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Students Tackle Accounts Problem

By Jennifer DeBoer and Brian Loux

STAFF REPORTERS

Representatives from the Association of Student Activities, Dormitory Council, Graduate Student Council, Undergraduate Administration, The Tech, Technique, and Alpha Phi Omega met Sunday to formulate a list of requirements for the new MIT banking system that will forcibly replace outside bank accounts currently operated by student groups.

The groups hope to gain more feedback and organize their requests before speaking with the Student Finances Office of Residential Life and Student Life Programs and the Treasurer’s Office. Other student groups are working either independently or with ASA to voice their opinions to RLSLP.

All groups agreed that improved online access, quicker turn-around time for transactions, and extended business hours were necessary to match the flexibility of outside bank accounts. Students also called for clearer account statements, a written agreement ensuring freedom and full control over accounts for student groups, and a yearly review process in which students can give feedback to accounting management.

“We’re not yet sure how many services they can actually provide,” said GSC President Sanith Wijensinghe. “Whether or not they will be able to give us the services they promise by the date they’ve set depends on how seriously they take the job they have.”

Accounts move prompts meeting

The announcement of the change was made by MIT Treasurer Allan S. Bufferd to several student group leaders last Tuesday. Bufferd asked student leaders to inform the student population, but the move was met with much dissension.

“The DormCon president just started screaming at that point,” said UA Financial Board member Arthur G. Fitzmaurice ’03.

“I mentioned on Tuesday that if they don’t match the banks’ offers, there will be a black market,” said ASA President Jennifer S. Yoon ’03. “They realize this fact and that the plan is almost infeasible to do before July 2002. This may mean that the idea gets pushed back another year to compensate for time.”

An investigative committee, headed by Managing Director of the Treasurer’s Office William A. Heitin, said it had “discovered illegitimate activities occurring through outside accounts of several student groups; these included both embezzlement and fraud charges currently undergoing criminal investigations,” according to an e-mail sent by the ASA executive board.

At the meeting last Tuesday, Heitin referenced the case of funds missing from The Tech’s outside bank accounts. “They mentioned The Tech was one of the most recent and the most severe [cases],” said DormCon President Matthew S. Cain ’02.

Associate Dean for Student Life Programs Barbara A. Baker said that many problems occurred when outside accounts were reallowed in 1996. “This was not prompted by just one incident,” she said. Heiten and other investigative committee members were unavailable for comment.

Yoon said that she felt that the string of financial problems student groups have faced stem from a history of substandard accounting practices. “It’s upsetting that students don’t show up to financial services treasurer trainings, but they should,” she said.

Student Finances Associate Laurie Ward said she was hoping to install consistent training for treasurers, and will work this summer to update the system. “We really need to simplify the rules. It’s pretty simple; we’re just a bank,” she said. “Now we need to get the rules out in a clear format.”

Leaders concerned about changes

Since a formal announcement to all ASA student leaders Friday morning, many student groups have shown great concern about the potential damage that internalization could bring.

“Student groups count on resources outside banks can give that MIT can’t,” Fitzmaurice said. “For a theater group I was involved in, we took the money from our ticket sales straight to a night deposit box. LSC operates similarly, since they can’t really wait until Monday morning to deposit such a large amount of money.”

UA President Josiah D. Seale ’03 agreed. “Not being able to do this means some student groups won’t be able to survive. We both have the same goal because nobody wants our money to be embezzled, but there are many ways to go about this and I can't support removing outside bank accounts until these things are in place.”

Also among the list of expectations was the possibility of earning interest, a benefit not currently offered to bank accounts within MIT. “Some of the groups with large amounts of money in outside accounts, such as LSC, depend on that substantial source of income,” Fitzmaurice said.

ASA Treasurer Alvar Saenz Otero G, last year’s GSC president, said that the GSC’s main concern was retaining the ability to write checks. “Supervising that ability would solve the problem the administration wants to solve, and we are very eager to work with the administration,” he said.

“A lot of the concern is that first of all student government and representatives were not part of the formulative process of this change,” Wijesinghe said. “This is a continuation of the same trend we’ve seen this past semester, and we have to tackle this as a systematic problem. Institute committees are one way to have more of a say, but lots of issues don’t go through these committees. We have to find out what level of administration the process starts. If its just a single person, there’s no way to be part of the setup.”

Meeting congeals plan of action

At the meeting Sunday, students agreed to gather more input and reactions from students. The ASA is continuing to do so presently.

“What we’ve seen is there are a lot of students that want their voice heard,” Yoon said. “We’ve received much feedback from representatives.”

“The GSC is in the same position,” Saenz Otero said. “We also want to hear from them. I know that ... this is not a closed case at all for the GSC.”

“I think there’s nothing truly settled down because the list that the ASA has received is huge,” Saenz Otero said. “We have to compile the list of ‘must happens’ and truly figure out the real ones.”

The ASA executive board plans to meet on May 16 to condense the list of proposals and then send them to the RLSLP and treasurer’s offices.

“Our primary goal right now is to be sure that there is enough time for student groups adjust to whatever changes the administrators want to make,” Yoon said. “It seems they are adamant about changing it ... so the ASA is looking out for the best interest of its constituents.”

Wijesinghe had a different agenda. “First, we are trying to see if the date can be shifted further back. [We need] a more gradual change than this,” he said.

Saenz Otero also said that the GSC is considering alternatives to the internalization of all bank accounts, but said the organization first wanted to speak with the administration.

Members of the RLSLP office have heard preliminary requests from students and “we intend to be very responsive,” Ward said. “It’s not going to be easy, but we are going to make it easier.”

RLSLP has already acted to improve services since the original meeting with student organizations last week. Ward said that the office can now accept deposits and make printed statements available.

Groups also act individually

There have been several informal meetings between representatives of student groups and various administrators discussing individual concerns. For example, representatives from the ASA and UA spoke to Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict and Heitin, and incoming DormCon President Grace R. Kessenich spoke with administrators from RLSLP.

“No one group has real control over the process, Cain said. “We are all working together.”

“We’ve had many different conversations with the students,” Baker said. “We will probably pull that together in the next two weeks.”

Currently, members of various student groups are working on a letter addressed to RLSLP according to Cain. They hope that other student organizations will attach their signatures to the letter. “We are working on a unified response,” said Lecture Series Committee Chairman Roger A. Ford ’02. “LSC will greatly be affected by this, as well as other student groups and dorms. Most student groups think it is a bad idea and feel MIT must have a more concrete plan.” Ford hopes the response will be ready by next week.

“I’m not sure if we’re going to send our requests as a separate letter,” Yoon said. “I think [other student groups and the ASA] are on the same page here and we do not want students to be left out of important decisions like this ... We will speak to Heider soon.”

At the most recent meeting, DormCon voted that keeping the outside bank accounts would be most ideal. “We like the control and the flexibility and ease of access they offer,” Cain said. Many dormitories such as Baker House have external accounts as well as internal ones.

Seale addressed the UA on the state of the matter after being sworn in Monday night. “The only thing I could really say is that the issue is still up in the air,” he said. Seale advised students make their voice heard through comments to ASA or Finboard.