Student Association features transparent budget through new website
By: Sam Knehans
Student Association, the official student governing body of Syracuse University, has recognized a need for greater transparency in its governing practices. Due to this awareness, the association has made its budget more accessible, launching a website that showcases the distribution of the student fee to a variety of campus organizations.
Student Association—specifically the association finance board—controls how University funds, taken from the student fee, are apportioned to every student organization on campus.
According to Neal Casey, Student Association president, this has been one of the most contentious duties of the association. “There has always been a lot of controversy surrounding the financial process. So, we are hoping that this is one step that we can take to make the process more transparent,” Casey said. “This is the first time that we have really made a concerted effort to add a significant level of transparency to the aggregate financial picture.”
Though the financial process may be controversial, Jeff Rickert, Student Association comptroller, believes it has been a fair process for each student organization. “During my time with Student Association, I have never let anything happen or seen anything happen that I did not think was fair. We use the same standards and guidelines for each organization—there is no other way to insure that the process is fair,” Rickert said.
Stephen DeSalvo, an association representative for the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science and finance board member, was the representative who finalized the website, yourstudentfee.syr.edu.
“As a finance board member, this initiative particularly appealed to me because I recognize that we do need to make things more transparent. We need to make sure all of the organizations understand that things may not be as unequal as some students believe,” DeSalvo said.
To Rickert, the belief that Student Association has not been transparent in the past is unjustified. “I think there is a misconception that we have not been transparent in the past and that this website was our attempt to become transparent. While we wanted to make this information more accessible, we were not a closed book before,” Rickert said.
Ultimately, the student fee website is intended to be informational. “We wanted to put all the information out there, so that when issues come up—and there are always issues when your are dealing with the allocation of money—we can point to it and say that everyone was treated fairly and everyone was given the same opportunity to receive funding,” Casey said.
According to Casey, the idea for a budget website is not novel to the association. “The student fee website is two years in the making now. It has been an idea for a long time,” Casey said.
However, it largely emulates the federal government’s establishment of recovery.gov, a website that tracks government spending related to the Recovery Act of 2009—the economic stimulus package.
“Part of our initiative was to follow what the government did with recovery.gov and establish a website which would showcase where the students’ money is going,” DeSalvo said.
This is not the first step toward greater Student Association transparency under Casey. In fact, “part of Neal’s initiative when he joined Student Association as president was to move toward transparency. Obviously this is not just Neal’s goal either—it is everyone’s goal,” DeSalvo said.
Under the leadership of Casey, Student Association has taken a variety of steps to make their governing practices more visible. All of the Student Association meetings are open to the public as well as all of the finance board meetings. Even Casey’s cabinet meetings are open to the public.
During Casey’s tenure, the Student Association has also strengthened its relationship with campus media organizations. “Our relationship with The Daily Orange is a bit closer now,” DeSalvo said. “We’re working more closely with our beat reporter to make sure that everything we discuss at Student Association meetings is portrayed correctly and is released to the public.”
The Student Association has also established a relationship with CitrusTV, Syracuse University’s entirely student-run television studio, through the program SA Today. This broadcast allows association representatives to directly address the Syracuse University community every week.
Still, the Student Association is far from the most recognizable organization on campus. In an informal poll of Syracuse University students, many were unacquainted with the Student Association as an organization. The majority of students were also unaware that Student Association is in charge of allocating the $2.3 million student fee each year. Even those who were aware of the Student Association and its primary function were still uninformed regarding the new student fee website.
After hearing these comments, DeSalvo advocated a push to inform the constituency—the student body. “I think the more information we can give out to the public and the more accessible that information is, the more we can impact the student body,” DeSalvo said. “Now that we have all this information online, we have to work to market it and get it into the hands of the students.”
On the other hand, Casey argues that the engagement of the student body was not the primary function of the student fee website. “Our first goal in this is obviously giving evidence to a transparent budgetary process, but I hope the student body looks at the website and gets to know the Student Association a little better through it,” Casey said.
Ultimately, Casey recognizes that some students may be uninterested in the budgetary decisions of the Student Association—or any decisions made by the Student Association for that matter. “It’s like every student government,” Casey said. “The biggest battle we fight every day is student apathy.”