Charles Gray | State of the school's hidden waste

The Gray Area | Fiscal waste has permeated Penn student government

· January 18, 2012, 12:41 am   ·  Updated January 19, 2012, 2:19 am

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Charles Gray
The Gray Area

There is no question that government waste has played a role in creating a huge fiscal problem in America. Some of this waste occurs with the day-to-day activities of our elected officials. For example, the Senate refused to privatize their dining room until June 2008, even though it lost $18 million over a period of 15 years.

These sorts of reports cause the American people to lose confidence in their elected representatives. In fact, CNN/ORC International poll released on Monday stated that 11 percent of Americans approve of Congress .

It is really interesting when problems that are happening nationwide — like the Senate dining room fiasco and the accompanying loss of faith in Congress — occur on a small scale here at Penn.

Last semester, at the annual State of the School event hosted at the Penn Museum, the problem of fiscal abuse by those in charge of our funds reared its ugly head at Penn.

State of the School is an annual event put on by the six branches of student government. In the past, it has been an opportunity for student government to demonstrate what it does and explain why the student body should care.

The Nominations and Elections Committee hosts the event, which makes sense given its role in Penn Student Government’s charter to coordinate the other branches.

Last year’s event, held in the basement of 1920 Commons, was organized to celebrate the opening of the Late Night — a new study space that had been built largely through lobbying from student government. Two years ago, the event was in College Hall 205. Both locations had something in common: they were readily accessible, informal and modest.

The NEC receives $750 in its line-itemed budget for the occasion. For that reason, it usually ends up being a demonstration that student government doesn’t need to be so “stuffy,” as former NEC Vice Chair for Education Margo Peyton described in a Daily Pennsylvanian article about last year’s event.

But this year, State of the School took a different direction.

It was hosted at the Penn Museum with catering from Wolfgang Puck. Because only $750 was slated for the event from the student government budget, the organizers needed to find extra funds. A larger budget was then pieced together by allocating $3,000 from Tangible-Change and $850 from the Social Planning and Events Committee’s Fully Planned group.

Whether all of these funds were actually spent — or whether even more were allocated —remains ambiguous. NEC Chair College senior Shomik Sarkar admitted that they were able to cut costs because “the Penn Museum provided generous support.” However, he would not divulge the exact amount spent.

I understand that they were trying to put on a nice event and there is no question that it was well executed. But the changes in this year’s State of the School reveal so many problems. As the representatives of the student body, one of the student government’s key objectives is to protect the $2-million budget that the Board of Trustees has given them for student activities. This is partially paid for through the activities fee in our tuition checks.

But when this money is diverted to pay for a glorified formal party mostly for student government members, it reveals a conflict of interest in the budgetary process.

At the end of the day, chicken strips and some cake at a more central location on campus (because the Museum only allows Wolfgang Puck catering) would have been just fine and much less costly.

In addition, the fact that student government refuses to release the official figure spent on the event is troubling. The Student Activities Council is still going through a very important transition period as it navigates its funding crisis. SAC’s problems could have been averted if they had faced the mounting debts of their constituent organizations early on.

When student government refuses to disclose the official numbers from an event like State of the School, the culture of secrecy is perpetuated. It’s not too late to move forward in a positive way. Penn Student Government just needs to commit to using its dollar responsibly and to disclose more of their disbursements.

This year, State of the School was an opportunity for individuals within student government to talk at each other at an expensive event. It can once again become an event in which student government can reach out to the student body in a modest atmosphere.

If they don’t, the same thing that has happened to our elected officials nationally is going to happen at Penn. And an 11-percent approval rating is really not the direction that we want to go in.

Charles Gray is a College and Wharton senior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is chagr@wharton.upenn.edu. The Gray Area appears every other Wednesday.

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