaders also said the College’s decision to increase the student activities fee by 150 percent this coming fall will provide an opportunity for the UC to obtain more money to fund student groups. Currently, the Council receives nearly all of the money gathered from the fee.

But starting fall 2018, the Office of Student Life plans to restructure the way it funds the Council, the College Events Board, House Committees, and the Intramural Sports Council, Alexander R. Miller, the College’s associate dean for student engagement, said in an interview earlier this month.

Specifically, the OSL plans to form a new committee—comprising both students and administrators—that will help distribute the funds. The committee will allocate funds in part based on student groups’ ability to engage with undergraduates, according to Miller.

Committee leaders called for the College to give part of the increased revenue gleaned from the fee to the Council. Ivy Yard Representative Seth D. Billiau ’21, who serves as vice chair of data of the finance committee, said current cuts are threatening the “financial stability” of student groups that don’t have other sources of funding.

“Right now, there are OSL-recognized clubs that are asking the UC for money for day-to-day operations, and we say that we can give them 75 percent of the money for that, which means that they have to go to their bases of members and ask for money,” Billiau said. “With that increase in the student activities fee, I would hope that the College would prioritize student-run and student-led social spaces, like OSL-recognized organizations.”

Committee leaders hesitated to assume their finances were now secure, though, saying the ideas they developed to improve the long-term stability of the budget should remain on the table.

“We’re not waiting for the cavalry to arrive because we need to proceed like we’re still going to have to deal with this situation,” Atkins said. “I suspect that whatever solution this body comes up with...is not going to fix all of our problems.”

Even though funding requests exceeded the UC’s budget this year, the shortfall was far less than in some previous years. In fall 2013, for example, student groups requested close to $400,000 in grants from the Council, while the Council ultimately allocated less than $145,000.

The finance committee considered multiple proposals this semester in an attempt to shore up its budget, including implementing a progressive cut on grants—which most likely would have disproportionately hurt larger student groups—but ultimately did not implement any significant structural changes.

“Once we get into the actual specifics of how that would work, it can become really contentious,” Atkins said of implementing a progressive cut. “Because that hurts some organizations more than others.”

The committee did, however, establish a minimum cut rate across weeks and began to more rigorously enforce its policy preventing groups in “bad standing”—or those who don’t return receipts or unused funds from previous committee grants—from receiving money from the UC.

Some committee members are considering other ideas to prevent large grant cuts in the future. For example, Billiau is proposing allocating slightly more money than available in the budget under the assumption that some groups will not claim the money, similar to the way airlines sell more tickets than available seats for some flights. Billiau cautioned, though, that the idea could be risky if too much money is allocated.

“In the first semester, I’m very comfortable doing that,” Billiau said. “In the second semester, I’m a little less comfortable doing that because if you run too big of a deficit, you may run into spending more money than you have.”

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at jonah.berger@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

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