The $40,000 questions

The inane application to be on the Uncommon Fund’s committee is an unnecessary hurdle

By Tim Murphy

Like everyone else who checks his e-mail at the computers in Stuart Hall, I consider myself an avid reader of the Student Government (SG) home page. When fresh CORSO minutes are posted or airport shuttle services begin accepting reservations for winter break, I know about it. And so, when the announcement sprang up last week that the “Uncommon Fund” was back for a third year of fun I downloaded the PDF that explained how I could get involved. There was reason to be optimistic.

As far as train wrecks go, last year’s Uncommon Fund was a surprisingly bloodless affair. The winning proposals all sounded reasonable enough, clearly had impacts on student life, and all had something uncommon in common: They could only be funded through an open funding system. As loathsome as the name might be, the idea overcame the odds and lived up to its promise.

Last year was a far cry from the inaugural incarnation, the original “New Initiatives Fund.” The 2007 incarnation read like one of John McCain’s laundry lists of pork-barrel projects: With its $40,000, SG decided to invest $26,000 toward bringing firebrand pundit James Carville to speak on campus, $6,800 for a dog park on 62nd Street, $6,000 for a native plants garden, and $1,000 for a single, solitary wind turbine.

Carville bombed, but anyone who ever watched an episode of Crossfire probably could have told you that. The dog park, billed as the only such facility on Chicago’s South Side, could very well be the single greatest thing since the Hadron Particle Accelerator, but we’ll never know because it’s on 62nd Street. And while the native plants garden might, at least, be a nice place to take a date, the wind turbine is unlikely to make any dent in the University’s approach to alternative energy. All things considered, SG could have put the $40,000 to better use by “making it rain” at Jimmy’s or investing in the housing market.

Given its recent history, the stakes remain high for this year’s Uncommon Fund—which is why the application process is so disappointing. In keeping with its fun, quirky, and wholly uncommon name, the organizers of the Fund have decided that the best way to find students to allocate $40,000 is to ask them a series of borderline creative questions that have nothing to do with anything.

Not content to ask simply appropriate questions like “What would you do with $40,000 to improve student life?” (which they do ask) the Fund’s organizers go on to provide their own bite-sized version of the venerable Uncommon Application. And so our vetting process consists of questions like this:

4. The Regenstein Library is built over the old football field. How is this wonderful or horrible?

5. If you could dissolve Student Government? [sic] What solvent would you use and why?

6. What would the platonic form of “uncommon” look like?

You only need to answer one, and answers are mercifully limited to 400 words, but the damage is already done. We are all, as the T-shirts state, “uncommon,” by virtue of having sufficiently filled out the application to get into this school. To hone in on an ambiguous adjective when forming a committee to allocate student funds is careless to the point of negligence.

If the Uncommon Fund is to be a success, its proposals and its committee members must come from as diverse a field as possible, a goal severely hampered by the daunting obstacle of creating “a gargoyle which would represent everything that’s wonderful or horrible about the University”—question number three.