This year’s applicants to the Uncommon Fund and the board that decides which of them get a piece of the $40,000 pie might have more in common with each other than you think.
According to a report in today’s Maroon, a member of the Uncommon Fund board who has collaborated with Students Against Bottled Water (SABW) was present when the board considered and chose SABW’s proposal as one of 35 finalists to receive Uncommon Fund money. Though the board member in question abstained from voting on the proposal, which is entitled “Sustainable Water for UChicago,” he told the Maroon that he spoke on behalf of the proposal while the board debated it.
Representatives of the 146 projects initially considered for funding were not invited to speak before the board. Members of the board evaluated the proposals and chose finalists based solely on their applications.
The potential for board members affiliated with projects to bias the board’s decisions hardly requires elaboration. Although ideally none of the board members would have connections to any of the proposals, that might be impractical on a campus as small and tightly woven as ours. But as long as there is some overlap between the Fund’s board and its applicants, those board members with conflicts of interest should not be present while proposals connected to them are considered. Prohibiting them only from voting in such situations, as the board does currently, is not enough: Even participating in debate on their own proposals provides an unfair advantage over others, and their mere presence at the vote could bias the outcome.
Conflicts of interest would be worrisome in any Student Government (SG) body that controls funding, but they are particularly troubling on the Uncommon Fund board. The Uncommon Fund, after all, is intended to increase the accessibility of funding. Any group or person, whether associated with an RSO or not, is eligible to apply, and there are practically no limits on what kinds of projects can receive money. The Uncommon Fund is unique in openness to new ideas and initiatives, and even the appearance of conflicts of interest compromises that openness.
Going forward, the Uncommon Fund should make public the criteria used to select board members, as well as the rules governing debates and votes on proposals. Additionally, board members should declare their affiliations to any proposals or groups submitting proposals, and the board should be chosen so that such affiliations are minimized, if not avoided altogether. Members should not be present at all during debate on their personal projects, nor during consideration of similar projects that might seem to be in direct competition with their own. And the Fund could make the minutes of its deliberations available on the SG website, much like the SG Funding Committee does, in order to ensure complete transparency.
It’s heartening to know that while one proposal connected to a board member was chosen as a finalist, others with connections to the board were shot down. A pitch for a RISE-Pakistan initiative failed to progress to the second round of deliberations, even though one member of the board works on marketing for that group. And it’s worth remembering that as of now, there is no proof of wrongdoing; SABW’s proposal might have passed entirely on its own merits. But it would require only small changes to the Uncommon Fund to remove all hint of impropriety, and thereby safeguard the Fund’s reputation as an opportunity for all students, regardless of their connections.
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