At the close of the 2009-2010 academic year, the Student Budget Committee (SBC) of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) ran a surplus of approximately $68,155, according to SBC Chair Andrew Huynh ’11. This marked the largest surplus in recent years, far exceeding estimates made by former SBC Chair Charlie Kurose ’10, who predicted in April that the surplus would reach up to $40,000. Although this surplus has traditionally, according to WSA by-laws, been funneled into the WSA endowment, members of the WSA are currently considering alternative uses for the funds that could benefit students this year.
The SBC has run a surplus each year since spring 2008 when the student body voted to raise the Student Activities Fee, which funds the entire SBC budget, to $270 per student per year. At the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, the surplus was approximately $43,000. When the WSA endowment was created at the end of the 2007-2008 academic year, the surplus was estimated at $20,000.
According to Huynh, a variety of factors can contribute to such a surplus. Primarily, when student groups do not spend the entirety of the monies they were allocated, the remaining funds must be returned to the SBC at the end of the year. Another problem was that student groups simply did not submit requests for all the available funds.
“The SBC had a very high allocation rate,” Huynh said. “I can’t think of any instance when a student group was rejected last year, and that was due to a combination of good proposals and the fact that there was money in the budget for us to give to those who requested it. Of course nobody wants to under-spend, and no one is trying to remove money from the students. It’s just a fact of the business that we’re in.”
Although the surplus comes entirely from the Student Activities Fee, only 84 percent of the fee goes into the SBC budget, according to Huynh. Thus, other projects that receive funding from the fee and under-spend also contribute to the surplus, including under-spending in the WSA office budget.
“The Zip Car Project is one example of an initiative that cost us less money than we anticipated last year,” he said. “We projected that it would cost us more, but due to its fairly high popularity, which was great, there wasn’t a need to give as much money to that project.”
Although a surplus may indicate efficient project budgeting, many students were concerned with how the leftover money was used by the WSA.
“The longer the money sits in the endowment, the less likely it is that the students who paid into it will see the benefits from that money,” said former WSA representative Bradley Spahn ’11, who suggested alternative uses for the surplus in past years. “As contributors to the [WSA] endowment age out and leave Wesleyan, it means that past classes are subsidizing the parties of future classes, and I think given the huge financial constraints on students, we shouldn’t be overcharging students and not doing anything with the money.”
This Sunday, however, the WSA will put to vote the Campus Initiative Fund, an alternative use for the surplus money that could fund student projects this year. If passed, all students on campus will be invited to submit proposals to the SBC on potential uses for the funds, which should benefit the campus at large. The Campus Initiative Fund proposal was developed cooperatively by the Wesleyan Endowment Committee (WEC), the WSA Executive Committee, and members of the SBC, and has so far received positive feedback from the WSA.
“We’re required by the WSA by-laws to place the surplus into the endowment, but because the surplus this year is bigger than the surplus in the past, and is actually larger than the creators of the WSA endowment ever intended, we think what’s important is that, while we still honor our commitment to eventually eliminating the Student Activities Fee through the WSA endowment, we still want to honor our commitment to make student life best for students at Wesleyan right now,” said WSA Vice President Ben Firke ’12.
Huynh noted, however, that the Campus Initiative Fund would be separate from the SBC budget and would not be used to supplant specific student group projects or exclusive events.
“Specifically, we hope that individuals are the ones to make these proposals,” he said. “It would be deemed inappropriate for a formal student group to use this as an addendum to an SBC allocation. This money is not meant to benefit just a particular student group, even if it’s an on-campus event.”
If the Campus Initiative Fund is passed, the SBC will review all proposals and pass on their thoughts on each proposal to the WEC. For a proposal to pass, it must get a majority vote from the WEC, which is composed of Huynh, Firke, WSA President Micah Feiring ’11, and WSA Finance and Facilities Committee Chair Zachary Malter ’13. At the end of the year, the SBC will review the remaining surplus funds and funnel the remainder into the endowment.
Huynh and Firke noted that the Campus Initiative Fund is a one-time endeavor, and will likely not be repeated in future years.
“This isn’t something that people should rely upon,” Firke said. “It’s very much a product of an unusually large surplus. It was a fluke that the surplus developed to this size, and we think it’s probably the best way to give students the most value for the Student Activities Fee, but it definitely isn’t going to set a precedent.”
Spahn, however, expressed concern about the size of the Student Activities Fee.
“I think it’s time to look at adjusting the Student Activities Fee because it’s clearly too high, and since the SBC is unable to spend all of it, they should cut back on that funding and put money back in students’ pockets,” he said.
Firke and Huynh said there are no plans to lower the fee at this point.
“You really cannot rely upon a surplus,” Huynh said. “You don’t know what the surplus will be from year to year, especially because student group needs change from year to year.”
Instead, the SBC plans to place more effort into reviewing its budgets on a regular basis.
“The goal, of course, is more consistent recalculations of our weekly budgets,” Huynh said. “I think it’s safe to say that I probably look at my spreadsheets and numbers more constantly than some other SBC chairs in the past, and it really is my goal to put the money out there to benefit the students within reason.”
Firke agreed that long-term changes should not be made at this time.
“The key is that if a surplus happens, a surplus happens,” he said. “It’s irresponsible to spend SBC budget into nothingness just because we don’t want to end up with a surplus. Student groups are getting the funding they need and doing great things on campus, and we will go with the flow.”