April 4, 2003

A veil of secrecy over the SGFC

Each quarter, undergraduates and graduate students at the University pay a student activities fee. In total, $190,000 is collected per year for student activities. This money pays for RSO budgets, activities and special events; its distribution is in the hands of the Student Government Finance Committee (SGFC). The students who sit on this committee are elected members of the College Council and Graduate Councils.

Until this year, the SGFC kept very accurate records of who came before the committee, what they requested, and how much money they were awarded. These records were then posted on the SGFC Web site. Starting in September 2002 and continuing through today, those records have not been posted on the Internet. This dangerous precedent should be reversed.

Posting Finance Committee decisions on the Internet gives the student body a clear and full account of every student dollar spent, including what club it is going to, and for what purpose. By not posting the decisions for 2002-2003 on the Internet, the SGFC has allowed a veil of secrecy to descend around its activities. This is harmful not only to the public perception of the SGFC-the public always distrusts any group whose actions are kept secret-but also to the student body and the clubs the SGFC serves. The finance decisions as they were posted in previous years were detailed accounts of why funding was either awarded or not awarded. The funding guidelines that are on the SGFC Web site right now simply demonstrate the proper format in which funding requests should be submitted; there is only general information regarding what kind of activities are funded, not the specific examples that are illustrated in the past logs of SGFC meetings.

Secrecy also feeds the rumor mill with tales of impropriety. Though we can hope that nothing improper is going on behind the closed doors of the SGFC, the fact that their actions are kept in a state of de facto secrecy from the college population does nothing to allay whatever fears may exist. Clubs that are denied funding are given an explanation at the time of denial in the meeting, but when re-applying for funding have very few resources they can use to determine the best way to get money.

Secrecy only fuels speculation of cronyism and preferential treatment that is most likely unfounded. Many members of the SGFC are also members of other RSOs that routinely come before the SGFC and ask for money, thus creating an inherent conflict of interest. Though one would hope that this does not cause any problems, the fact that there is not a full public accounting of the SGFC's actions available to the public on the Student Government Web site provides no answer to the questions that arise from this conflict.

Even more importantly, by keeping SGFC decisions from the public, the mechanism for public oversight has been impaired. Students have no way of seeing whether money is being spent appropriately, ethically, or responsibly, even though these things are most likely happening. But we do not know for sure, and posting SGFC decisions on the Internet would curtail any speculation. Furthermore, there are no concrete ethics rules governing the SGFC, which means that if members of the committee were to commit some offense, say to receive a favor from a club that they voted in favor of granting funds to, the authority to which they are responsible is not clear, punishments even less so.

The SGFC should resume their policy of posting the records of every SGFC meeting and decision with full details on their website. It will be a great help to RSOs on campus, it will allay fears of impropriety, and will restore the tradition of transparency and honesty in Student Government.