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Fund Allocation Angst: Separate Funding for Graduates and Undergraduates are Unequitable

Guest Column Devabhaktuni Srikrishna

Tuesday's headline announcing major increases in next year's student activities budget to $300,000 is welcome news ["Provost Grants $300K in Funds for Student Activities Next Year", March 31]. This generous measure on the part of Provost Joel Moses deserves applause from all students and student groups at MIT. The quality of student life at MIT will certainly be given a major boost, if these new resources are allocated responsibly.

The Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council serve as the exclusive conduits through which these funds are allocated. My group, Sangam, is a group of students, graduate and undergraduate, who love to bring the culture and experience of India to MIT. I can describe the problems Sangam has had in getting allocations, and these problems expose certain inadequacies of the UA and GSC funding policies. Resolving these problems will go a long way toward ensuring that the $300,000 is spent in a way that reflects the needs of students.

First, there are major problems with the distinction between undergraduate groups and graduate student groups for funding purposes: The UA and GSC are here to legitimately represent the specific and special interests of undergraduates and graduate students on campus. However, the existence of separate funding boards for undergraduates and graduate students appears to have little rational basis. The two funding boards only serve to further propagate the division of undergraduates and graduates students. Additionally, the two boards seems to lacking sensitivity for the funding needs of student groups like Sangam which strive to serve the undergraduate and graduate communities alike.

By any measure, Sangam is among the most active student organizations on campus (number of events, level of student participation, etc.). Sangam serves undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral students, faculty, and staff. Every year, Sangam's concerts, talks, IAP classes, sports, and social events consistently evoke participation from hundreds of students of all backgrounds. Sangam is proud to receive active participation at our events from both undergraduates and graduates in nearly equal numbers. Student groups like Sangam bring the MIT community together, and serve to foster interaction and friendship between undergraduates and graduate students.

Despite of the nature of Sangam, the UA and GSC insist that Sangam's UA and GSC funding proposals must be for distinct events. Sangam's allocation from the UA for Spring 98 fell far short of the what was required to fund Sangam's activities, including the annual cultural show in April. The culture show has come to be regarded as a campus institution (this year it is co-sponsored with SAAS and Paksmit). The culture show is performed and produced with the effort of hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, and attended by over a thousand people from all sections of the MIT community. By cutting our funding allocation and not allowing us to apply to both funding boards for the same event, the UA and GSC exhibited a lack sensitivity for this special funding need. They forced us to search for funding elsewhere on campus. If it hadn't been for the generous grants we unexpectedly received from the MIT Council for the Arts and the Campus Committee on Race Relations, our funding for the cultural show would have remained woefully inadequate.

The second major problem is the Provost's failure to ensure that the funds are allocated fairly. In the best interests of students, the Provost releases funds intended to support our activities. But the Provost must also try to ensure that these funds are distributed equitably among student groups by taking into account the needs and demographics of the student population.

This year's Provost's special allocation of $40,000 to student activities, of which only $8,000 went to graduate student activities, exemplifies how funds are being distributed in a seemingly ad-hoc manner. Not a single reasonable justification for this inequitable distribution of funds has been brought to my attention.

The consequences of this unfair distribution are being felt by many groups. For example, the Sangam Bhangra Team's participation in the Bhangra Blowout Competition in Washington, D.C. was only partially funded through the UA. The team included an equal number of graduate and undergraduate students, but the GSC denied funding for the trip. It is revealing to view the reasoning behind the GSC's decision, quoted from the official communication from the GSC funding board to Sangam: "Your appeal to the GSC Funding Board to obtain funding during the spring term was denied. Since the UA received $32,000 of the Provost's $40,000 and the GSC only $8,000, the GSC funding board has explicitly stated that it will not fund any event supported by the Provost's fund through the UA. We are therefore unable to allocate any funds for this event."

The third major issue is the responsiveness and responsibility of the funding boards. Sangam's Spring 98 allocation, for instance, has been cut in half in from last semester's allocation, despite much larger funding needs this semester. As a result, Sangam was forced to scale back the events it sponsors, and Sangam had to seek institute funding elsewhere for the cultural show. The UA did not provide justifications for these abrupt changes in funding patterns, nor did Sangam's UA contact representative respond to our requests for consultation during the funding application process.

If the UA and GSC wish to be seen as responsive to student needs, they should recognize that the funding boards have a responsibility to actually meet the funding needs of the student groups, instead of trying to abdicate their responsibility and deepen the divide among undergraduates and graduate students. The UA and GSC must earn and restore the trust that is placed in their funding boards with regards to allocation of Institute funds. In light of the increased funding for next year, perhaps we ought to re-think how institute money is allocated to student groups.

Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, a graduate student in Course VI, is the president of Sangam.