The new OneDuke emergency fund has generated controversy within the Graduate and Professional Student Council. 

The OneDuke Access Fund—spearheaded by GPSC President Marcus Benning, Trinity '14—was approved at GPSC's Sept. 27 meeting. Six graduate and professional students applicants will be awarded a $200 grant each month, but several GPSC members have raised concerns about the way the program was approved. 

"I abstained from the vote,” wrote Billy Gerhard, a Ph.D. student in environmental engineering, in an email. "I did not feel that my concerns were completely addressed, but I also did not want to prevent a plan with momentum and noble intentions from moving forward."

The initiative was formally announced at GPSC's Aug. 30 meeting, during which Benning led a discussion on the merits of the program and ways that it could be modified to promote fairness and maintain student privacy. Some members brought up other concerns at the subsequent Sept. 13 meeting, but the initiative was passed Sept. 27 with a vote of 57 in favor and nine opposed, according to the minutes. 

The students will be selected through a lottery system and will be able to use their new funds to help pay for expenses related to "travel, professional wardrobe, food and essential school supplies," he added. According to an explanatory document, three of the grants will go toward food and one grant will go to each of the remaining categories. 

“People have been talking about creating a way to address food insecurity on campus for years,” Benning, who is also a current student at the Law School and a member of the Duke Student Publishing Company's Board, said. “People are not going to be completely satisfied with it until they see it as working. And so at some point, GPSC had to have the courage and just do it.”

Some GPSC members—including MD/Ph.D candidate Colleen McClean, who is also a member of The Chronicle's independent Editorial Board—said they felt Benning had unnecessarily rushed the approval process without proper discussion. 

McClean said the process of approving the fund was accelerated and definitely a departure from how GPSC typically operates. 

"For those of us that have been around for a while, we know that this was a really rushed process and that this was not appropriately vetted,” she said. 

Internal disputes

Among the contentious issues, McClean explained, were the structure of the program and its long-term goals. The use of a lottery system means students with more pressing financial concerns might not receive the grant when they need it the most, she said. 

She added that the fund currently does not allow funding for medical emergencies and is restricted to pre-approved vendors—which may not offer the appropriate food or supplies for students who have their own families.

The vendors are Duke Stores, Macy's, Delta Airlines and MegaBus, according to an internal document explaining the fund. 

"My impression is that many of us think it's a great idea to find a way to help out struggling [graduate] students," wrote Karoline Johnson, a Ph.D. student in environmental engineering, in an email. "But it's very challenging to find a method that actually meets these student's needs efficiently while keeping the distribution of limited funds fair and trying to prevent possible abuse of the system."

McClean noted that many graduate and professional students often face recurring financial hardships, but that OneDuke does not address these chronic concerns.

However, providing short-term relief is OneDuke’s primary goal, Benning explained.

“This is not meant to be anyone's main source of funding,” he said. "It's not something that any student should be planning their finances around and depend on. Rather, it's a program where if you are in an emergency situation, you have a good shot of being able to get some funds when you need it."

According to a press release, students can only receive the grant once during their studies, but the OneDuke access fund does not restrict how many times full-time students can apply for the award. 

Students are not required to submit financial documents to demonstrate their need and will instead rely on an "honor system” when applying, Benning said. Although he acknowledged this could potentially lead to abuse, Benning explained that maintaining student privacy was more important. 

"If you decide that you want [students] to provide financial documents, then you implicate privacy concerns, financial aid concerns and potentially [Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act] concerns," Benning said. "If you do not require records, then you are going on an honor system and have to be more trusting of students."

During its initial Aug. 30 introduction, Benning called the program “revolutionary." He claimed no other university provided a student-led fund that specifically catered to student needs.

McClean, however, said this was misleading. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Graduate and Professional Student Federation’s Emergency Fund  "allows for better coverage of need," she said. 

Many of the concerns brought up, McClean noted, have been appropriately addressed in the design of UNC's Emergency Fund. 

Personal gain?

During the Sept. 27. meeting, Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, proposed an ad-hoc committee to examine other university programs in order to modify OneDuke’s structure, according to the minutes. 

However, McClean alleged that Benning quickly pushed for a vote instead of allowing further deliberations. In her view, this happened because Benning was slated to receive recognition from the Duke Credit Union at the Duke-Virginia football game that Saturday. 

"A better program could have been developed if a committee was allowed to study other programs, such as that at UNC, and present a modified proposal before the Oct. 18. meeting, which would have still allowed for approval before the first allocation session opened," she said.

Benning was recognized for the OneDuke message, in addition to Justin Losciale, candidate for a doctorate of physical therapy candidate, and Maurizio Martinovic, an MBA student at the Fuqua School of BusinessBenning defended the OneDuke fund, saying the the approval process was not rushed and that students were given sufficient time to work out their concerns with him.

“I presented the program for the first time Aug. 30, over a month before the football game,” he said. "The program was originally slated to be approved during our Sept. 13 meeting. The GA voted to delay the approval to the next week, Sept. 27th. The [General Assembly] had over a month—since they got meeting materials several days prior [to the first meeting]—to look at the program and review it.”

When GPSC was not in session, Benning said he held multiple meetings with administrators and students who suggested ways to improve OneDuke's strategy. 

For example, Benning said that during the planning process he and his team identified more than $40,000 in unused funds from inactive student groups. He noted that $20,000 of this went into guaranteed funding for the OneDuke fund while another $10,000 was set aside to be used for potential future OneDuke funding, contingent on budgetary approval. However, McClean disagreed, saying that half of the $20,000 still needed to be approved by the committee. Minutes from GPSC's Sept. 27 meeting, which were corrected during its Oct. 18 meeting, indicate that only $10,000 in funding had been approved for the 2016-17 year with an additional $10,000 designated to be approved for use during the 2017-18 year, pending budgetary approval in the Spring.

Administrative support

The program was also vetted by President Richard Brodhead, Provost Sally Kornbluth and Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs, Benning said. Officials from the Graduate School also said they were also receptive of OneDuke.

“We think the OneDuke Fund is a wonderful idea,” wrote John Zhu, a senior public affairs officer in the Graduate School, in email. “[OneDuke] is a terrific complement [to current financial aid programs] since it provides funds for other areas of need such as clothes for interviews. We are glad to see our students have another option to help them with emergency needs, thanks to the GPSC's forward-thinking initiative."

Last week, Kornbluth and the Office of the Provost awarded OneDuke an extra $10,000 on top of the original $20,000 that already guaranteed in funding. Benning said the program is expected to officially launch in November and is currently "ironing out the remaining details."

The program’s approval has also caught the eye of Duke Student Government, which caters to the undergraduate population, he said. 

“Now, DSG and other groups are considering doing the same thing because they realize that [an access fund] is a way to help their students,” Benning said. "So that's really what the goal was—to create a model that other students could adopt all across the country and use student government fees to support students in ways that financial aid doesn’t.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the corrected minutes from the Sept. 27 meeting, which were revised Oct. 18. 

Correction: Colleen McClean is a member of GPSC, not a representative.