Student groups owe thousands in accumulated debt

By RUDY MALCOM | April 6, 2019

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The SLI office has faced high turnover rates over the past few years.
EDA INCEKARA / The News-Letter

This fall, the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) informed dozens of student groups that they had deficits in their accounts going back several years, sometimes upward of a decade. 

Some groups learned that they owed tens of thousands of dollars to the University, according to Student Government Association (SGA) Executive President AJ Tsang. SLI told two groups that they had accumulated over $100,000 in debt.

“It’s unsettling that this much debt and these many deficits could have existed for as long as they have without being noticed,” Tsang said. “It’s worrying that current students are paying for mistakes that were made in the past, either by their distant predecessors or by SLI itself.”

Tsang explained that while working with SLI, Dean of Student Life Smita Ruzicka, who joined the University this August, uncovered unpaid security charges for events, along with other previously unknown deficits. 

He added that some groups had pending charges in their accounts dating back over four years, before any current students were enrolled at the University. Many student groups accumulated fluctuating amounts of debt as SLI continued its investigations.

The News-Letter spoke to members of Witness Theater, College Democrats, Adoremus, Spring Fair, Hopkins Feminists, Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium and Korean American Student Association (KASA). They reported difficulties communicating with SLI both in general and specifically about their finances.

Ruzicka, Executive Director of Student Engagement Laura Stott and newly appointed SLI Director Calvin Smith, Jr., explained what went wrong and how they plan on resolving the issues.

Delayed budgets

Senior Witness Executive Producer Charlie Linton stated that Witness did not receive its budget until mid-November — after the group had already put on its first show. He recounted calling and emailing the budget office multiple times and receiving no response. Only while on the way home for Thanksgiving did he learn how much money Witness had.

He explained that the timing of SLI’s response delayed set design on Witness’ then-upcoming 2018 Intersession showcase, their highest-earning event of the year. He wished SLI gave student groups their budgets at the beginning of the year.

“That is not an unreasonable ask,” he said. “I don’t blame the budget office if they’re understaffed or if they’ve inherited very inefficient systems, but it makes being a student group here very difficult.”

Tsang noted that only one person, Jackie Morton, serves as the budget specialist for over 400 student groups. He believes that this may have contributed to budget delays.

“Jackie can’t be the only one doing stuff,” he said. “She works so hard, but you could put a Nobel Prize winner in that office and, at the end of the day, they wouldn’t be able to handle everything.”

Ruzicka explained that this year, many student groups received their budgets later than usual because many administrators involved in the process were relatively new to Hopkins. This included herself, Stott and Office of the Dean of Student Life (ODSL) Administrative Manager Alyssa Petroff, who oversees ODSL’s budget.

Ruzicka believes that by improving budget management systems, SLI and ODSL could prevent the high administrative turnover rate from exacerbating communication and budget issues.

“We should move away from being reliant on individual people and their institutional memory or their job scope to ensuring that our processes are curated and articulated in a way that anyone new to the organization can step in and learn and begin the work of serving our students,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

She plans to develop new ways to communicate with student groups about their budgets. According to Ruzicka, this will clarify when groups need to submit their budget proposals and create concrete guidelines for the contents of the proposals.

“Even though the budget allocation process was late, what we did hear from student groups was positive,” she said. “This was the first time that student groups had really received something in writing telling them what their allocation was.”

Stott added that her office also experimented with a program that would help student groups track their funds. Ruzicka and Stott hope to provide student groups with monthly budget updates on the Hopkins Groups website. Ruzicka also discussed plans for a module that will allow students to keep track of their organizations’ past budget proposals and other historical records in one secure place. 

Ruzicka intends to improve internal reporting systems, accounting systems and budget staff trainings.

“We’re making sure we have more eyes on the actual process so there’s less room for error and there are different levels of accountability,” she said.

“Mysterious debt”

Last semester, SLI allocated a cappella group Adoremus $1,700, as noted by Madelynn Wellons, the organization’s president. A few days later, Wellons said, Adoremus members were told that they were $1,500 in debt and that they could not host any events until they repaid the University. 

Calculations for student groups’ amount of debt fluctuated, Ruzicka said, as she, Stott and Petroff uncovered more information and learned more about the University’s budgeting systems and sources of funding.

Ruzicka explained that she could not speak to how SLI and ODSL kept track of debts in the past and would only comment on what they were doing to address these issues moving forward. She asserted that she would work toward ensuring that new generations of student leaders do not inherit previous debt. 

“Our commitment now is to have closer relationships with our student organization treasurers and helping them understand the fundamentals of budgeting,” Ruzicka said.

Kirsten Fricke, who was director of SLI from June 2016 to December 2018, could not be reached for comment on how SLI and ODSL kept track of debts in the past. Her predecessors Terry Martinez and Tiffany Sanchez declined to comment. 

Senior Executive Director of Student Affairs Finance and Administration Mary O’Connell, however, offered a different reasoning for the uncovered debt in an email to The News-Letter. She explained that the responsibilities of staff members have evolved this year, but the processes for tracking debt remain unchanged. 

“Staff members this year are also providing higher levels of student organization advising, including budget management,” she wrote.

Nevertheless, some students felt that SLI’s structure seemed unclear.

Aspen Williams, who is part of Spring Fair, was unsure which SLI staff member to ask about the group’s debt. 

“Bureaucracy gets in the way of efficient communication,” Williams said. “It makes it really difficult for students to do their jobs correctly when there’s so many administrators between them and the person who’s really in charge.”

Williams was unable to figure out how much the club owed, citing inconsistent budget numbers and fluctuating debt. Wellons, on the other hand, was able to go through Adoremus’ budgets and transactions from past years with a member of SLI. 

Wellons discovered that most of the club’s debt actually belonged to another student group and had been mistakenly charged to their account.

“We found out that there were two reasons why this mysterious debt that we never knew was there was suddenly there. One was that for some reason, over $2,000 was charged to our account but should’ve been charged to Mock Trial,” she said.

The other reason was that SLI had given Adoremus incorrect information about their budget.

Wellons noted, however, that it is common for student groups to try to spend their whole budget by the end of the year.

“The general rule among student groups is that if you don’t spend the money you’re allocated, you’re probably going to get a reduction in the amount you’re given the next year,” she said.

She added that if a group were to have leftover funds, SLI would assume that the group needed less money. According to Wellons, groups are consequently incentivized to spend all their money by the end of the year.

Although she was originally told that Adoremus would not be able to run events until they could afford it, she said that Ruzicka has been working with many groups to allow them to function while they resolve their debt.

“Even though it’s a really frustrating situation for a lot of student groups, I appreciate how Dean Ruzicka and everyone at SLI and ODSL have been working to ensure that students can still participate in these groups and hold events regardless of what they can financially contribute,” Wellons said.

Unprocessed forms

This year, the budget for Hopkins Feminists was cut down by half, according to sophomore Treasurer Gabriella Tincher. Tincher does not believe that SLI is serving students adequately.

“Hopkins promotes activist groups and says, ‘Look how diverse we are.’ And then they don’t give money to the ones that need it,” she said.

Tincher explained that SLI ignored Hopkins Feminists’ reimbursement forms on several occasions. She added that the group’s purchase requests also went unprocessed often, which limited its capability to hold events.

“Last semester, we didn’t get to use any of our money because of that problem,” she said. “I kept putting in purchase requests, and [SLI] never followed through.”

Tincher cited an instance where she submitted a purchase request 10 days in advance. A month later, SLI sent her an email denying the purchase request because it was overdue. However, Tincher emphasized that the request was only noted as overdue because SLI had not processed it on time.

College Democrats President Michael Hammer agreed, adding that he has had similar experiences. He no longer believes filling out purchase request forms is worthwhile.

“It’s easier to pay... for whatever event it is on your own,” he said.

Stott stated that SLI staff members other than Budget Specialist Jackie Morton have now been trained to respond to students’ emails about purchase requests and reimbursements. Stott believes that having more than one person looking at emails will lead to faster responses and processing. 

Furthermore, Ruzicka explained that SLI has hired a temporary staff member to help Morton with budget transactions for the spring. Ruzicka added that she would advocate to hire someone to permanently fill this position if SLI and DOSL deemed it necessary. She noted, however, that creating more efficient budget structures may eventually free up some of the staff’s time and thereby eliminate the need for a permanent position.

Barriers to effective communication

Senior MSE Symposium Co-Chair Alejo Perez-Stable Husni believes that SLI complicates the process of bringing speakers to campus and in turn devalues the quality of student life.

“The groups that are supposed to open debate or disseminate new ideas on campus... end up becoming arenas for the University to flex its muscles on students,” he said. “Things that are meant to provide services to Hopkins students would really benefit from having a more democratic structure that isn’t aligned directly with the administration.”

Perez-Stable Husni met with Fricke in November to discuss a potential collaborative event in February between MSE and the Foreign Affairs Symposium (FAS). At the meeting, Fricke informed him that MSE’s budget was suddenly being cut by $10,000 due to unknown deficits.

Perez-Stable Husni believes that this episode highlights SLI’s failure to facilitate student programming. He cited the time MSE brought radical political theorist George Ciccariello-Maher to campus as another example of this pattern.

In September, Perez-Stable Husni submitted a guest speaker addendum indicating that Ciccariello-Maher would speak at Hopkins on Nov. 28. However, Fricke emailed Perez-Stable Husni over Thanksgiving break, saying that the form was invalid.

“Because [Ciccariello-Maher] didn’t have an agent, I needed him to sign an independent contractor form, which I’d never heard of,” Perez-Stable Husni said.

According to Perez-Stable Husni, SLI never trained MSE to properly deal with guest speakers’ agents. He added that it was difficult to communicate with SLI officials.

“There was never a relationship of transparency between us and SLI. We would submit things, and it was like a black hole,” he said. “It felt like SLI wasn’t actually interested in helping to make important, big events happen.”

Budgetary challenges for new groups

Korean-American Students Association (KASA) Co-President Aran Chang said that the group did not receive this year’s budget until the end of January. Chang stated, however, that the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) had reached out to the other cultural groups whose budgets it oversees in November.

Chang explained that he asked Cheryl Jenkins, OMA’s administrative coordinator and budget administrator, for KASA’s budget multiple times. He said that it often took her over a week to email him back. 

“I can’t blame her because there are just so many groups she has to keep track of,” he said.

Chang realized after numerous conversations with staff in OMA, SLI and the Multicultural Leadership Council that KASA would not receive their budget until this spring because they had not yet been an official student group for a full year. 

“There was a huge amount of miscommunication; we were talking to three different parties about the budget, but no one ever told us about this situation,” Chang said. “It was incredibly frustrating, especially because we had a lot of members that paid out of pocket thinking they would get the money soon.”

After winning a voter registration competition in November, KASA tried to cash a check. However, without a budget number they could not do so. Chang explained that University officials failed to address KASA’s concerns and clearly answer their questions. 

“We couldn’t do anything with that money,” Chang said.

According to Chang, Jenkins repeatedly told KASA that she would let them know when she had more information about their budget. At the end of the semester, junior KASA Treasurer Senyoung Kim said that Jenkins claimed that she was not in charge of KASA’s budget. Chang then emailed Ruzicka, who confirmed a week later that Jenkins was in fact in charge of KASA’s budget.

Jenkins did not respond to The News-Letter’s requests for comment as of press time. Ruzicka, however, discussed the situation in an email to The News-Letter.

“There were some initial communication delays because [KASA was] a new group and there was a delay in getting their information communicated from SAC [Student Activities Commission] to our SLI staff,” she wrote. “This particular scenario provided us with some vital information about some gaps in our process and communication that we are currently addressing and working on fixing.”

The future of SLI

Ruzicka explained that she and Stott recognized a need to refine SLI’s focus. At the end of February, JHUnions became a separate office from SLI. JHUnions includes the Hopkins Organization for Programming (HOP), Hoptoberfest and Spring Fair.

Ruzicka believes that this will allow SLI to concentrate on areas like student leadership development and budget management instead of programming and facilities. She added that JHUnions will continue to strive to improve the student experience.

Calvin Smith, Jr., who was promoted from director of Fraternity and Sorority Leadership to director of SLI this February, elaborated on his goals for the office in an email to The News-Letter.

“The primary purpose of SLI is to assist students and student organizations in building community at JHU,” he wrote. “It is my sincere hope that SLI can be a conduit to achieving this ideal.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Adoremus overspent their budget this year. In reality, according to Wellons, Adoremus owed debt in part because SLI gave them incorrect budget information.

The News-Letter regrets this error.

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