Last week at a Duke Student Government Senate meeting, we heard from two students about The 40 Percent Plan, a proposal to dramatically alter the DSG constitution and restrict the power and funding of the Student Organization Finance Committee. In response to the students’ presentation, one senator asked an interesting question: Do we fund student groups because they are commodities to be bought and sold, or because they exist to enhance our campus community?
At first glance, the rhetoric of The 40 Percent Plan sounds pretty appealing—more student choice, less big government and an understanding of where your money goes. The plan takes 40 percent of the student activities fee you pay each year and opens it up to what is essentially a school-wide election. Students would designate during the first week of school which groups would receive their share of almost $300,000. Groups would campaign for money from students, and the system would—supposedly—lead to more students knowing how their money is spent. Behind the rhetoric, though, lies a proposal that is both dangerous for small and minority student groups and contrary to the goal of student equity that it attempts to achieve.
The proposal is based on a couple of false assumptions: that SOFC is not accountable to students and that it recommends money recklessly without oversight. What the plan fails to mention is that SOFC is simply an advisory group to the Senate, a 60-member body of elected representatives that approves or denies all of the major decisions that SOFC makes. This advisory body exists in order to spend wisely the almost $700,000 allocated to DSG from the student activities fee. SOFC’s 14 members, each confirmed by the Senate, are experts on event funding. They apply the same criteria for all groups, assessing the size of an event, where it will be held and what is reasonable to purchase under their funding guidelines.
SOFC decisions are often overturned by the Senate, as was the case of The Chanticleer, Duke’s yearbook club. Contrary to what the architects of The 40 Percent Plan would lead you to believe, SOFC actually recommended $0 last year for The Chanticleer. It was the Senate who ultimately voted that the best course would be to cut their budget by $30,000 the first year and reevaluate further spending cuts for this upcoming year.
The reality of The 40 Percent Plan, though, is one that likely would have huge negative impacts on small and minority student groups, which have equal access to funding under the current system. There are over 400 registered student groups on campus, the vast majority of which would be left with a smaller pool of resources after 40 percent of DSG’s funds are handed out to the high profile groups on campus able to best campaign for funds. Not only will this funding go to the largest and most visible groups at Duke, but the funds they receive will also be divorced from any notion of need. Groups will campaign for as much funding as they can possibly get, rather than the current system where they receive funding based on individual events and demonstrated need. The rest of the groups on campus will be left with that smaller pool of funds and an SOFC that is even more constrained to give it out than under the status quo.
At the end of the day, what SOFC does is ensure equity across the University—for example, that both the Panhellenic Association and the Singapore Student Association can host a large-scale event on campus, provided they put in the effort and preparation. While the small amount of paperwork might be frustrating at times, it ensures that groups not be given knee-jerk funding and that the student activities fee is spent responsibly on well-organized events that benefit the whole student body.
One of the largest standing issues with the proposed plan though is its inability for oversight and auditing. When groups apply for SOFC funding, they do so with a line-by-line budget that explains their group’s need for an individual event. The ability to audit spending goes away when a group is given a lump sum of $50,000 at the beginning of the year. There are no restrictions, aside from legal ones, on what this money could be spent on, and there’s no guarantee that it will be used in a way that will actually benefit the student body. While the plan is supposed to increase students’ understanding of where their money goes, it really just creates more opportunities for money to be spent without oversight.
Duke deserves a University community filled with a vast array of vibrant and diverse student groups. Each of those groups, regardless of size, makes a meaningful contribution to campus. I invite you to one of our SOFC meetings, which are open to the student body every Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. in the UCAE boardroom to learn more about our funding process. I also invite you to reach out to myself or another member of the DSG Executive Board to learn more about why we oppose The 40 Percent Plan.
Stefani Jones is a Trinity senior and the president of Duke Student Government. Her column is the first installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Stefani a message on Twitter @DukeStudentGov.