In a recent email, Dean of Students Allison Gulati informed the student body that the allocation of money from the College’s Student Activity fee would be changed as per the latest Board of Trustees meeting. This change will not only switch up the way that club budgets are approved, but will also determine the placement of the $112,000 surplus in activity fee funds that the Student Government Association (SGA) possessed.
The Board of Trustees voted on the policy this past weekend, just days after SGA members were informed of its existence. Prior to the Board’s vote, two separate fees, one $195 charge that went directly to SGA and one $90 charge that went to the College, were included on each student’s bill. Groups like WMUH, Muhlenberg Activities Council (MAC) and The Muhlenberg Weekly are considered “off the top,” meaning they are currently allocated a set budget every year that is taken from SGA’s portion of the Student Activities fee before the other hundred or so groups on campus can make requests from the rest.
Now, though, the two fees will be combined into one $285 charge. Student groups will also be required to submit budget proposals and the rationale behind them, even groups that are traditionally “off the top.” Though “off the top” groups will retain their status as such through the transition, there will be an opportunity for said groups to restructure their budgets or lose their “off the top” status. On the other hand, according to the policy’s proposal, student organizations that might not have historically claimed “off the top” status will have the chance to do so.
The power to reallocate funding to current off the top groups and to designate new ones, though, is by no means an invention of the new policy — it has always belonged to SGA.
While Gulati stresses that this new proposal will help bolster the College’s initiatives towards equity and inclusion, not all SGA members are on board with the new policy, as it moves a substantial amount of budgetary power away from the group as a whole.
“We have the ability to designate new off the top groups. We’re currently in the process of it,” said SGA Campus Outreach Chair Nicholas Gregg Rubingh ‘20, “so this new process doesn’t make that easier. It just means students have less of a say in that.”
This change comes in the wake of SGA’s recent movement towards the Student SCORE Form method of fund allocation, which, according to Rubingh, encouraged more spending among student groups — with no budget to present before the beginning of the year, non-off-the-top student groups asked for funds when necessary. Resulting in SGA cutting into about $9,000 of their reserve money on behalf of student group requests. Rubingh projects that, had the budget allocation continued on its current course, much of SGA’s $112,000 reserve would have been used naturally by student groups over time.
SGA Treasurer Nicholas Blue ‘20 also felt that the new budget requirements represented a step backwards.
“Recently, the budget system for all clubs and organizations was abolished, with the exception of our off the top groups,” Blue said. “Ironically, this was because many groups did not spend the full amount we gave them! Therefore, the decision for all clubs and organizations to revert back to the old model seems unnecessary and counterintuitive. For example, of the thirty-one clubs and organizations that did not send representatives to the mandatory leadership retreat, only three of those clubs actually requested funding from the prior semester. Personally, this shows me that our current model is more effective, and our money is better managed.”
“The decision for all clubs and organizations to revert back to the old model seems unnecessary and counterintuitive.”
As per the new policy, a committee made up of three students, Gulati and the SGA Advisor will determine budgets and “make recommendations to the President, Chief Business Officer and the Dean of Students about the allocation of the fee money based on the proposals submitted,” according to the proposal.
Two of the students within the committee will be members of SGA: the SGA treasurer and another interested member. One “at-large” participant will be chosen from the rest of the student body via an application process.
“Some of the things we know are that underrepresented students do not make up a large majority of the SGA,” said Gulati. “So we really want to make sure that we get out to that population very clearly — through multicultural life, through different mechanisms, through all of the cultural clubs, just get the information out — that there is this opportunity. We want someone who’s willing to educate themselves on the process and the needs of lots of groups, but also who has a broad understanding of what it means to be equitable in this process and can bring that voice to the table … ideally someone who is connected to a totally different sphere of people than what SGA has been or might represent. And my sense is, ideally, I would like the person to be serving a two-year term. It’s an awesome leadership responsibility.”
Rubingh, though, isn’t so sure that the new committee will raise up student voices.
“Instead of it being up to all 22 members [of SGA] to talk about and argue for and agree on a budget, it would just be down to the two representatives who happen to be on the committee, which would determine the entire budget for SGA, which is a major consolidation of power and just a few students,” Rubingh said. “And even then … SGA [would] be a minority on a committee of five.”
Some students, like Michelle Rajan ‘21, are also skeptical about how student-oriented the new policy really is.
“I really appreciated how the point of SGA is giving students this responsibility and autonomy over this money,” Rajan said, “so even though I appreciate that the college is, I think, trying to take on a hands-on role … it still takes away that autonomy. So I was a bit frustrated to see that their intentions might have been good, but they’re really taking away an important part of SGA … even though they’re saying it’s a transparent process. But how transparent can you be?”
The second part of the policy concerns the $112,000 surplus that SGA currently holds. This surplus has historically approached as high as $200,000 and was able to be used by SGA at any time for certain large-scale initiatives. Mule Express and the new Prevention Education system, for example, are two initiatives funded by this SGA surplus. Still, though a large amount of the money sat unused, Rubingh and SGA President Stephanie Ng ‘20 insist that the student government had plans for it.
“This year we are looking at things including, among other proposed projects, replacing all the desks in Moyer and adding more of these swipe readers to the laundry machines in the off campus housing, stuff like that,” Rubingh said. “And … having that reserve let us do that.”
“Part of Dean Gulati’s argument was that our reserve money or active extra activity fee money should be used for student activities,” Ng added. “But we also think as part of student government, our job is to advocate for students and push for students’ priorities to actually become a priority of the college. So when we actually presented that we wanted to help fund the Moyer desks …. we got pushback saying that they had a college priority list, and Moyer was up there, but not number one. But we tried to say, ‘We have this money now, let’s make this a number one project.’”
“Like Dean Gulati pointed out, you might pay and it sits in the reserve, which is true,” Rubingh continued. “Your money might not go to you while you’re here, but the money from the people before you is the reason you have to go [boxes at Mule Express], and all these other places — it’s paying it forward.”
Instead, the $112,000 will be reinvested back into student financial hardship initiatives, like the MULE Cabinet and student travel grants, by a committee made up of the SGA treasurer, an at-large student, Gulati, College Chaplain Kristen Glass-Perez and President Harring.
“Important to know is that dollars in these student financial hardship funds go directly to students dollar for dollar,” said Gulati in her student-wide email.
Some students, like Rajan, want to know what exactly these financial hardship programs entail, and how the College can ensure that those who need the resources are making use of them.
“They say that they’re going to put it towards financial hardship initiatives, but I really want to know more about what those initiatives are and what that’s going to look like,” Rajan said. “They’re saying that a lot of people have benefited, and … as a student myself talking to other students — I just wonder sometimes, what are these plans? I don’t know. I’m just kind of concerned [about] what is actually going on.”
If the current fee results in so much excess money that is typically put to no use, why not simply lower the Student Activities fee itself?
“We didn’t want to cut the fee money until we had a chance to open it up to say to these student groups, ‘What do you need?’,” said Gulati, “because it’s possible we would hear from WMUH – they’ve definitely come alive over the past couple years – ‘Hey, we need a couple thousand more dollars, not less.’ And then we have groups like the Muslim Student Association who really haven’t had an opportunity to get permanent funding at all. So we didn’t want to cut the fee money until we first changed the process and gave everybody a chance to say, ‘Here’s what we need.’ If, after that, we’re finding that we have what we need and could cut the fee by even five dollars, that’s five dollars back in the student’s pocket or their parent’s pocket, whatever that might be. And so we will then make adjustments to the fee amount if we need to.”
In place of the huge surplus fund, a new rake-back process will combine up to $10,000 of “unspent club funds, project funds” and more to put towards initiatives like Mule Express and Prevention Education, according to the proposal. Ng and Rubingh had not been made aware of this final amount, or whether or not some reserve budget for SGA initiatives existed at all, as of Tuesday night.
Rubingh wonders if this decision may be a symptom of the College’s financial situation.
“By their own admission, there’s major cuts across all sorts of departments. That’s why we’ve had tuition rises and … they tried to do everything they can to prevent more tuition rises,” Rubingh said. “So we wouldn’t be averse to helping in that in either giving away some reserve, giving them more money or even putting a cap on our reserve. But the main problem with this is in taking away their money, they also took away our autonomy and our ability to be independent and have the final say in our own program.”
Rubingh admits that the decision left him temporarily deflated and unsure of the organization’s future.
“I was very sad when I first heard this. My first thought was, ‘SGA is dead,’ but I do not think that we are dead, and if we’re dying, I don’t want to go quietly into the night.”
“I was very sad when I first heard this. My first thought was, ‘SGA is dead,’ but I do not think that we are dead, and if we’re dying, I don’t want to go quietly into the night,” said Rubingh. “But basically, we can still do everything we used to do. There’s just a whole new level of bureaucracy and red tape stopping us from doing it. So it is harder to do everything we used to do, but it is not impossible.”
So, what’s next for SGA? Ng remains committed to the organization’s mission, saying, “We’re going to continue advocating for students.”