Uncommon Fund board defends neutrality

Despite board member involvement in project proposals, Uncommmon Fund board defends the fairness of its selection process.

By Christina Pillsbury

Ties between Uncommon Fund board members and groups applying for funding have led some to question the board's ability to impartially judge proposals. While acknowledging that some board members have personal investments in projects being evaluated, the board maintains that last week’s vote to determine finalists, as well as the upcoming final decisions, are not swayed by outside involvements.

Two members of the board admitted to being involved in projects enough to abstain from voting on those projects. First-years Angela Wang and Forrest Scofield abstained from projects they felt invested in: Wang does marketing for the Road to Innovative Social Entrepreneurial-Pakistan (RISE-Pakistan) project, and Scofield has worked with the Sustainable Water for UChicago project.

Board members were expressly told not to apply for funding or be “involved in projects” applying for funding, according to third-year Uncommon Fund Board chair David Chen, who also serves as the vice president of Student Government (SG). “We didn’t want a conflict of interest. They can be part of an RSO that starts a project, but they can’t be the leader of the project,” Chen said.

According to Uncommon Fund board members—two SG members and six non-SG members—last week’s February 23 vote operated on the honor system with regard to potential conflicts of interest. If a member had a personal investment, he or she abstained from voting on the project. But if there wasn’t an initial unanimous decision, the members engaged in discussion prior to the second vote, which determined whether the group made it to the next round. Board members who abstained from voting were allowed to participate in the discussion.

“I’m working very closely with the Bottled Water [Sustainable Water for UChicago] group, I can talk on their behalf, but I can’t vote,” said Scofield, who is also a College Council (CC) representative. “We leave it up to the board members. If they feel like they can’t be unbiased with a project, then they don’t vote.”

One student who is involved with SG and applying for Uncommon Fund money said he saw potential for bias in the Fund's evaluation of proposals. The student, who preferred to remain anonymous due to a potential conflict of interest with his role in SG, said he wanted to join the board, but was advised not to because he is part of a team applying for the fund. He was then surprised to learn that Scofield was on the board.

Board members were chosen by Chen and Stacey Ergang, assistant director of ORCSA for student development and the board’s advisor. The two looked for applicants from diverse backgrounds including artists, students involved in Greek life, athletes, entrepreneurs, and one member of the circus.

The student said that the rules about board members’ role on Joinstart, the Fund's online application platform, are unclear and present a conflict of interest. The social media website uses a Facebook-style platform in which users can “follow” or “join” various projects. Board members are allowed to follow projects but not to join them.

“Part of the problem is that members are allowed to follow teams, and it’s really hard to understand on what level are they remaining partial,” he said. “There are [board members] affiliated with teams before Joinstart started, so the fact that board members can’t join projects is completely irrelevant.”

The student also said that the voting process could lead to biases. “I think that’s problematic: Even if you’re not going to vote on a project you’re involved with, you’re still involved in allocating money to each project,” he said. “So even if I don’t get a vote on my project, I could give less to other projects."

Earlier this quarter, Scofield served as the liaison between Students Against Bottled Water (SABW), a subset of the Green Campus Initiative RSO, and wrote a resolution that aligned SG with SABW’s mission. He said that as the SABW’s liaison, he was able to act as an advocate during the voting process.

“I have information about the project that other members don’t,” Scofield said. “So Ithink it will help them make an informed decision.”

But Chen said Scofield’s involvement is no different than any other opinion. “He has an opinion that he doesn’t want bottled water on campus, I have the opinion that we should have oscillation [another project] on campus,” Chen said. “But that’s different than actually being part of the project.”

While the bottled water project went through to the next round, Wang’s project, RISE-Pakistan, did not.

Chen said in the end, he hadn’t seen any partiality during the voting process. “As the chair, I think I have done my job to keep the board impartial,” he said. “In Forrest’s specific case, I didn’t notice that Forrest was being partial. The procedure itself is impartial.”