Last year, you spent approximately $33.57 to fund The Chanticleer, and you probably didn’t even know it. The Chanticleer, better known as Duke’s student yearbook organization, has controlled an average of 21.57 percent of the total Student Activities Fee budget since 2007. That’s an average of $103,000 each year for the last seven years. This occurs despite the fact that The Chanticleer is, by all accounts, an overproduced and unread publication. As a Chronicle article detailed just last July, boxes of Chanticleers dating back to the 1990s stack to the ceiling in a West Campus subbasement behind lock and key. Piled high and gathering dust—that’s your student activities fee hard at work, ladies and gentleman.
But you have to hand it to The Chanticleer—when it comes to lobbying, there are few equals at Duke. A behemoth of an organization in terms of its monetary grasp, The Chanticleer is relatively miniscule in membership, with a mere 30 students comprising its staff. To put that in perspective, a group that accounts for less than half of a percent of the Duke undergraduate student body controls the equivalent of 878 student activities fees. Talk about subsidy. And this is a group that is, by any reasonable measure of accounting, insolvent year in and year out.
But luckily for The Chanticleer, insolvency is hardly an issue where a government is concerned—be it the Duke Student Government or the United States Congress. In fact, I would say you can’t blame The Chanticleer. The group is simply trying to ascertain as much money as possible for its members and interests. No, the real problem here is with the Duke Student Government funding system and the complete lack of transparency that surrounds it.
Let’s follow the money. Every semester you attend Duke you are forced to pay a Student Activities Fee. This year’s fee was $120.75. Thus, most students will pay a total of $241.50 this year, or two semesters’ worth of Student Activities Fees. This payment allows you to join groups for free and attend any events hosted on Duke’s campus. Summed up across the undergraduate population, the student activities fee has accounted for an average of $666,423 each year for the last seven years.
But where does all this money go once it leaves student bank accounts? Basically, the huge pot of student activities cash is handed off to the no more than 17 students who control the Student Organization Finance Committee in Duke Student Government. How are these students selected? Well importantly, they’re not elected. They’re never presented to the student body for inspection in any way or form. Returning members are always reappointed year after year by the Senate until graduation, and all vacancies are filled solely via word of mouth and the scant few solicitations in the DSG email blast sent each Spring. Together, these unelected students play centralized economy with your money, deciding what groups get what funds, for what reasons and to use for what purposes.
But SOFC’s power doesn’t stop there. It also plays the role of gatekeeper, deciding who can and cannot be recognized as a student group and therefore gains access to funding at all (as well as the ability to reserve rooms, table on the plaza and create a Duke Groups website). I learned this the hard way a year and a half ago when I applied for recognition of Duke Students for Romney. Despite the fact that Duke Democrats had already started tabling outside on the Plaza for President Obama, I was denied under the charge that the group was “unsustainable.” Even if Romney was elected, the reasoning went, the Romney group would only serve a purpose until 2016 or 2020 at the latest. Consequently, due to “lack of long term viability,” Duke Students for Romney was barred from registering voters on the Plaza and disseminating literature for weeks in September 2012.
Most important, however, is the issue of accountability. Though SOFC reports to the DSG Senate, very rarely are its actions or decisions challenged by DSG senators, and almost no individual students have recourse to gather information about the rationale for its decisions. The Chronicle hardly ever publishes on the matter, and SOFC’s determinations are not supported by any publicly available documentation. Case in point, midway through the semester its website isn’t even current. Though SOFC Chair Joyce Lau confirmed via email there are 12 active SOFC members this year, only seven are currently listed on its webpage. That means you couldn’t identify and contact 42 percent of the students that control over $600,000 of students’ money if you wanted to. To add insult to injury, the 2013-2014 budget breakdown of allocated funding is completely unavailable as of the time I’m writing this (though President Stefani Jones, due to my inquiries, might have remedied this by the time my column is published).
This Wednesday, the DSG Senate debates The Chanticleer’s funding in Schiano Auditorium starting at 8:00 p.m. Encourage any senator you know to vote for a massive decrease in funding. Last year, SOFC and DSG admittedly made a step in the right direction, slashing The Chanticleer’s budget from $100,000 to $74,150 and mandating that only graduating seniors receive a free copy of the yearbook. But $74,150 is still far too much of your money, and the process from start to finish is still much too shrouded in darkness. In the interest of not wasting students’ money—whether on The Chanticleer or any other number of DSG boondoggles—I’d say a restructuring is in order.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Monday. Send Daniel a message on Twitter @DanielFStrunk.