Wash. U. should clarify how tuition dollars are spent

Fangzhou Xiao | Staff Columnist

It was 5:30 in the morning, and I was looking for Chancellor Mark Wrighton, having heard he makes a habit of walking his dog on the South 40 before sunrise. Caressed by the humid breeze, I walked down Shepley Drive while murmuring to myself: “Could you tell me—in detail—how my tuition is spent?” After wandering another three miles on Forsyth Boulevard, my fruitless morning adventure ended.

But the question persists: “Could you tell me—in detail—how my tuition is spent?” Recently, tuition rose precisely 3.8 percent again, but no more information was provided about where my money is spent. I’m not asking for too much—just a simple breakdown of what proportion of my tuition is spent on research, tenure, administration, renovation, landscape, etc., in the form of a chart or diagram that is easy to understand.

However, this demand is apparently too much for the University. Before my morning adventure, I spent two hours searching on the University’s website, only to end up with the same data I can get from the Student Life article, “Tuition continues to rise, topping $44k.”

Then I began to think in terms of a bigger scope: Why do I not have access to detailed information about where the University gets its money from and where it invests that money? I searched the University’s website and found a small amount of outdated information: “Financial data, June 30, 2011. Operating budget: $2,122,895,000. Investment in physical plant: $1,905,034,000. Endowment, market value: $5,348,871,000.”

I want a breakdown of both the expenditure of the tuition, and the revenue and expenditure of the University as a whole. This breakdown will significantly reduce potential conflicts and misunderstandings between students and the University. Gabriel Dash, a freshman in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, says he participated in a petition in last semester for allocating more architecture tuition toward drawing and building supplies. One reason that this petition had no significant result is that we do not even know where tuition dollars are spent and how the University spends all of its money. Another question of interest is the confirmation or rejection of a half-serious, but widely circulated, complaint that the University spends a significant portion of its endowment on repeated landscape renovations.

Later, I found a link to the University’s Audited Financial Statement for 2012. In this document, there is a fairly detailed breakdown of the financial status of the University, presented using professional jargon.

Rather than being satisfied with this document, however, I have more questions. Why did it take me so much time to find it? And why was I only able to find it because I lucked out? If the University already has this detailed financial statement updated at the end of every year, why is it not published on websites more often browsed by students and the public, such as the “Facts” tab on the “About WUSTL” page? In addition, why is this information not transformed into a more accessible form, like pie charts or other diagrams that the general student body can easily understand?

Transparency, by definition, is not about simply putting information on a website, but about “the quality of being easy to understand or know about,” according to Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. And when the Senate talks about functioning as a bridge between students and the University administration, it shouldn’t mean restricting information within a committee or sending out long resolutions that no one is interested in reading.

Transparency—in terms of accessibility to students— is what both Student Union and the University administration need to work on. This transparency is the key to communication between the students and the University.

That said, I’m optimistic about the progress of transparency here at Washington University. We have a tradition of friendly and accessible faculty and staff. On top of that, we have a chancellor who has made a great personal effort in allocating a time slot every day for office hours: 5 a.m. on Forsyth Boulevard. All are welcome.

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