CAT’s out of the bag

Graduate student intervention in SG budget allocation may prevent lower-income students from participating in academic teams

By Cortney McInerney

This past Monday, May 11, Student Government (SG) passed a motion to cut funding to the Coalition of Academic Teams (CAT) by $20,000 for the upcoming year, a 9.1 percent reduction. CAT is a standing committee comprising the leaders of UChicago’s competitive academic teams: College Bowl, Debate Society, Mock Trial, Model UN, and the Chess Team. The coalition exists as an intermediary allocative body: SG awards CAT a block grant every year, which the five teams subsequently redistribute among themselves.

What is interesting about this allocative body is SG’s lack of oversight. Once the block grant has been approved, the organizations under CAT are solely responsible for the use and distribution of funds.

Unfortunately, this makes them an easy target for budget cuts.

CAT was initially primed to receive an $8,000 increase from last year, so the proposal to slash the budget by $20,000 came as a surprise. In the meeting minutes, SG President Tyler Kissinger seemed uncomfortable with the proposal, describing the cut to CAT’s funding as unprecedented and suggesting that SG simply withhold the previously proposed increase instead. Other members of the assembly shared this sentiment and expressed discomfort about the fact that no CAT representatives were present.

One major justification for the cut presented by proponents was CAT’s allegedly lackluster fundraising efforts. Class of 2015 College Council Representative Kay Li is on record stating that the “responsibility to fundraise is much lower in CAT,” with his only supporting evidence, according to the minutes, being that a “CAT rep last year seems to have said that their fundraising is a fraction of overall costs.” Other members pitched in, stating that sports clubs raise $35,000 and CAT would do well to follow their example. Indeed, these accusations are woefully misinformed: It is estimated that CAT raised a total of $75,000 in the past year. Despite this, the idea that CAT was an inadequate fundraiser—a freeloader, if you will—went uncontested by members of the assembly.

Why was CAT the committee that was targeted? And why did CAT lose $20,000 when it had been scheduled for an increase in funds?

SG has long been plagued by funding inequities between graduate and undergraduate students. Graduates are effectively subsidizing undergraduate life, receiving only 6.7 percent of the budget annually despite representing 62 percent of the University. In recent years, graduate students’ presence and participation in SG Assemblies has increased, bringing more attention to the funding imbalance. This was reflected in last Monday’s Assembly meeting. Graduate Council (GC) Chair Anthony Martinez called attention to the fact that “traditionally, graduate students don’t come to this meeting,” saying that he was glad to see how many were present.

After these opening comments, the point was made that, because of the addition of $78,000 to SG’s budget for the 2015–16 school year, “almost every [proposed] budget item [was] increasing.” Nearly the very next comment was a proposal to cut CAT’s funding. The funds from CAT were to be moved—unsurprisingly—to GC.

CAT represents one of the largest line items on the SG budget, along with the GC, the SG Finance Committee (SGFC)—which manages finances for the majority of RSOs—and the Programs Coordinating Council (PCC), which oversees the finances of the University’s major programming organizations: the Council on University Programming (COUP), Doc Films, Fire Escape Films, the Major Activities Board (MAB), University Theater (UT), and WHPK Radio. PCC represents groups with a lot of clout on campus. Cutting its funding would result in a year’s worth of complaints by RSO leaders to SG; cutting money from GC would further alienate the already displeased graduate students. In choosing between facing down the political wrath of PCC, the unavoidable complications of cutting SGFC’s funds, or siphoning off even more money from GC and further angering graduate students, cutting funds from CAT was the best solution…if cutting funds were even necessary, that is.

SG’s overall budget for the coming year grew by $78,000 for the upcoming year. Distributing that new money to grad students would have easily solved the problem, but every line item on the budget, both grad and undergrad, was scheduled for an increase.

The issue of inadequate funding for graduate students was, and still is, a very real, very deserving problem, but Monday’s Assembly addressed it in an equally problematic way. SG had a surplus that could have been awarded to much-deserving grads. But they had planned for across-the-board increases, to split that money between all the groups. Instead of putting that dream aside in favor of more grad student funding, they took the easy way out, targeting groups like CAT and the Uncommon Fund (UF) who pose less of a political threat—CAT lacks the connections and influence of groups like PCC, and UF lacks any concrete internal organization, due to its existence as primarily a grant fund—so as to continue with most of their scheduled line item increases.

But why does any of this matter? Who cares if CAT gets caught in the crossfire of the grad-undergrad debate?

It matters because CAT’s loss of $20,000 is ultimately going to hurt low-income students, the group of people that money was supporting by providing a no-barriers policy to participation in CAT teams.

The groups represented by CAT are academic teams and, as such, travel regularly. Those expenses can add up, especially when they are expected to cover around 400 people.

“The teams that comprise CAT have been able to freely travel to tournaments, events and conferences, competing at the highest level. Even better, we have been able to keep costs low enough so as to present a minimal barrier to entry. We have this no-barriers policy because we firmly believe that having no barriers to entry is the only way to ensure that our team is not only the best it can be, but fair,” said ChoMUN Vice President Greg Adams, a member of CAT’s Model UN.

“The arbitrary cuts to CAT’s funding make maintaining this policy impossible. The cuts will force teams to cut as much as they can from their expenditures and pass along the rest of the $20,000 budget cut to their members,” Adams continued. And those passed-along expenditures could prove too much for low-income students, who may suddenly find their favorite RSOs (and all the friends and happiness within) hidden behind a wall of newly imposed financial obligations.

This is why CAT fundraises so vigorously, and why they had received funding increases for the past five years—because they want to give everyone an equal chance at participating. They want students who love Model UN or College Bowl or Mock Trial, students who participated in chess or debate in high school and wanted to do the same in college, to have a chance to continue loving these clubs and being able to participate regardless of costs. The cut made to CAT’s funding may bar these students from participating, and for what? Because the budget had been poorly planned? Because the needs and wants of grad students have traditionally gone unacknowledged and members of SG didn’t want to step on bigger committees’ toes by denying them a few prematurely promised $1,000 increases?

Of course, SG is not the only body to blame. If the administration would allow SG more flexibility in finances and distribute more money from the Student Life Fee, these problems would never have been encountered. Kissinger is currently on the right track, demanding that action from the administration. However, SG definitely could have handled Monday’s situation better.

Ultimately, this change will not matter for many of the students on this campus. But for a good many other students who don’t deserve to have their financial situation be a barrier to their happiness at this University, it will.

Cortney McInerey is a first-year in the College majoring in English.