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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Student Government spends unseen thousands. We need transparency now

Opinions generic
Opinions generic

Are UF students really getting the bang for their buck?

The purported mission of student government since the 1900s is that it is a voice and forum of inclusive leadership for students to their university administrations. To that end, students pay a portion of tuition to SG for certain events and services. Every UF student pays $19.06 per credit, as mandated under state law, to SG.

This is paid as the activity and service fee, which collectively equates to SG's current $23 million budget, though this amount has increased with time as the fee and UF enrollment increase. 

The average student takes 120 credits, meaning they will pay $2,287.20 to SG. Engineering students like me, who take 131 credits, will pay $2,496.86. This money, with no public oversight, funds SG-run programs. 

One of the largest single SG-run programs is the ACCENT Speaker’s Bureau, an agency of SG. No single part of SG has been more under the critical lens of students than this agency. 

According to data, ACCENT has spent annual totals between $62,500 and $463,000 on speaking fees since 2007. Over that period, ACCENT spent nearly $4.6 million. Past reporting indicates hundreds more are spent on limos and dinners for guest speakers.

ACCENT is just one agency compared to the hundreds of student organizations that may only get a couple thousand for their events or travel.

The agency has existed for several decades, and its total expenditures are potentially in the tens of millions. Students are forced to speculate because no publicly accessible accounting exists. 

It is remarkable how much is spent on talent as great as Maya Angelou or Giancarlo Esposito as compared to more questionable guests like Josh Richards or Carly Fiorina. Maya Angelou brought out 1,700 students. She was paid $33,000 by ACCENT in 2013, with the remainder by other organizations for a total of $45,000. That is about $59,000 in today’s dollars. Richards was paid $66,000 and garnered about 800 students.

ACCENT’s mission is “to educate the student body” on hot topics and controversies. Instead, it sparked new controversy and protests.

It also dropped having inclusivity of student clubs, another part of their mission statement. None of the ACCENT events in recent years included co-sponsoring with student organizations.

From the early 2000s to the 2010s, SG spent between $500 and $15,000 to host multiple speakers. At the same time, a few big-name speakers like John Legend, Bill Nye and Arianna Huffington came at higher costs.

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Now, SG regularly spends between $40,000 to $60,000 for speakers. Multiple speakers in recent years cost a hundred thousand or more.

At the same time, while ACCENT used to regularly host significant speakers in the O’Dome to allow for thousands of students, now it seems to host exclusively in the University Auditorium. It has a capacity of 843, though about 20 to 40 of those are reserved for members of SG. The one time SG used the O’Dome recently, with Rob Gronkowski, poor advertising led to only 300 turning out in a space for thousands. 

What Gators get as a result of this is fewer students can see shows while it costs us more. These tens or hundreds of thousands are agreed to outside of the public eye, unless you request the contract. No town hall nor any official meeting occurs where students can weigh in. 

To learn how much is spent can be a lengthy process, waiting weeks to have the records returned by UF long after a guest speaker came.

There are many other unseen expenditures by SG. According to public records, in 2021 SG spent $7,191.20 on rain ponchos; this increased to $7,239.65 in 2022. 

For the SEC Exchange in 2022, SG spent $5,179.03 for student leaders and university staff to travel. In 2023, nearly $8,000 was spent on travel and hotels for that SEC Exchange. The event serves as a forum for SG leaders across the SEC, but it remains to be seen what benefits trickled down to students. Funding should be focused on fixing student’s problems, not travel.

One student whose travel and lodging were paid for held no SG office at the time.

In a time when students are complaining about the quality of the RTS app, the Student Senate could have stepped in to fund a permanent new app. But that was vetoed. Instead, the SG Senate line of the budget is expended on pizza for the housing fair in years past and now on t-shirts. Are those expenditures really moving the needle forward on what students need?

For one final example, $15,750 was spent on the Guinness attempt for the most fistbumps with a mascot in 3 minutes. It was held in the football stadium, but I only saw a few dozen students watch it. Class Councils, an agency of SG, organized and funded the attempt.

SG spends thousands on programs without public input. No executive branch or cabinet meetings are public.

The student body operates under a disparity of information. Most students only know of such expenses because they place public record requests. SG and the four on-campus institutions it funds request tens of thousands with no publicly accessible spending accounting.

This disparity of information does not just affect students. When Senate crafts its budget every year, it does so with no event turnout data and zero idea of how much was spent. It is expected just to rubber-stamp the amounts by the administration.

Students need transparency in expenditures by SG and of student funds. These documents are already maintained via Docutraq, so why can SG not modify the system to make them readily available to all who want to see them?

Another question arises. If more of this money was given to student organizations, would it be more broadly beneficial to engage the arts, engineering and student flourishing

Myself and others are not convinced that locking tens of thousands in tuition to a handful of students with the special designation as “leaders” in SG when the Gator nation has thousands more in student organizations is wise.

Let us see how money is spent to better inform all voters on whether their elected leaders are acting to their benefit. If students believe spending is wasteful, they can allow that to inform their choice in who next allocated money. Inclusive, pluralistic democracy starts with having everyone’s voice heard. 

Accountability should not just come at the ballot box — it should play a role when options for spending our money are discussed until their adoption. Accountability through access to information is the spirit behind the concept of ‘government in the sunshine.’ It means a student should know immediately how their dollars are spent and get to make suggestions or criticisms. Greater transparency on my and your $19.06 means an SG whose impact is felt by all.

Ronin Lupien is a UF biomedical engineering senior.

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