SU considers options for student activities fee allocation as University refunds dining, housing

Ellie Ito and Ted Moskal | Staff Reporters

Washington University will begin to refund housing and dining balances on a prorated basis, raising several questions regarding additional refunds and forms of compensation for students. Specifically, there have been questions about the allocation of the $3.6 million Student Activities Fee.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Since the campus closed for the semester, Student Union (SU) members have been working through challenges regarding the fee—which amounted to $271 per student—and where the remainder of the funding will be allocated. The exact amount of funding that remains is unclear, due to outstanding contracts and reimbursements that have yet to be processed.

SU President freshman Ranen Miao announced in an email to the student body that $80,000 would be donated to the Wash. U. Crisis Response Fund. To further discuss how the remaining funds should be allocated, SU opened their joint session to all members of the University community via Zoom on April 7.

During the Zoom session, SU members generally agreed that graduating seniors should receive a partial refund, but the members were divided in their decision on what to do with the remaining funds. Treasury Representative freshman Raghed Khaled Abdel-Tawab argued that funds should be allocated for next semester’s programming in order to help students readjust to being back on campus.

“If we can do something as in a larger programming event besides the programming events that we have scheduled for next fall, I think that definitely would help us in the healing process… and give a lot of students an extra thing to look forward to when they get back in the fall,” Abdel-Tawab said.

Many SU members also supported using a small amount of SU funding to host virtual programming for the remainder of the spring semester, although what exactly this programming would look like remains unclear.

“[Virtual programming] is something that a lot of us have been having conversations about,” SU VP of Finance junior Alexa Jochims said. “We are trying to make sure that we are promoting a sense of community among students and among student groups over the next several months, and trying to see if we should set aside some smaller account for virtual programming.”

Treasury Representative sophomore Joel Brody came up with the idea of using some of the remaining funding from this semester to create an SU “endowment” which could be invested and used to cover costs in the future. SU Senator junior Adin Erlich agreed that creating an SU endowment would be beneficial in the long run.

“At the end of the day if we can put this money in a separate endowment spot, we can use the interest off of that to put it into the money that we are supposed to pay for the mental health fund and things like that, which I think would take a big burden off our shoulders in terms of general budget,” Erlich said.

Sophomore senator Philip Keisler suggested more immediate action by allocating SU funding to the University’s crisis response fund in addition to the $80,000 already contributed.

“I think that money would be better put into the crisis fund to make sure that money is going to people who are really needing it because of this crisis,” Keisler said. “We are in pretty unique circumstances that I think warrant us to really put the money where it is going to benefit the students who need it the most and not maybe benefit every single student.”

However, freshman senator Nkemjika Emenike disagreed with Keisler’s assertion, arguing that a partial refund of the Student Activities Fee to students would be a more direct and effective way of supporting students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The crisis fund, while it is a good cause, I don’t think it gives a lot of agency for students to control when they want their money and how they want their money because it has to go through the school ultimately,” Emenike said. “That’s why I think a partial refund would be better. I think if students want to donate those funds, that’s great and that’s something that we want, but there are many students who are not in that situation of privilege.”

SU’s decision making process was made even more difficult by the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely shift enrollment for colleges and universities in affected areas.

“University admissions and different areas of campus are thinking about what this crisis means for undergraduate enrollment,” Jochims said. “If enrollment does fluctuate a lot, we could be looking at a deficit of $400,0000-$500,000.”

In order to make the best decision about how to allocate the remainder of the Student Activities Fee, all SU members agreed that some sort of feedback from the student body would be necessary. However, disagreements arose over how feedback would be gathered and how important this feedback should be in the decision making process.

Junior senator Sophie Scott argued that a survey sent to the student body would be the best way to effectively garner student feedback, and presented a rough draft of what this survey might look like.

However, Budget Committee Chair sophomore Fadel Alkilani expressed doubts about the ability of the student body to understand the intricacies of SU’s budgetary process and argued that these important decisions should be made by experienced SU members. He suggested open office hours as a way for SU members to hear the concerns of the student body while still making informed decisions.

“Part of the job that we were elected or appointed to do is to take in information and make these decisions,” Alkilani said. “Basically, a lot of students don’t have a lot of the context or the information that we will hopefully have by the time this decision is made, and a survey just does not capture in any way the nuances of these decisions and the nuances of what needs to happen.”

In response to Alkilani’s assertion, Scott emphasized that SU could still make an independent and informed decision after viewing the results of a survey, which would be more useful than hosting office hours since the survey would provide concrete and quantitative results.

“We may not be giving students quite enough credit here,” Scott said. “I think our job when we are being transparent is to come up with messaging and to try to communicate with students… Just as Fadel said, we would be doing our job by getting this input and we would still have that additional context to be able to make that decision at the end of the day.”

Outside of SU, University administrators are in the process of providing refunds for a number of University-provided services which students will no longer be able to take advantage of.

On April 1, Vice Chancellor for Finance Amy B. Kweskin and Dean of Students Rob Wild announced that refunds will be issued on a prorated basis for Residential and Greek Life housing fees and parking fees.

A portion of Health and Wellness fees will also be refunded, as medical staff are still working on campus. Specifics regarding the amount and timeline are currently unknown. On March 26, students with on-campus jobs were granted a credit to match the wages already earned this semester.

However, students and their families should not expect to receive partial tuition refunds.

“The rationale is that costs such as paying for professors’ salaries must still be taken into consideration,” Miao wrote in a statement to Student Life. “I’ve also been reaching out to other schools’ student governments too—from what I can tell, none of them have refunded tuition.”

For both SU and the Washington University administration, the process of determining the distribution of funding for the remainder of the semester will likely take a long time due to the complex nature of their financial responsibilities.

“Unfortunately, we have a number of outstanding contracts, reimbursements and other expenses that have yet to be processed by SU’s business staff, so we likely will not have any further updates on any remaining funds in SU’s accounts and how they can be used until late April or sometime in May,” Jochims wrote in a statement to Student Life.

SU business coordinators are actively working to sort out such issues and are posting updates on the SU website.

“I think this uncertainty very much emphasizes the state of everything right now: unpredictability,” freshman senator Kristina Lee wrote in a statement to Student Life. “SU members are persistent and passionate, and they are continuing in their efforts in bringing more resources and care to the Wash. U. community.”

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