The Problem with the Amendment
The Undergraduate Council of Students, Brown’s student government, has long dealt with the problem of obscurity and a lack of recognition around campus. The problem is so bad the recent polls suggest that over half of the student population has no idea what UCS even does. However, this semester, UCS managed to make it to the forefront of the campus water cooler talk when it attempted to pass a constitutional amendment that required a campus-wide referendum vote. Unfortunately for UCS, the amendment brought major attention to the inadequacy of Brown’s student government.
On Feb. 8, UCS passed a motion for an amendment to the UCS constitution that required a two-thirds majority vote by the entire student body. The amendment was an attempt for a major overhaul of the current student activity funding, which is as follows: Every undergraduate student at Brown is required to pay a student activities fee, which is currently set at $178. These student activities fees are then put together in a large pot of money, and the Undergraduate Finance Board determines how to allocate money to all the various clubs on campus, including UCS. (A few distinctions about UFB are important at this point. UFB is a group of 12 students, and it is technically a subsidiary of and was created by UCS.) UFB allocates money in two ways: spring budgeting and supplemental funding. The spring budgeting is individual funding done by all groups and is the base funding for the entire year a group. Supplemental funding occurs when certain costs not covered by spring budgeting come up and a group needs extra money. This can happen at any point in the year.
UCS, tired of having funding requests denied by UFB, a challenge that every student group needs to deal with, wrote an amendment to restructure the current system so that it could have unlimited funding for itself. Under the amendment, the entirety of the student activities fee would have been given to UCS, and they could have taken as much money from it as they wanted and done whatever they wanted with it. The leftover money would then be given to UFB, which would allocate that money to the every other student group. UCS was essentially taking as much money as they wanted at the expense of every other group. Not even the greediest banks are that bold at taking other people’s money.
Within UCS, there was little to no discussion about how to handle their budget woes other than to commit highway robbery. A member of UCS spoke with The Spectator on a condition of anonymity and said, “The UCS leadership justified their amendment by identifying the bad blood between UCS and UFB. However, there was absolutely no discussion on how to actually fix that problem or even how we would physically receive funding under the new system. When I asked about that and tried to bring up alternatives to the amendment, I was essentially told to shut up. The only discussion allowed was criticisms aimed at UFB and justifications for a power grab by UCS.”
Before UFB or any other group had a chance to react, the amendment was put up for voting on MyCourses, where it was described as “clarify[ing] the relationship between UCS and UFB,” and the intent of the amendment was clouded in political jargon and doublespeak. The executive board of UCS immediately published an editorial in the Brown Daily Herald pining that UCS needed more money for its projects that supposedly benefit the school community (none of which the board mentioned specifically) and then complained that the Dartmouth College student government receives significantly more money than UCS — a humorously poor argument. Before UFB could respond with a similar editorial, the amendment had been up for a vote for days.
Even before the amendment went up for a vote, there was little to no discussion in UCS about how to handle their budget woes other than to commit highway robbery. The anonymous UCS member said, “UCS didn’t look at any alternatives. I tried to bring up the idea that we could make up the budget fall in other ways or possibly cut back on certain projects. I was essentially told to shut up. The entire debate was over the subject about how UFB was created by UCS, and therefore, UCS shouldn’t have to listen to UFB, and they should be able to get as much money as they wanted.”
Unfortunately for UCS, they would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. The amendment faced an immediately backlash on Facebook and other media, including numerous memes that poked fun at UCS attempting to steal everyone’s money. In the end, UCS was notable to cheat the system this time, but the deficiencies in student government do not end there.
The Problem with Student Groups
One of the most important tasks UCS does is to create other student groups and give them category status. For those that are not familiar with the process, whenever someone wants to form a student group (such as The Brown Spectator), they must seek approval from UCS to become a Category I group. This allows them to use Brown facilities to organize meetings and allows them to attend activities fairs to represent their group. After they are a Category I group, they can go back to apply to be a Category II and later a Category III group. Category II and III groups receive a baseline of $200 in funding, and Category III groups are eligible to apply for additional funding.
As a whole, the system is not perfect, but it works well. Problems arise, however, because there are no strict guidelines as to what qualifies something to become an official student group. The lack of guidelines allows personal bias to form the foundations for certain judgments.
Two notable instances of personal bias getting in the way of judgments this year occurred when two groups, the Brown Political Review and the Quidditch Club, attempted to gain group status. The Brown Political Review’s goal was to become a nonpartisan political publication, but UCS rejected the proposal mostly because there was an apparent overlap with the Janus Forum (which does not produce a publication). While it makes sense to avoid overlapping groups, UCS has very fickle standards. For instance, just this past year UCS approved three student groups that overlap with already existing groups: the Swan Ballet Club, Pakistani Students Association at Brown, and Brown Asian Sisters Empowered.
The Swan Ballet Club closely resembles the Ballet Club, with the main difference that the Swan Ballet Club wanted to be exclusive and compete against other ballet clubs. The Pakistani Students Association at Brown is now one of 19 student groups dedicated to Asian students, including the South Asian Students Association (which of course includes Pakistan). Brown Asian Sisters Empowered is also among the other 19 Asian student groups, along with three groups dedicated solely to helping women at Brown. This is not to say that these groups are not relevant in their own right, but there certainly is a significant amount of overlap that UCS does not seem to be concerned about.
The Quidditch Club faced a different dilemma. Their fate was sealed because UCS did not feel it was a legitimate activity. In the official UCS minutes, a member is quoted as saying, “Seems to be a pickup sport that people play — waste of time.” Despite the fact that numerous college compete against each other in annual tournaments, UCS still could not see why people would enjoy this “waste of time.” UCS was also skeptical that Quidditch was a sport and therefore should be regulated by the Department of Athletics — a valid point, but inconsistent with UCS’ previous approval of Brown Polo Club as a Category III group. UCS surely is not helping Brown shake its snobby Ivy League stereotype by allowing groups like polo but not Quidditch.
UCS laments their nonexistent presence on campus, but perhaps they should recognize that it is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps if these shortcomings and biased political judgments became better known throughout campus, they might face a strong student backlash. Perhaps Brown students, so fond of protesting this and that, might take up the challenge of cleaning up their own backyard and making sure UCS is subject to the scrutiny of the people that every government requires.