Guest Column Seth Koren | Mismanagement 101
October 22, 2013, 6:42 pm · Updated October 22, 2013, 10:42 pm·
I’m not going to waste words arguing why the Student Activities Council moratorium is unjust and unethical because you already know that. If you’ve thought about the issue in any detail, you know the moratorium wasn’t done with the best interests of the community in mind. No objective party would suggest such a solution for the problem.
This is a serious charge which warrants exploration. How did such an unethical policy come about? Ostensibly, SAC members approved it at a GBM. These members are not bad people, but they did vote unethically. Why?
The reason is simple: The funding system heavily incentivizes SAC members to vote in their own self-interests, rather than those of the entire community. So they do. One of my friends is a leader in two large, SAC-funded groups. I spoke to him this weekend about publicly supporting the removal of the moratorium, and he told me, “I completely agree with you and hope that you are successful in your efforts. However, supporting you would be going against the explicit wishes of both of my groups’ executive boards.”
My friend is not a bad person — he is merely self-interested. His groups have tens of thousands of dollars on the line. If a policy were enacted that might lead to his groups’ budgets getting lowered, that could be a problem for him. Perhaps with less money his groups couldn’t do everything they’d like to do; perhaps his groups would become unstable; perhaps he’d be blamed for supporting such a policy; perhaps he’d be deposed.
All these contingencies are a problem for him not only because he enjoys his clubs and takes pride in their achievements, but also because he has leadership positions — he’s counting on those resume line-items for when he applies to jobs or graduate schools. From his perspective the mere possibility of his groups destabilizing could pose serious problems for his future.
With such heavy incentives in place, is it any wonder that SAC members vote in a way that guarantees them maximal funding, with no concern for other consequences? Of course not. While some blame should be placed on these people — after all, they’re intelligent, well-educated Penn students who know better — the brunt of the blame should be placed on the administration and SAC leadership that created this system of perverse incentives. The system we have is like letting Congress vote on their own salaries. It’s worse, though. With Congress, there’s some accountability — if they voted to give themselves $10 million per year, we’d hear about it and there would be an uproar. SAC leadership operates behind closed doors. It’s not just that SAC is not active in publicizing what they do (by publishing minutes, for example), but also that they actively inhibit transparency. A few weeks ago, I was curious about the details of the moratorium. Simple details, like the procedure to remove it, its text, how it was voted upon. I emailed the Office of Student Affairs, and then, at their recommendation, the SAC chair, Jen Chaquette. The “answers” I was given were: “Those details do not exist” (i.e., there’s no actual record of it) and “That information is not public” (i.e., SAC has secret policies). I don’t know which of these is correct, as they seem to conflict, but I was told both of them. Additionally, in response to my questions, some were fired back at me. Questions like “Why are you asking?” “What will you do with this information?” and “What’s the point of this?” This is the response from OSA and SAC to a Penn student cordially asking for information on a Penn Student Government policy. This is absolutely the antithesis of transparency.
The moratorium should be struck down immediately. It’s a disgrace to the Penn community that it is in place. But even more of a disgrace is the system that put it in place — a system that incentivizes people to act unethically, keeps power and money among those groups that already have power and money and turns “accountability” and “transparency” into dirty words.
SAC’s failure to provide an equitable solution to the debt crisis shows that it is either maliciously self-interested or incompetent. In either case, in its current state SAC is unfit to govern.
Seth Koren is a College and Wharton junior. He is co-president of Penn For Liberty, which is SAC-recognized, and president of Penn Secular Society, which is not.