TCU Senate, cultural groups face difficult budgeting choices

During annual budgetary negotiations between campus groups and the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate, where the purchasing power lies exactly can become a sticking point. For cultural groups, allocating their limited available funds to best advance their ends is even more crucial.

The Senate’s Treasury Procedures Manual (TPM) contains several rules governing which expenditures can and can’t be approved, some of which are dictated by TCU Senate. Others, including the mandate, which calls for each group to have three events per semester, are passed down from other branches of the TCU or the administration.

Many of these are open to interpretation. For example, Title III, Section 2.1, reads, “Since student organizations at Tufts have many different needs and requirements with regards to equipment, as a general guideline, the Treasury will weigh the need for such expenditures against the available resources.”

However, some of the rules are highly specific. Among these is the well-known “food cap.” Title III, Section 3.3 reads, “It is the feeling of the Treasury that programming should not be centered on food; food should not be an added incentive to an event,” and Section 3.3.3 specifies that groups “in Councils I and IV” must plan their budgets so that the amount of food does not exceed 40 percent of their total expenses. “Councils” are groupings of student organizations to which different rules apply.

Cultural groups are filed under “Council I,” one of the nine different councils. As of July 15, 2015, 34 Senate-funded organizations fell into the “cultural” category, according to the TPM, and for them, the food cap can be especially problematic. Sophomore Ashlynna Ng, president of the Singaporean Students Association, a Council I group, said that the food rules are an example of the budgeting process being too restrictive.

“[Removing the cap] might actually cut down on budgets overall,” Ng said. “One tangible thing about culture is food, but if we have to spend another 60 percent of our money on [other] things, then it’s definitely making us spend more money when we don’t actually necessarily have to.”

Each TCU-recognized group sits down for a one-on-one meeting with a member of the Allocations Board (ALBO) during the spring semester to create a budget for the next fiscal year that can be presented to and approved by the Senate. Sophomore Jack Colelli, the associate treasurer, works through the budgets of Council I groups with their group leaders.

“We either have to cap the food expenses or the overall budget [of each club],” Colelli said. “If we didn’t cap food expenses, every budget would be much, much larger. You have to cap one or the other due to financial restrictions — if we cap the overall budgets, we would be determining the influence and overall validity of every group, and we don’t want to have that say.”

Senior Senator and member of ALBO James Golden echoed this sentiment.

“[The funding process is] based on really reasonable measures that have been put in place to make sure we have fiscal stability and don’t run down the supplementary fund too fast,” Golden told the Daily in an email. “If any group, cultural or otherwise is denied funding, it’s because of blatant violation of some TPM provision. And quite frankly the provisions matter … We can’t make exceptions for every group or we would be broke.” 

The leaders of cultural groups, and in turn members of the ALBO, have had to grapple with the fact that these budget caps are imposed not just on organizations brought together by common interests but on cultural communities whose budgets tie directly into how their cultures are expressed. 

“I think definitely we need to move away from the culture clubs as interest groups — I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense to call the SSA an ‘interest group,’” Ng said. “It’s our identity, it’s not ‘oh, I have an interest in Singapore.’ It’s ‘I’m Singaporean.’”

Senior Michelle Lau, co-chair of Tufts Asian Student Coalition (TASC), also commented on the aspect of food to the identity of the cultural groups.

“Food and food ways are very much linked to our habits and our festivals and our holidays, and it’s very important and that’s how people bond,” Lau said. “The university shouldn’t be able to dictate what these marginalized groups are doing with their resources.”

Although she believes food is important, Lau doesn’t think it should be the only issue in the argument or even the main issue.

“I think just reducing it to food is, well, reductive,” she said. “The argument about food is a little bit of a side track; while yes, it’s important, it doesn’t define our culture.”

Even though the demographics and interests of student groups change from year to year, budgetary line items often can’t be changed once they have been decided.

“We’re undergoing a new structural change, and we’ve been reviewing all the events that we’ve done, and because our budget is so exact and restrictive; it’s really hard to take the money that we’ve been allocated and allocate it to new events,” junior Kevin Koo, publicity chair of both the Korean Students Association and TASC, said. “In a sense, [this means] perpetuating this idea of ‘legacy events,’ where you’re only doing the event because you don’t want to go through the process of planning new events.”

TCU Senate, for its part, faces choices about the needs of these groups and limited available funds.

“There are fundamental differences between every group on campus, which is why it’s hard to come up with a system that treats everyone fairly, and the best way to eliminate any sort of biases is to follow a rulebook: the TPM,” Colelli said. “To no extent can we decide what a culture group is to its culture. Senate doesn’t and shouldn’t have any say in what a culture group [is to] a community.”

At a meeting of the Pan Asian Council on March 6, several group leaders spoke about the friction that these guidelines and procedures create between the TCU Senate and their groups.

“We’re communities of people, of identities and bodies. And when you start to place restrictions — and I understand why they [TCU Senate] place restrictions because they’re dealing with money — but it’s a weird line you’re crossing because you’re dealing with relationships and with people,” junior Yumi Casagrande, co-president of the Japanese Culture Club, said.

Others, including junior Jade Chan, president of the Hong Kong Student Association, agreed.

“We’re representing communities,” Chan said. “I think what they’re doing makes sense, since we can’t get all the money that we want, and I think that’s valid, but I think it can be approached in a way that doesn’t make the things I’m asking for feel invalid, or [our groups] feel belittled and defensive.”