February 14, 2014

Creating a donation process

Future SG donations should incorporate student input in order to foster community engagement.

When temperatures dropped below zero and its pipes burst on January 22, the Remake the World (RTW) Veteran Center in Washington Park shut down until it could repair the $4,000 worth of damage. Although the shelter is able to continue some services, such as connecting people to employment and housing opportunities, its hot meals program has been temporarily suspended. Last week, Student Government (SG) donated $1,500 out of its administrative budget, which is funded by the Student Life Fee, to the shelter to help with repairs. While SG’s actions show a laudable commitment to making meaningful connections to the South Side community and should be built upon, SG should invite more student body input and deliberation before using Student Life Fee funds for charitable purposes.

As members of the South Side community, the University and the student body both have a responsibility to engage with the community; SG’s donation is one way of doing that. SG President and fourth-year Michael McCown pointed out that donating to RTW is a mutually beneficial action for two reasons: First, it lays the foundations for future collaboration that will hopefully improve community-University relations; second, it makes the community a better place for everyone, students included, to live. In addition, SG determined that the contribution—which is only about 10 cents per student—was financially feasible based on projections for the rest of the year, according to second-year Tyler Kissinger, SG community and government liaison. The administrative budget, which includes airport shuttles, forum and meeting costs, and other fixed expenses, was $40,000 in total this year. Given the circumstances, $1,500 seems a small price to pay for something that has a direct, immediate benefit for the community.

However, even McCown recognizes that this is an “out-of-the-ordinary step” for SG. In order for charitable donations to be a feasible action for SG should similar circumstances arise in the future, an established process should be put in place. The expenditures from the administrative budget do not have to be approved by the SG Assembly or even by the cabinet, according to McCown. “The [executive slate] could have made a unilateral decision but it was something we chose to discuss with the cabinet because we were aware of the potentially controversial nature of donating money. After reaching consensus we proceeded,” he said in an e-mail. Because of that controversial nature, SG should mandate that the Assembly vote on donations so that the maximum number of student voices are heard. In the process of considering a donation, SG could also encourage students to come in and voice their suggestions or concerns. While College and Graduate Councils have representation on the cabinet, it is still a small group when compared with the entire SG Assembly, which contains representatives from every class.

SG had not been hunting for a place to which it could donate—according to Kissinger, cabinet members saw RTW on the news and were spurred by the extreme weather to act. Because of the immediate nature of the problem, they did not want to wait a few weeks until the next SG Assembly meeting to initiate payment to the shelter. Even in cases where immediate action seems necessary, SG could send out alerts to the student body to let them know what is happening and why it is happening. Even in these cases, SG should formally codify its practice of reaching consensus among cabinet members before taking action.

SG’s donation to the Center is a commendable action, of which University students should be proud. But if SG wants to facilitate a larger, student body–wide engagement with the community, leaving the donation up to just the cabinet could result in the majority of students feeling shut out. A donation can only lead to meaningful interactions with the community if the student body as a whole understands its motivation. If SG wants students to support the community in this way, there need to be procedures in place that let them have a say in where their money is going and when.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and Viewpoints Editors.