WSA Discusses Oversight Reform: Students Allege 2010-2011 Misuse of Projects Budget, SBC Funds
A recent investigation into the past actions of members of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) has illuminated problems of oversight and transparency that are facilitated by unrestrictive language in the WSA Constitutional By-laws. These actions, which have been disclosed by a number of current and former WSA members, pertain to the WSA leadership’s dealings with funds from the Student Activities Fee—the $270 attachment to the University’s comprehensive fee supporting student groups, activities, and events. Former and current WSA members have alleged that, under the 2010-2011 administration, then WSA President Micah Feiring ’11 and Treasurer and SBC Chair Andrew Huynh ’11 regularly paid for meals and other personal expenditures with finances from the Projects Budget, a fund overseen by the WSA President. Other Assembly members claimed that SBC funds may have been allocated with an unfair bias toward WSA members. Evidence suggests that the practices of those in the 2010-2011 WSA administration were consistent with traditions established in years prior.
Under the By-laws in place at the time, these actions were not explicitly prohibited. However, students expressed discomfort with these practices and the usage of the Student Activities Fee for the benefit of a select group of WSA members. These issues highlight a general lack of clarity and transparency in the Assembly’s dealings, especially among those members on the Executive Committee (EC), which is comprised of the WSA President, Vice President, Treasurer (and SBC Chair), Coordinator, and the chair of each standing committee.
During the current WSA administration, led by President Zachary Malter ’13 and Vice President Meherazade Sumariwalla ’12, efforts have been made to make the WSA a more accountable, transparent, and responsible steward of student funds. The annual Constitutional Review will provide an opportunity to institutionalize changes that will prevent conduct similar to that of years past.
Issues have been raised about the use of student funds by members of the WSA, particularly Projects Budget funds, which may be spent according to the discretion of the WSA president. According to the 2010 WSA By-laws, the “Projects Budget funds of all the WSA’s special projects and initiatives; this budget is comprised of the remainder of the WSA Office Budget after all other budgets are set. All expenditures from the Projects Budget must be approved by the President.” The language of this section of the By-laws was altered in 2011 to also require the Treasurer to approve all expenditures from the Projects Budget, but it is not mandated that the President make other WSA members aware of how these funds are being used. Though accessible to the Finance and Administration Office, these Projects Budget records are currently confidential for students.
“I think the opacity of the Projects fund is a problem because it sends the message to whoever’s president or SBC Chair at the time that they can get away with anything, and no one will call them out on it,” Malter said.
There have been multiple reports that SBC dinners were often paid for using the Projects Budget in years past. Several students spoke about specific examples of this occurring, including former SBC member and current Community Outreach Committee Chair Grace Zimmerman ’13, SBC member during the fall of 2010 Rachel Warren ’14, current Chair and then-member of the SBC Cameron Couch ’13, and former Concert Committee Chair Donovan Arthen ’11. These reports refer to the 2010-2011 academic year, during which Huynh served as SBC Chair and Feiring acted as WSA president.
“It definitely did [happen]. When the SBC would run late, or sometimes when it didn’t, Andrew [Huynh] would order dinner, and he would usually put it on his credit card,” Zimmerman said. “He put it on his credit card or sometimes Micah’s credit card... I assume they got reimbursed by the school.”
Warren confirmed that both Feiring and Huynh were present at the majority of these meals.
“Micah ate with us every single time,” Warren said. “And he would show up at all SBC meetings, almost, and pressure Andrew [Huynh], even if Andrew wasn’t going to do it that week.”
According to Zimmerman, these Projects Budget-funded dinners occurred with a degree of regularity—not after every weekly meeting, but more often than once a month. She also noted that the frequency of the sponsored dinners decreased over the course of the year.
Warren expressed discomfort with the practice of using the Projects Budget to pay for WSA meals.
“For me it was like, ‘Okay, I’m there for a five hour meeting and we order dinner at the end,’” Warren said. “It’s wrong, but I was a freshman and didn’t feel like I could stand up.”
She specifically cited one dinner that gave her pause:
“The time when I was really uncomfortable [was] at the end of the semester,” Warren said. “That time, people ordered way more food than they needed to eat and there was something about the logistics of it that were complicated, and I kind of felt like it was getting in the way of having the meeting—the fact that we were placing this order—and that made me really uncomfortable.”
Couch noted that many members were uncertain about the policies that regulated the Projects Budget and together realized that the majority of them felt uncomfortable about the sponsored dinners.
“There were a few people who we were kind of like, after some dinners, ‘This seems weird, huh?’ but it was kind of like one of those things where you know that it smells wrong, but you don’t know whether you’re supposed to pay attention or make it stop,” Couch said. “Eventually we just all seemed to decide that it was better to stop.”
Zimmerman said that some Assembly members were confused about which forms of expenditures were appropriate.
“My perception is that everyone kind of knew what was going on, to be honest, but that the process was so convoluted that everyone kind of assumed it was okay,” Zimmerman said. “For example, I was an incomer to the WSA, along with like three or four other kids on the committee… We didn’t really know what was happening, to be honest, we had no understanding of the WSA finances, were just doing what we were told, and Andrew [Huynh] told us it was okay and that they’d been doing it for years.”
Arthen cited this notion of tradition as an important factor in decisions about Projects Budget usage. He spoke specifically of one Concert Committee meeting for which he, in his position as Chair, purchased brunch for the committee and was reimbursed through the Projects Budget.
“The thing that made me feel like it was okay for that to happen was that I knew that the SBC had been having food through a budget at various meetings at various times,” Arthen said. “And it wasn’t just that year; it had been since I was a freshman. It wasn’t like Andrew [Huynh] or anybody else last year was the first one to do that with any sort of frequency. I definitely want to say that Andrew was a very good person to hold that job, and I think that he was trying to provide a good working environment that was also a social one while trying to maintain responsible fiscal plans.”
Despite the historical consistency of these actions, several SBC members were still uncomfortable with the expenditures that they observed. Despite no open acknowledgement or official restrictions, by the end of the year, instances of SBC meals paid for by the Project Budget had decreased.
“We didn’t have a meeting or anything to discuss it,” Couch said. “We didn’t cast any formal language condemning the expenditures or the ideas behind them because technically they’re not against the rules. It wasn’t that they were by definition wrong, they just felt wrong.”
Emails from then-SBC Chair Huynh to the SBC and other WSA members reflect this sentiment: that the use of the Projects Budget to pay for the dinners, though not contradictory to the WSA By-laws, was not a universally condoned practice.
In an email to the SBC listserv from November 4, 2010, Huynh wrote, “At this point in the semester, I’d love for all of us to meet and commiserate and reflect on our time together. Because we have WSA on Sunday at 7 pm, I think that we should all meet and have a dinner together (a retreat, if you will) to chat and have a good time. I suggest that we meet at 5:45 and choose a restaurant downtown. By the way, just so that we can enjoy the pleasure later, we should be prepared to foot the cost of our dinner ourselves this time.”
In another email to the SBC listserv and Donovan Arthen on November 22, 2010, sent two weeks after the above email, Huynh wrote, “We have a short list of requests today and a big Thanksgiving belly. Bring some cash so we can all celebrate a T-giving dinner together tonight (we’ve milked enough for a while, so we should prob pitch in for this one).”
A third email, sent by Huynh on Feb. 26, 2011 to the SBC listserv, Arthen, Malter, and Feiring, states, “Mikado at 7:30 is the plan. Sorry to those who cannot make it :(. We have one of these family rooms set aside for us. See you guys soon!”
Arthen confirmed that the outing to Mikado, a sushi restaurant on Main Street in Middletown, occurred, but that it was unclear how the meal was paid for.
“I know that the dinner at Mikado that he mentioned in the email, I didn’t pay for, except for the couple of drinks that I had,” he said. “I don’t know who paid for it, I don’t know how it was paid for; I know that I didn’t pay for it.”
SBC dinners were not the only meals for WSA members allegedly funded by the Projects Budget. Former Executive Committee member and Student Affairs Committee Chair Joseph O’Donnell ’13 spoke about one particular dinner at Mikado attended by the Executive Committee prior to their annual retreat, and suggested that it may have been funded with WSA money.
“We would go to Mikado and get sushi boats and things like that,” O’Donnell said. “[The dinners] usually only happened once or twice, I only remember it happening once during the fall. I would guess it was about a 400 or 500 dollar bill. There were seven people, the Executive Committee.”
O’Donnell also provided The Argus with an email from then-president Feiring from Aug. 18, 2010, and confirmed that the meal to which the email refers is the previously mentioned pre-retreat dinner at Mikado.
In that email, Feiring wrote to the Executive Committee listserv, “The retreat is a little less than a week away! I hope that everyone has a great summer and is excited to begin the year. We will be having dinner as an EC on the evening of the 23rd and then leaving in the late morning for Interlaken [Inn]. We will be returning late on the 25th.”
The Argus asked Malter, as a member of the Executive Committee during the 2010-2011 school year, if he remembered this dinner and could speak to its financing. Malter initially claimed that he did not recall the specific meal at Mikado, but upon The Argus’ mention of the above email from Feiring, Malter acknowledged that such a dinner may have occurred, though he remained uncertain about how it was paid for. He did express disapproval of student funds being used to pay for WSA members’ meals.
“I don’t think the WSA should be covering social dinners for WSA members,” Malter said.
When asked if he believed that the Projects Budget had been used in this manner, he cited The Argus’ evidence of sponsored SBC dinners. On the topic of whether similar meals were purchased for the Executive Committee using WSA funds, Malter acknowledged the possibility.
“I think it may have happened; I don’t think it should happen,” he said. “I will say that this year the EC has gone to Mikado, and we have spent our own money this year, so that’s been, I guess, a shift from last year.”
Former WSA Vice-President during the 2010-2011 school year Ben Firke ’12 confirmed that Executive Committee dinners did occur, but said he did not remember how the meals were funded.
“I think it was maybe once or twice in my three years on the WSA that the Executive Committee would go out to dinner but I didn’t really keep an eye on the tab,” Firke said. “I do remember that I paid for all my own drinks and stuff like that…The Executive Committee does do a meal once a semester, going back beyond my tenure, going back beyond the previous Executive Committee’s tenure.”
Andrew Trexler '14, now Chair of the Student Affairs Committee, expressed concerns about an evasion of institutional checks on WSA spending, but refrained from naming any specific individuals.
“So the problem that we had last year—and I shouldn’t say ‘we’ because I wasn’t in the position to know about it last year—was that the person giving out the money was the same person checking the books on the other end,” Trexler said. “So that person had the capability to sort of take money out of the middle if they wanted to, which, as far as I understand it now, did occur on more than one occasion… I personally attribute that to the personal morals and the position of those responsible.”
Warren offered an explanation of how receipts for Executive Committee dinners and SBC dinners may have been processed in the past, circumventing systems of oversight exercised by the WSA office. She suggested that Huynh utilized his unique position as both SBC Chair and an employee in the WSA office to submit and verify receipts.
“He had a paid position in the WSA office, which is completely unrelated to being on student government; it just happened to be his job,” Warren said. “So because Andrew was on that end, as well as the SBC end, he had figured out a system where he could get around [office worker examination of receipts].”
Though WSA office workers handle receipts and verify account balances, there is at least some administrative oversight by the WSA Office Coordinator. The exact process by which receipts are reimbursed from the Projects Budget remains unclear to many of those interviewed, and will likely be the subject of further investigation by The Argus. In response to an email from The Argus, which outlined these allegations and others, Huynh emphasized that his actions were permissible according to the rules and standards in place.
“The financial decisions that were made last year were in accordance with the standards and precedent set before us. All expenses were in compliance with long-standing WSA By-laws and University regulations and were approved by University administrators,” wrote Huynh.
The Argus also contacted Feiring, who declined to comment.
The Student Budget Committee (SBC), comprised of seven students, is in charge of allocating funds to student groups for projects and events. Registered student groups that wish to receive SBC money must submit a funding request and attend the committee’s weekly meetings to explain why the funds are necessary. There are some limitations on what may be funded by the WSA; for instance, the SBC may not distribute funds for food or drinks, closed program house events, or items or events which violate University policy, among others. Beyond these institutionalized restrictions, decisions about allocations are up to the discretion of those on the SBC.
Warren spoke about her experiences serving on the SBC, particularly noting a potential for bias in favor of WSA members who are applying for funding. She claimed that preexisting relationships between SBC members and other members of the assembly result in a lack of inquiry into these proposals compared to how a non WSA-affiliated group may be treated.
“When WSA members would come before the SBC with proposals, particularly when it was Micah, we were kind of under a lot of pressure to say yes to [the proposals] even if they weren’t necessarily of the quality that we would like,” Warren said. “When you’re in that close proximity with somebody and they have sort of a position of power over you, and they say, ‘We want to do fan-vans,’ it’s really hard to say no, or [to give] only half that much money. It’s much easier to do that with student groups.”
Malter did not consider this alleged preferential treatment to be a genuine threat to the integrity of the SBC; rather, he believes that a connection to the WSA incites greater scrutiny from committee members. He cited a number of projects that he has proposed this year on behalf of the WSA, in many cases in conjunction with other WSA members, that have been rejected.
“I think the SBC is extra careful not to privilege people that they know or that they might have connections to,” Malter said. “So if anything, I think there’s an added layer of scrutiny to WSA things this year—I can’t speak to the past though, and there may have been, in the past, an easier standard for the WSA. But this year, if anything there’s been a higher standard and there have been numerous proposals for WSA members that have been rejected or partially funded.”
Zimmerman highlighted last spring’s Matisyahu and Chitty Bang concert as one past case in which a proposal by a WSA member for SBC funding was not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny as would be applied to requests by other groups.
“If anything, I would position [the Matisyahu concert] as the biggest example of corruption,” Zimmerman said. “The Matisyahu concert was pretty much exclusively planned by Donovan [Arthen ’11], who was the Concert Committee chair last year… Because he knew the system as well as he did, [he] was able to push forward this idea which in reality was a fun idea but probably not logistically sound…And money for that came from the SBC. In my opinion I see that as corrupt, because that’s an example of one executive member putting forward an agenda and convincing people to vote for it when in reality it should be scrutinized like any other concert, and it definitely wasn’t. I think we probably voted on it, but I think it was already understood that we were just going to give money to that.”
Arthen acknowledged that his SBC proposal for the Matisyahu concert may have been held to looser standards than other proposals, and attributed this advantage to his relationships with members of certain WSA committees.
“I think that [the Matisyahu concert proposal] might not have gotten as much scrutiny as another proposal might have, but I don’t think that was because I was on the WSA,” Arthen said. “I think that was because I’d been planning concerts since I was a freshman, and I had been working with the SBC since I was a freshman…I feel like, as opposed to it being because I was a WSA member, it was because I had a very good working relationship with the various people who were working in the financial areas of the WSA. And maybe I did have more access to them because I was also working in that regard.”
Concerns about the distribution of student funds extend beyond the risk of personal connections influencing the allocation of SBC money to benefit those who are familiar with the WSA. There has been at least one report, of an occurrence during the 2010-2011 academic year, in which a high-ranking member of the WSA offered SBC funds to a student for personal use.
“I had requested funding at some point to take a bunch of people down to the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ in D.C. and we didn’t use all of the funding that we got,” said Trexler, who at the time was both a member of the WSA and the financial contact for a student group. “Fewer people went than we anticipated so we had a little more left over. As I was getting everybody reimbursed, I was told that, ‘You know, if you need 20 dollars or something just put it in there and don’t tell me.’”
Trexler made clear to that he did not accept this money. He chose not to divulge the identity of the WSA member who made the offer, but acknowledged that the individual was already a subject of The Argus’ investigations.
The Current Administration
Despite the events of previous semesters, those who The Argus interviewed on the subject unanimously claimed that this year’s Executive Committee had taken great strides to reverse what was seen as a largely insular culture in the past.
“Transparency was not a priority,” said Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee Mari Jarris ’14. “Disseminating information among the WSA wasn’t even a priority, as long as the right decisions in [some members of the Executive Committee’s] minds were made.”
These questions of transparency have since defined the changes set in motion by the new administration. Both Malter and Alizadeh sat on the EC in the 2010-2011 academic year, when many of the questionable events allegedly took place. However, as current EC and WSA members attest to, reassessing the values and priorities of the assembly became a central focus of the new administration. Weber asserted that the issues of 2010-2011, which were known to at least some of the Assembly at the time, drove much of this reassessment. However, details on the specific behavior of the previous administration still remained unclear in the EC’s early discussions.
“The main reason I heard about [these allegations] was because, as an EC, when we first got elected, we all decided that that was not an approach that we wanted to take and that our policy was going to be strictly away from that,” Weber said. “I was like, ‘Well, what are we going away from?’ I heard about these things but no one really spoke to me in detail.”
To this extent, the current WSA sought to make questions of values a priority and to reassess the Assembly’s approach to handling the finances entrusted to it.
“I think there’s a conscious effort being made this year, definitely as far as SBC spending and Projects Budget spending,” said Jarris, who, like Weber, could not comment on any direct changes given her status as a first-time member of the EC.
However, policy has largely changed in response to past actions. In the 2011 revision of the By-laws, the WSA required that under Section 2.06, Subsection v, expenditures from the Projects Budget be authorized not only by the WSA President, but also the Treasurer. This change in policy reflects a broader shift away from the previous uses of the Projects Budget, something Malter has made a point of throughout his tenure as President.
“I think the key issue is that that information should be transparent,” Malter said. “I think this year the leadership has been very responsible, and we’ve spent [Projects Budget] money on WSA projects that enhance the student experience in a broad way, things like Bandfire.”
Malter said that he hopes, at some point, to phase out the Projects Budget entirely.
“I think the Projects Budget should be operating similarly [to the SBC] and that’s been my stance the whole year,” he said. “I wanted to make the Projects Budget as small as possible and I think there will perhaps be a day when the Projects Budget could be completely phased out, because what makes something not fit for the SBC?”
Jarris echoed this sentiment.
“There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the WSA to have its own special fund that can be used for any whim instead of going through the SBC like any other student group has to,” she said.
This outlook has since motivated a new approach to the use of Projects Budget funds in the 2011-2012 administration.
“There was actually a policy change starting this year,” Weber said. “It isn’t written anywhere, but we basically decided at the beginning of the year that the WSA should be treated as a student group and not use Projects Budget funds and [that it] should have to go through the SBC if they have particular projects.”
The Projects Budget has since seen a marked decline in spending on personal WSA expenses as compared to other years.
“By comparison, last year, [the WSA administration] spent over double of what we spent this year [of Projects Budget funds],” Couch said. “That’s something I can say for certain, because I have the information readily in front of me.”
Currently, the Projects Budget is being used to alleviate issues surrounding the dwindling SBC finances in an effort to help support student groups throughout the end of the semester.
“Currently, the Projects Budget is being used toward the SBC,” Zimmerman said. “The SBC doesn’t have any money, so Zach was like, ‘I haven’t used any of this, so you guys should go for it.’”
However, despite this movement toward transparency, some still remain unsure as to why students like Malter and Alizadeh, who were likely aware of the actions that made many students markedly uncomfortable, remained silent.
“I want to emphasize that things have definitely changed since last year,” Weber said. “But there still were people on the WSA last year who knew what was going on and didn’t really say anything for whatever reason. But I think [the WSA] has completely changed and, moving forward, I hope that it never returns to that way because that’s not an appropriate way to use student money.”
Malter acknowledged that a culture of exclusivity and reticence created a precedent for the relative silence surrounding the actions of the 2010-2011 administration. For Malter, reversing what he considered to be an atmosphere of discomfort within the Assembly has been a central part of changing the principles under which the WSA functions, and is central to the General Assembly’s aspirations to internal oversight and external transparency.
“I have always said, ‘If you’re uncomfortable at all, come talk to me, come talk to somebody else you feel comfortable with, because I don’t want the assembly to feel not safe,’” Malter said. “I think where that ties into this issue is, maybe in the past, people didn’t feel comfortable saying ‘Whoa, why are you spending your money this way?’ Now, I think there’s a culture where people are willing to raise their hand and say ‘I disagree,’ and I think that kind of self-correcting, self-critical, introspective stance is really essential. I think there are absolutely ways to institutionalize, constitutionalize, codify that, and I’ve tried to work toward that.”
Several WSA members have called for more responsible management of the Projects Budget, citing the limited oversight of the Budget as a source of concern.
“I think the Projects Budget needs to be transparent,” Malter said. “I don’t think it should just be the President’s discretionary fund.”
According to former WSA Coordinator Nandita Vijayaraghavan ’13, the fact that only select members of the Executive Committee manage the Projects Budget could lead to unmonitored excesses. Under the current By-laws, the President must only consult the Treasurer before money is spent from the Projects Budget.
“The Projects Budget is under the discretion of very few individuals, so it is extremely hard to keep a check on its spending habits,” Vijayaraghavan said.
Jarris commented on the differences between the current administration and previous years.
“I know that even this year, the EC will go out to dinner, but we’ll pay for it. It’s disconcerting that [the use of the Projects Budget for dinners] could even happen, because it could,” Jarris said. “I think that that is absolutely something that needs to be addressed now. It’s a huge issue [that] is just totally dependent on leadership, and that there’s no formal check upon that.”
Alizadeh also noted the difficulty of regulating actions solely through institutional checks, and expressed his belief that the records for the Projects Budget should be made public.
“In terms of oversight, it’s a very small group of people that [has] direct control over that fund,” Alizadeh said. “It would be important to have the spending of that fund publicized, as long as there aren’t problems with that.”
Malter also wants to make records of Projects Budget expenditures publicly accessible, and referenced Couch’s desire to upload Projects Budget records onto the WSA website.
“Cameron thought it would be a good idea to put on our website what we funded this year, so that’s something we’re definitely interested in doing,” Malter said. “I’d love to see last year’s, too, because I don’t know—I think probably there was some excess spent on meals by certain people in power, but I don’t know the specifics of it.”
Additionally, Malter described his efforts to institute explicit language within the By-laws that would increase the accountability of those with access to the Projects Budget.
“Last year, I advocated for [Projects Budget funding] to be a group decision among several WSA members,” he said. “Unfortunately, for some odd reason it didn’t pass, but I’m certain that now it will, given the changing sentiments.”
Couch agreed that the current WSA body would be receptive to establishing increased oversight of the Projects Budget.
“I can’t imagine why the Constitutional Review folks would be against [more stringent regulation],” Couch said. “I find it hard to imagine. This is one of the better years to do it.”
More generally, Couch believes that greater accountability among WSA representatives can be established through constitutional reform. In Couch’s view, crafting explicit constitutional language forbidding questionable practices will ensure the accountability of future WSA members.
“The issue with the Projects fund is really simple,” Couch said. “You just write a line or two and then it’s literally against the rules, you can’t do it. And as long as it’s not written there, then I guess people are under the impression that even if it’s ethically ambiguous, someone will assume that they can do it.”
Malter also believes in the power of strong legislation to ensure institutional accountability.
“I think any large-scale use of students’ funds for…WSA members’ leisurely activities is completely misguided and should be avoided, and there should be rules in place to prevent it,” Malter said. “I think the number-one policy to combat that is transparency. We can’t assume that just because good people are in power now that it will always be that way, and that money will always be spent to service students.”
Information Technology Coordinator Syed Ali ’13 believes that a failure of accountability can sometimes arise from WSA members’ presumption of good intentions.
“We have to think about the fact that just because somebody hasn’t done it ever doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen, or just because we don’t know [that it happened], that [doesn’t mean that] it hasn’t happened,” Ali said. “A lot of the time, it just does come down to people thinking that no one would do these things. I’m completely for making things more stringent, and I think anyone else would be. But I think it’s a question of predicting if it would ever happen in the first place.”
Ali also felt that legislation might not always be enough to prevent abuses.
“It always comes down to individuals to uphold certain standards,” Ali said. “You can try to institutionally enforce them but it’s always, at the end of the day, up to individuals.”
Alizadeh also voiced concerns about the potential ineffectuality of constitutional reform.
“My major hesitation with putting very refined language into the By-laws or Constitution is that it does not give future Coordinators or future members a flexibility when it comes to other issues,” he said. “We keep it intentionally non-specific so it gives the Coordinator a little bit of flexibility…and that’s where the Coordinator as a member of the WSA should be held accountable. I don’t think, though, that the entire WSA should be held accountable in that way. The individual member should be held accountable, not the position or the assembly.”
In the end, Couch feels strongly that participation in student government by the community at large can only help the WSA strive toward greater transparency and accountability in the future.
“Part of student government is that everyone is involved, and you’re supposed to keep us checked and make sure, if things are going wrong, that we put measures in place to make sure those things don’t go wrong again,” Couch said.