Doing More with Less: The Yale College Council’s Budget Battle
At 8:00 a.m. on a typical Saturday, most Yale students are sound asleep, waiting for the more welcoming hours of late morning to greet the world. But April 25 was no typical Saturday. It was Spring Fling. And by 8:00 a.m., hundreds of students were already out of bed and well on their way to party.
Like any other Spring Fling, last year’s festivities began early in the day and lasted well into the night. Before the concert officially began at 6:00 p.m., revelers packed fraternities, houses belonging to athletic teams, and upperclassmen suites. Red Bull’s student representatives made the rounds on Old Campus, bestowing the crowd with large amounts of the energy drink to keep them fueled until the last performance at 9:00 p.m.
At 8:00 pm., British diva Jessie J took the stage for her headliner set. Yale was only one of many stops for Jessie J, who had already performed at Harvard’s Spring Fling equivalent, Yardfest, and then moved on to Brandeis University for its Springfest. Jessie J was the first female artist to headline Spring Fling since 1998, when the Indigo Girls took the Yale stage. Since then, Old Campus has seen performances from all over the spectrum, from Diplo’s sinister trap beats to Matt and Kim’s exuberant pop rock anthems. But with all of these big names gathered in one place each year, how much does it actually cost the YCC to have these artists perform?
Last year, the YCC’s budget totaled $250,000. Though the YCC is unable to disclose the official cost of hiring the performers due to a privacy clause in its contract, it has publicized that it allocates more than three quarters of its annual budget solely to hosting the Spring Fling concert. A large portion of this money comes from the student activities fee which, according to the approved YCC budget for the 2014-15 academic year, was projected to allocate $191,000 to the YCC. Each year the council also receives an additional $40,000 from the University President’s Office, solely for the purpose of bolstering the Spring Fling budget. This left $30,000 to be split among the remaining fall and spring semester events, including the Harvard-Yale football game, the Iron Chef cooking competition, and the Mr. Yale pageant. This year, that total rose to $52,500.
This year, as in past years, the YCC was able to secure the headline artist for a significantly lower price compared to the artist’s other bookings for that year. Former YCC Spring Fling Committee Chair Thomas Marano ’16 attributed the low cost to the fact that the committee was able to book Jessie J a week prior to the October 13 release of her third album “Sweet Talker.” The album featured the single “Bang Bang,” which subsequently peaked at number six on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Still, the amount saved through last year’s early contract signing is not nearly enough to offset the YCC’s budget gap when compared to student governments at other institutions of higher learning. Compared to other private universities, Yale spends significantly less on its spring concert. The University of Pennsylvania’s spring fling concert had a budget of $180,000 for talent and $250,000 for production, explained Penn Undergraduate Assembly Treasurer Kat McKay, a junior at the university. Further, Penn chooses to charge its students to attend its spring concert. Last year students were charged $55 for floor passes and $45 for general admission tickets, while non-Penn students were able to purchase general admission tickets for $80. The University of Pennsylvania also allocates a total of $33,850 to its fall concert.
Earlier this year, Penn’s Undergraduate Assembly reported a total budget of $2,282,000 for the 2015-16 academic school year. McKay said that while the student government does not have its own endowment, its funds are donated directly from the University of Pennsylvania’s Board of Trustees. In addition, she said, the budget usually increases by about 3.3% per year.
“The UA funds all six [Penn student government branches] and elements of a few other initiatives, like our freshman pre-orientation programs and New Student Orientation,” McKay told The Politic. “The majority of the budget goes to the Student Activities Council and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education to support student clubs and speaker events, Fling, and concerts and parties open to everyone.”
Among its Ivy League peers, the Yale College Council operates on a particularly small budget. Former Columbia University Student Council President Bailinson said that the undergraduate governing body has a yearly budget of just under $1 million, while at Harvard, the Undergraduate Council works with an annual stipend of $450,000. Similarly, the Princeton Undergraduate Student Government has an approved budget of $390,000 for the fall of 2015.
Even outside of the Ivy League, the disparity is significant. Similar to Penn, Stanford University also maintains significant funds for its student governments. Jackson Beard, Chair of the Appropriations Committee for the 16th Undergraduate Senate of Stanford, told The Politic that around $2.1 to $2.2 million is allocated toward the undergraduate student government. This is only a small portion of the $15 million endowment of the Associated Students of Stanford University, an entity representing all of the currently enrolled students at Stanford University.
“Because our budget depends on how much we decide we need, every year there’s a possibility of it adjusting,” Beard said. “The amount we charge students per quarter [in the student activities fee] is determined by how much we approve student groups for in the spring. For example, a group that throws all the concerts on campus, if they decide they need this many artists on campus, and students approve the funding, then we can adjust the budget.”
This semester the student activities fee for Yale undergraduates is $125, a $50 increase from last semester’s charge. The YCC’s budget has increased by about $130,000 this year because of the student activities fee, YCC President Joe English ’17 said, adding that while students are able to opt out of paying the fee, most generally did not. He noted also that the fee can be covered by financial aid.
Despite being below the Ivy League average of $159.57, Yale’s fee was not the lowest student activities fee last year (though it was not off by much). The most expensive fee was charged by the University of Pennsylvania at $3,150 per year, more than double Columbia University’s $1,396 fee, the next highest in the Ivy League. Of Columbia’s annual general student life fee, $216 was allocated to student activities. On the other end, Harvard and Princeton had the lowest fees per annum, reporting $75 and $65 respectively. President of the Harvard Council Ava Nasrollahzadeh said that like at Yale, students at Harvard are eligible to waive the fee, though it comprises the majority of the undergraduate council’s funds.
But beyond a lack of funding for Spring Fling, what other problems does a small student government budget pose? Beard said the Stanford Undergraduate Senate generally allocates around $300,000 to $400,000 to student groups on campus, well in excess of the total YCC budget. The Harvard Undergraduate Council also distributes $300,000 in funds to student groups across the college campus, Nasrollahzadeh said. English noted that the interest generated by the Stanford Undergraduate Senate’s budget would more than double the YCC budget. He added that if the YCC possessed comparable funds, the organization would be able to solve a broad range of campus issues prevalent last semester, citing the student pushes for renovations of the African American and Asian cultural houses as examples.
“The big sticking point, and this goes for every single project that [the YCC] does, is not policy, not tradition, not access to faculty; it comes down to money,” English told The Politic. “If we had more money it would be so much easier to buy more iPhone chargers for Bass and to fix the basement of La Casa. Same for mental health services. It’s a big problem because [the administration doesn’t] have the money. Administrators want the same things we do, they just don’t have the funding. They are hearing the students, but they don’t have the funding to effect real change.”
Does a lack of funding impede the YCC’s ability to enact change on campus? English argued that without a sizeable budget of its own, the YCC is unable to effectively voice concerns against the University, in part because the organization is paid for by the school. He said that if the council were able to grow a part of an endowment each year, it would be able to cultivate a better perception of student government and gain more “leverage” within the student body. This could be done through increased funding to undergraduate organizations as well as hosting more YCC sponsored events, English explained. Former YCC President Michael Herbert ’16 agreed, noting that the relatively small budget is a hindrance in terms of hosting events and providing incentives for students to participate in the YCC.
On the other hand, even with relatively larger budgets, both Princeton and Harvard have recently experienced significant apathy toward their student governments. In December of 2014, Will Gansa, a current junior at Princeton University, competed in a runoff with Cheng for the undergraduate student government presidency. What was most notable about this election was not that he gained more votes than the body’s former vice president, nor that Gansa had no prior experience with student government. It was the fact that he ran on a joke platform and intended to make fun of the student government, pledging to bring waffle fries and ripe fruit to campus. Though he ultimately did not win, voter turnout for the election was 40 percent higher than the previous year.
A year earlier, in 2013, the same situation occurred at Harvard with one difference – the joke ticket won the presidency. With no experience on the council and after promising thicker toilet paper, junior roommates Sam Clark and Gus Mayopoulus were elected president and vice president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, respectively, by a margin of more than 150 votes. Though both initially agreed to resign upon the release of the election results, Mayopoulus ultimately went on to assume the council’s presidency.
After serving for a year on the council with Mayopoulus, Nasrollahzadeh said she learned many “valuable lessons” from both Mayopoulus and Clark. “Having one of the members of the joke ticket be our president gave the council the opportunity to reassess its relationship with the students and to also reassess the dynamic of the council community internally,” she said. While the council members serve as representatives of the students, she added that it was important to remember the council members’ other role: as students themselves. What does this say about Yale? In 2014, Michael Herbert was elected as president of YCC — despite his lack of previous experience on the council. Herbert said being an “outsider” may have helped him become president. While he admitted that the student government’s lack of power and apparent arrogance may lead to jokes, he attributed part of his success as a candidate to addressing accusations head on.
“The term of student government is a misnomer, it’s not a government in that it doesn’t actually have any authority,” Herbert said. “When it’s perceived as self-important or self-aggrandizing, that’s when you have more negativity [from the student body].”
During Herbert’s presidency, the YCC addressed a number of student concerns. The council lobbied the university administration to halt the student income contribution for students receiving financial aid and convinced the administration to establish gender neutral housing for sophomores. At the end of the 2014-15 academic year, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway announced a number of reforms to Yale’s withdrawal and admission policies, including extending the period of time during which students can request a leave of absence. Further, the University released a new website detailing available mental health resources and expanded the number of clinicians available to students on campus.
Over the last year, student governments across the country have all been dealing with similar issues, from improving mental health policies to divesting from fossil fuels. Jane Meyer, President of the Penn Undergraduate Assembly, said the assembly recently helped implement the PEN anti-violence educators program – a peer led sexual assault prevention program. Nasrollahzadeh said that, last semester, the Harvard Undergraduate Council launched Side By Side, a gender equality campaign also meant to push forth the conversation surrounding campus sexual assault. At Princeton, Cheng released a report addressing how open the school’s lawn clubs are to all students.
Herbert agreed that student engagement at Yale on a number of issues, from sexual assault policies to mental health resources, has given the YCC momentum to catalyze change within the university. Even with a relatively small budget, the YCC offers Yale students the best chance to have a direct impact on the community, he said, adding that students should be invested in the organization as their representative to the administration. “Michael’s right in that things will never change if the students don’t back us,” English said. “But in this time right now, I do feel that the YCC has more support and goodwill than it has had in past years.”