Editorial: TCU Senate and ECOM should improve transparency and budget focus in elections

Among the expenses included in the cost of attendance each year for Tufts undergraduates is the Student Activity Fee; the fee for the 2019–20 school year is $382. While this fee may not seem significant relative to the total yearly cost of attendance, it adds up. Collectively, all students’ activity fees amount to a budget of over $2 million, managed entirely by the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate. The Board of Trustees of Tufts University has vested the TCU Senate “with complete responsibility for the allocation, management, and distribution of the Student Activities Fee” to TCU-recognized student groups.

While the Senate has multiple responsibilities, its power to allocate funds is among its most significant. Membership in the TCU is contingent on being an undergraduate at Tufts and paying the required Student Activity Fee. Payment of this fee defines membership to the TCU and who the TCU government serves; it lies central to the Senate’s constitutional purpose and function. Therefore, it is critical that students have an active voice in who manages the activities fee fund and how that money is allocated. 

Although the distribution of the activities fee clearly affects students’ daily lives, students have little direct say in this aspect of governance. The TCU Senate Treasury, in conjunction with the Allocations Board (ALBO), allocates funds to organizations recognized by the TCU Judiciary and monitors the budgets and transactions of these organizations. The funding decisions proposed by ALBO require a majority vote from the full Senate to be enacted. The Senate internally selects which senators are on the ALBO. However, the financial platforms of these senators are not publicly available unless these candidates decide to disclose their policies. The student body directly elects senators but is often kept unaware of the financial priorities of those who make budgetary recommendations.

The treasury section of the TCU website provides links to complete budget sheets, and the Treasury Procedure Manual provides guidelines for allocations. Yet the detailed nature of these procedural outlines does not make the allocation of funds algorithmic and cannot completely remove biases from the decision-making process. It is crucial that students know the priorities, values and financial competencies of those managing the activities fee. 

Furthermore, upwards of $2 million is a lot of money, and it is important to ensure that it is used in accord with the desires of the majority of the student body. The TCU election process as it currently stands does not promote financial transparency. It doesn’t grant students ample opportunity to understand and examine the candidates’ policies, especially their financial policies, before elections. While the Elections Commission (ECOM) does have a page on which candidates can write a short biography, the website is not comprehensive. The biographies provided are not long enough to give the student body substantial information about candidates’ priorities. Most platforms consist of broad ideals and general statements, often unrelated to the allocation of the activities fee, and in lieu of these, many students depend instead on individual candidates’ advertisements to receive information.

Candidates largely promote themselves with a combination of social media, physical posters, sidewalk chalk and candidate forums. This method of campaigning does not give students an adequate idea of the range of candidates and their fiscal positions. Many students, particularly first-years unfamiliar with the TCU government and its election process, may not even know who they will vote for until election day. The current system does not offer adequate transparency, making it difficult to carefully consider who they would like to represent their interests on important financial and social issues.

It is essential that ECOM promote greater transparency and informational accessibility in the election process. ECOM should better advertise candidates’ bios; these are the most effective, consolidated election materials that voters have at their disposal. Furthermore, bios should not merely be four to five sentences long, considering that candidates vie to have influence over a more than $2 million budget. ECOM should require that candidates answer a set of questions in their platform regarding their financial priorities, where they desire to see money allocated and any prior experience with allocating funds and budget management. 

These changes would not require much on the part of the TCU Senate or ECOM. They are not fundamental changes to the structure of the Senate, but they are small yet essential mechanisms through which the student body can gain access to the visions that candidates have for the TCU Senate and the allocation of the Activity Fee. Ultimately, making election materials clearer and more accessible to voters would only help the TCU Senate fulfill its mission to “represent the interests and desires of the TCU.”