When I packed my bags in August 2006 to come to Penn, I was ready for a taste of the “real world.” Everything from my dinner menu to how late I came home on Saturday night would be up to me. It was all very exciting.
But, at the same time, I knew that in this “real world,” I would be provided with two incredible safety nets: Penn and my parents. This “real world” exists in a consequence-light bubble. Overall, that’s a pretty great system. But, in some instances, it goes too far.
Among many of the “real-world” opportunities that Penn offers, it advises and funds student-run groups on campus. These organizations teach students how to plan events or host a show in the “real world.” And they should, above perhaps all else, teach students how to run a business and be fiscally responsible. Unfortunately, they often miss the mark on that last part.
Every year, a fixed percentage of the general student fee is distributed to students though the hard work of student government. At the end of the budget process, we entrust almost $900,000 to over 200 student-run groups.
If that thought doesn’t make you a little nervous, it should. Because, among many of these groups, it turns out there is often no culture of fiscal responsibility. Some groups are in constant debt. And we let it happen because it’s almost impossible to monitor so many accounts.
According to Student Activities Council chairwoman and College junior Ali Huberlie, “debt has always been a problem with SAC groups.” Across the board, many groups overspend and are able to do so because there is no system in place to stop or discourage them.
The Office of Student Life does what it can to monitor spending through financial advisers assigned to each group, said OSL Director Fran Walker. They will never approve spending over budget. “But a lot of stuff takes place in reimbursements so we find out about it after the fact.”
Ultimately, OSL will reimburse any student purchases. As UA President and College junior Matt Amalfitano puts it, “OSL isn’t going to tell a kid that they can’t get their money back.”
Once they have gone over budget, there are few mechanisms in place to force groups to pay back debt. This teaches Penn students one thing: When you run out of money, someone will magically take care of it. I can’t help but think this defeats the purpose of running your own organization (though I will admit that my philosophy here is formed in part by running a company where staying within budget is not optional).
“There needs to be punitive measures in place” for when groups go over budget, said outgoing UA Treasurer and College senior Sakina Zaidi.
I agree with the OSL philosophy that individual students should not be punished. If a student were asked to make a purchase by group leaders, they shouldn’t suffer the consequences, the group should.
Huberlie suggests a solution I think has serious merit: forming a debt committee outside of the SAC executive board that would review overdrawn accounts and force them on a track to pay debt. Groups that can’t follow the track might then have their funds frozen or receive some other kind of punishment. (Zaidi suggests cutting off future access to contingency funds or reducing future budget amounts.)
I’m not asking Penn or even the UA to micromanage all student groups. But I am asking them to force student groups to learn financial management — if you don’t have the money you can’t spend it. Put safeguards in place that will protect students while punishing vagrant groups. Students need to learn how a budget works in the actual “real world,” not just the Penn bubble.
Juliette Mullin is a College senior from Portland, Ore. She is the former Executive Editor of the DP. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In Case You Missed Me appears on Tuesdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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