Last month, an op-ed by Jack Wang raised the concern that the ASUC is disproportionately funding some student groups at the expense of others. The op-ed also questioned whether groups that receive excessive funding are using their allocations properly. As a freshman, I served as a finance intern for an elected official in the ASUC and observed the misuse of ASUC funds. Three years ago, I published an op-ed describing what I observed in hopes that it would lead to greater transparency.
In my previous op-ed, I talked about that year’s ASUC executive vice president’s office misusing discretionary funds on food or group outings and how the current funding system is unfair and unequal. Unfortunately, it appears many of the concerns I raised then are still not resolved today.
At present, the LEAD Center manages the accounting of the ASUC; LEAD Center staff members review, approve and process all ASUC payments. While the ASUC Senate writes the bylaws governing how funds can or cannot be spent, the interpretation and execution of those rules, along with the data regarding transactions, remain opaque and inconsistent. Moreover, the system is extremely easy to game.
While the ASUC bylaws prohibit specific items such as food or alcohol, the bylaws provide little guidance on what is an acceptable expense. Almost any purchase can be passed off as legitimate, including purchases that directly benefit specific members without pertaining to the organization’s mission. For example, an organization can purchase nonfood items for a private party or school supplies for members. If the purchase request is worded carefully, it will be approved without question.
Some clubs take it a step further. A club may purchase goods and return them for a refund after a reimbursement request has been initiated. In other cases, personal purchases that have nothing to do with the organization are also processed through the ASUC. When the checks get cashed, the members of these clubs have amassed funds that can be used without restriction. Both of these practices constitute embezzlement.
I’ve heard these more than once because these ideas are quietly but openly shared among student group leaders.
As an aspiring accountant, the disregard for rules among student leaders and the ease by which clubs circumvent these rules is disappointing. What is even more disappointing is how the system encourages it. Clubs feel pressure to use every dollar allocated because failing to do so could result in a reduced funding allocation the next year. This encourages clubs to waste money in the ways described above. The lack of transparency means that club leaders are never held accountable for questionable expenses. In other words, the funding process favors organizations that waste the most money and further favors those that have the political connections to obtain even more.
As students, we deserve to know how our tuition and fees are used, and that includes ASUC funds spent by clubs and ASUC officials. Detailed information about transactions involving ASUC funds should be published online for any student to view. Some data already exists on Callink but is only viewable by a select group of club signatories and LEAD Center staff. Nonsensitive information such as receipts, descriptions of what was purchased and the dollar amount could easily be made public record. The validity of club expenses is not always clearly delineated and sometimes requires judgement calls by club leaders and LEAD Center staff, but only by sharing the data with everyone can we hold ourselves accountable.
The reality is that student government budgets will always be contentious, but good governance and good accounting should not be made political.
Taylor Lee is a UC Berkeley alumnus, a former signatory to various student clubs and a former finance intern in the ASUC.