By Nick DAngelo
Rumors spread across campus like wildfire. What may surprise many is that this year there were more rumors swelling around a supposed budget surplus than around who would be performing at Springfest.
These rumors are true—there is a surplus in this year’s college budget, but we do not call it that. It is known as “positive variance,” and is the leftover after the college’s mandatory spending.
In order to understand what this surplus of funds is going towards, it’s important to understand how it is appropriated. This alone is a mammoth task.
As I’ve often written, the Union College bureaucracy is a labyrinth of committees and boards, all seemingly jockeying to avoid big decisions or controversial topics.
The budget is approved by the Board of Trustees, but implemented through the college president and created on recommendations from the Planning and Priorities committee.
According to the Faculty Manual, the committee is tasked with the role to “Review and recommend to the President policies concerning long-range planning, the establishment of college priorities, and the preparation of annual budgets,” and is chaired by the president.
The committee consists of the vice presidents, senior staff, four division chairs of the faculty, the secretary of the faculty, two faculty trustees, two staff members and three student members.
Edward Summers, the Chief of the Staff to the president, patiently explained the rigorous process to me. Once “positive variance” is assessed, it is college policy, as dictated by the Board of Trustees, that 40 percent be reinvested into the endowment.
The remaining 60 percent is placed at the control of the president through a discretionary spending fund.
This discretionary spending is typically used for the upkeep of campus facilities.
The mold issue in Schaffer Library, upgrading the Internet networks in dormitories and the new bathrooms in Davidson Hall are all projects that have been completed using discretionary spending.
All worthy projects, but who makes the final decisions? The president, obviously, but with help from the Planning and Priorities committee.
Summers is quick to point out that President Stephen Ainley embraces “inclusive decision making,” stressing the point that last year he even removed an item because of a lack of support from the committee.
The Vice President for Finance and Administration Diane Blake has been at Union for 26 years. “Ultimately,” Blake said, “we’re all advisors to the president.” Like Summers, she emphasized the transparency of the process. “Planning and Priorities sees what the Board of Trustees sees,” she said, noting that the ultimate decisions of the college are made through input from faculty and students.
Do individual students actually have any input, though? When asked who the student members are, one faculty committee member responded, “There are no student members on [Planning and Priority]. Were there in years past?” Student members have not regularly attended the meetings, despite them being scheduled well in advance, and so any lack of input seems to be our own fault.
Others simply disagree that the process is truly an effort at “inclusive decision making.”
Professor Kimmo Rosenthal, who served as the dean of academic affairs for nearly a decade, has long been an advocate of a less bureaucratic administration.
“The suggestion that there has been transparency and consultation in the disposition of the budget surplus is risible and beggars belief,” Rosenthal stated.
While Summers suggested that the faculty committee members regularly consult with their colleagues about the committee issues, the faculty as a whole has not been publically informed about the existence of any “positive variance.”
“A farrago of smooth talk and buzzwords can’t alter the facts. I think ‘cascade down’ might best describe things at Union,” Rosenthal continued. “I find this all sad whatever they may profess, the administration appears uninterested in the opinions of the rest of the campus.”
The intentions of the administration are good-natured, but it seems to be a ship lost in a sea of its own tiresome regulation. After my research, it appears that the administration is not intentionally secretive, selective or disconnected.
Rather, it juggles with so many issues and is so self-conscious about reaching the ultimate consensus that tangible improvement seems exhaustive.
In the end, we can be sure that there is some transformative project that the bureaucracy has in mind. We’ll just need to form another committee to think of it.