Executive Privilege

Last year, student government allocated $2.70 from each student’s semesterly fee to The Tartan. Not a bad deal for 14 issues.

Around 8500 undergraduate and graduate students pay $82 per semester into the student activities fee, most of which ends up in an account of about $1 million for student organizations. By this Friday at midnight, every funded student organization will submit its request to get a chunk of that change.
But there’s an interesting dimension to this funding process, a facet which I came to be aware of by accident.

In December 2004, I was elected to the post of Executive Officer, now called Publisher, after a period of many years when The Tartan had neglected the business side of its responsibilities. There was no business manager, a skeleton advertising staff, and very little in the way of records. I did know, however, that The Tartan owed the University more than $120,000. How, then, was I to go about creating a budget?

I resolved to prevent The Tartan from running another year in the red. I pored over the last budget The Tartan had submitted, what records I could get my hands on, and the copies of invoices for services rendered and started to put together the framework of a budget. But between the incomplete data and my fear that The Tartan would incur more debt, I ended up overestimating our costs and underestimating our revenues. When I submitted The Tartan’s budget, I was requesting a subsidy of $83,337.75. For reference, the year prior, The Tartan had only received $12,700 — part of the reason we owe so much money.

Within days, Senators I knew were asking me discreetly about the enormous figure I’d requested. It had made quite an impression.

I continued gathering information that would help me refine my understanding of what The Tartan really needed. Between the time that I submitted my original budget and when I met with the Joint Funding Committee (JFC), the group of undergraduate and graduate students who review the budgets, I realized that the cost of printing our newspaper was significantly lower than I had originally thought and that The Tartan could generate much more advertising revenue than I’d initially believed.
Naturally, when I went before JFC, I noted those corrections first thing. It brought my requested subsidy down to around $36,000. I remember very clearly one member of JFC joked that I’d done their job for them, and they didn’t even have to discuss trimming my budget any further.

That’s when it dawned on me that student organizations are very much on their honor to request only what they need. Had I pushed for the $83,000 subsidy, The Tartan likely could have received a much larger allocation. On average, Senate cut about 28 percent of initial requests. That would put The Tartan’s subsidy at about $60,000, a massive $28,000 more than the $32,000 we finally received, and far more than we needed. In that case, JFC would have been forced to cut nearly eight percent more out of every other organization’s budget, leaving budding new organizations especially strapped for cash.
Granted, ours was a unique case. But it showed me that budget inflation can be an effective way of getting more — potentially a lot more. The result of such deception in extreme cases is clearly quite harmful, but the real problem is widespread, subtle budget inflation, where many organizations pump up their numbers in anticipation of cuts.

I believe this type of inflation is equally as harmful. It makes those who are honest and thoughtful about their budgeting less likely to get what they genuinely need and deserve.

As a prominent organization on this campus, The Tartan will lead by example. I pledge not to use budget inflation to get our way. The Tartan will submit a fair and accurate budget.