SLI initiative will allow groups to track finances

By RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI | November 7, 2019

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FILE PHOTO Student organization leaders reacted to changes in SLI group policy.

Recently, the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) announced a new financial module through which all allocation of funds will now be handled. In an email to student organization leaders on Oct. 22, SLI detailed several other changes to existing policies, including an organizational audit, new purchase request procedures as well as new trainings for student organization leaders.

This announcement followed the Student Organization Summit that was held in conjunction with the Student Government Association (SGA) on Oct. 16, where SLI presented the module.

Sophomore Sam Bacon, a member of Spring Fair, acknowledged the importance of these changes in an interview with The News-Letter.

“This is a rebuilding year for student organizations here at Johns Hopkins and I look forward to better communication in the future,” he said.

The News-Letter spoke to members of Adoremus, Spring Fair, Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium, Korean American Student Association (KASA), Dragon Boat Club, South Asian Students at Hopkins (SASH), Barnstormers, Lan Yun Blue Orchids Chinese Dance Team and Students for Environmental Action (SEA). These organizations generally approved of the new financial module, but some also reported confusion and unhappiness with the other changes.

SLI Director Calvin Smith explained how exactly these changes were developed, the time period in which they will be released and the reasoning behind the updates.

Financial Module

Smith wrote in his email that the new tool will allow groups under SLI, SGA and Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL), along with other relevant offices, to see changes to organizational account balances in real time. He explained that the new module will allow organizations to see their transaction history as well as approvals and denials for purchase requests. He further explained that SLI is looking to implement transfer features as well as monthly and annual budget requests at a later date.

Last fall, SLI told dozens of student groups that they had deficits in their accounts going back several years, and some groups reported difficulties communicating with SLI about their debt and budget numbers.

Keelin Reilly, president of SEA, said in an interview with The News-Letter that he had wanted something like this tool for years.

“It’s a great improvement. I think it’ll help,” he said. “With SEA in the past, we’ve had trouble keeping track of those things, especially when you have to go in and ask every time you want to know an up-to-date budget number for the organization. Having this information online will allow us to better keep track of our finances.”

Smith explained that the current purchase request form will be active until the end of the month until all organizations run through the Center for Social Concern (CSC) have fully transitioned to the new financial module. All other organizations must start using the financial module immediately. 

He added that development of the financial module began in the fall of 2018, based on concerns that the previous director of SLI had heard from student organization leaders and other stakeholders. Organization leaders can now check the status of their purchase requests, contact the SLI employees working on their requests and review a record of submitted and completed transactions.

He explained that SLI will be taking feedback and making immediate adjustments to ensure the new financial module works efficiently. 

Other organization leaders, like Reilly, see the finance module as a great step forward.

Siena DeMatteo, the finance chair of the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium, was optimistic about the new financial module and how it will make the planning of the organization’s events easier. 

“The new financial module will be a really positive asset. It’ll provide a lot more clarity into the status of our payments because a lot of them circle through a lot of other departments,” she said. “To be able to track the status of those payments through those other departments has been something we haven’t been able to do previously.” 

Ananya Kalahasti, co-president of SASH, believes the financial module will grant student organizations more financial control. 

She added that it can be challenging to check on her organization’s balance and financial obligations.

“The financial module will allow us a lot more autonomy concerning our finances in the future. I know, in the past, one of our biggest complaints has been what purchases hit our accounts and what haven’t,” she said.

Smith expressed his commitment to the module being transparent and accessible. He echoed Kalahasti’s sentiments about the value of real-time information.

“Students don’t want to find out about debt or deficits after the fact, which causes them to make adjustments to future budgets,” he wrote. “Ultimately, this module provides more transparency, and helps provide accountability for everyone involved in the process.”

Madelynn Wellons, president of the a capella group Adoremus, emphasized her optimism about the new financial module.

“I cannot stress enough how happy I am that we can now see our account balance at any time,” she said. 

On the other hand, Treasurer of Lan Yun Blue Orchids Chinese Dance, Alice Yang expressed concerns about the actual implementation of the module. 

“In theory, the module sounds great. However, in reality, it’s still not up and running yet. They have the front-end outline for a financial module, but no information populating it. Until that thing is properly implemented, we’re still at square one,” she said.

Smith explained that his office will be meeting with partners in the CSC and the Whiting School of Engineering to discuss whether or not those departments can also utilize the module.

Audits

SLI and SGA are working together to audit the finances and transaction history of every student organization on campus. The audit seeks to end exclusionary practices, put more organizations under SGA’s umbrella and encourage organizations to have clearly defined missions and completed documentation. The first round of these audits began on Oct. 10 and ended on Nov. 1.

Some student organizations, such as the MSE Symposium, do not anticipate any complications arising from the audit. DeMatteo explained that because her group has been compliant, she would be surprised if anything came up during the audit, but she acknowledged that she is not fully informed of the audit’s exact details. 

“I don’t think there will be any complications with the audit. We have all our documents up-to-date. We’ve been good about putting things in Hopkins Groups sufficiently ahead of time,” she said. “I don’t have a full criteria for the audits... but I don’t anticipate any problems.”

Other students, however, told The News-Letter that they felt blindsided by the audit. Some students explained that they had not received any information from SLI on when or how their organization will be audited. 

Yang said she was concerned because her organization has been left in the dark with regards to the audit.

“We haven’t actually received any notice of when we’re being audited, how it’s happening and how our group specifically is/will be impacted, beyond the general emails from SLI and SGA that student groups are all to be audited,” she said.

Aran Chang, the president of Dragon Boat Club and senior advisor of KASA, echoed these sentiments, explaining that the specifications and SGA guidelines appear vague. 

Thus, he does not know whether or not his organization could have violated a guideline simply because they were unaware of it. 

“We’re not super sure what complications can arise, but at the same time, everything the audit is looking for is sort of vague,” he wrote. “We’re slightly worried if we accidentally bought something we’re not allowed to.”

Fourteen Day Purchase Request Calendar

SLI increased the purchase request timelines from 10 business days to 14, citing that this will allow them time to retrieve and bring any packages from the University’s Keswick Central Receiving center to the Mattin Center.

Smith cited the extensive amount of purchase requests that filtered through SLI in the previous academic year. 

“Last year alone, SLI [processed] over 1800 student purchase requests,” he wrote.

Some students argued that this new policy will make the planning and execution of programs even more difficult than it was before.

Hamilton Sawczuk, the business manager for theater group the Barnstormers, explained his frustration, but added that the change would not make an enormous difference to his group.

“It was already kind of ridiculous. Fourteen days is not necessarily that much of a different thing than 10, our production period is three weeks,” he said.

Others, like Yang, believe that not only will this be a frustration, it will hinder student groups’ abilities to plan events and limit the scope of those events that can be planned. 

For students who already have to worry about academics, she said, the extended purchase request process creates a serious problem.

“To expect all of us to always be able to make decisions three weeks in advance, is a huge ask and oftentimes unrealistic,” she said. “It’s just a grossly inefficient system that limits the range of events, activities and functioning of many student groups.”

Sophomore and Spring Fair member Sam Bacon also expressed concerns about his student group’s timeline for planning Spring Fair and discussed how this change may damage their ability to organize efficiently.

“Any increase in time at this point is worrying for our organization because we have so many responsibilities in organizing our event and at this point we’re almost eight weeks behind schedule compared to where we were last year,” he said.

Others, however, explained that the new changes would not affect their student group very much.

DeMatteo explained that the types of purchases her organization makes aren’t beholden to a time limit as they are usually ordered over the summer.

“I definitely see where they’re coming from but for the types of purchases we make it won’t have much of an effect. The stuff that does go through the central office are more so annual purchases like staff merch, branded items to give out,” she said. 

Regardless, some students still worry that this new purchase request calendar will make urgent situations, such as realizing something wasn’t ordered in enough quantity, even more difficult to handle. They believe that this will add to the stress of programming. 

Smith, in an email to The News-Letter, said that while unforeseen events may occur, SLI will work with groups on a case-by-case basis in order to solve any problems that arise. 

“We would love to... reduce this timeline, but we have to set appropriate expectations for student leaders based on what we can realistically accomplish,” he wrote. “We will work with student organization leaders to plan further in advance for their events.”

Trainings

Student Organization Required Training (SORT) online trainings and in-person finance trainings will be rolled out in the following weeks. These trainings will brief student leaders on University financial procedures as well as on the new financial module. The trainings are required as a prerequisite for organization re-registration in the spring. 

Smith detailed the purpose of these trainings.

“As with any student organization required training, the goal is to make sure student organization leaders have the information necessary that aligns the needs of the student organizations with the requirements of the institution,” Smith said.

The trainings consists mostly of online videos, but will, Smith explained, include some in-person training requirements. 

The SORT trainings are required for all student groups’ primary contacts, presidents and treasurers as listed in Hopkins Groups prior to the completion of re-registration in March 2020.

Students have, for the most part, been supportive of these new training initiative, explaining that having these opportunities will allow organizations to know what is expected of them. 

Madelynn Wellons, the president of the a capella group Adoremus, said that these trainings will ideally be able to fill in knowledge gaps some leaders may have and prevent issues from arising in the future. 

“Having it all be very streamlined will be helpful,” she said. “I know transitioning into a leadership role can be a little tricky sometimes, especially when you haven’t received the training you need to.”

DeMatteo underscored the importance of these workshops as a requirement for student leaders.

“For some students, these workshops may be the first training they’ll get,” she said.

Distrust

Although many students approved of the new financial module in theory, some expressed concern about SLI’s commitment to collaboration and communication due to issues that have arisen in the past.

Spring Fair member Sam Bacon and many other students feared that miscommunication or a lack of communication could prove to be a trend for SLI.

“We’re beginning to become more and more concerned about the lack of communication,” he said.

Ananya Kalahasti, co-president of SASH, argued that SLI’s problem is not always a lack of communication but often a lack of follow-through.

“Even when everyone is on the same page, things always end up not being the same and we end up being delayed with what we get and what we’re told,” Kalahasti said. 

Aran Chang, the president of Dragon Boat Club, echoed Kalahasti’s statements while also expressing concern that the type of rhetoric SLI uses is harmful.

“It seems like they hear the criticisms, they come up with solutions, but they don’t listen to what the student groups actually wanted so it sort of falls flat,” he said. “It feels like they’re trying to put all the blame on student groups when actually the body that was supposed to help organize us has been in such chaos for such a long time.”

Alice Yang, the treasurer of Lan Yun Blue Orchids Chinese Dance, though acknowledging that the new changes will be beneficial, pointed out that the main source of distrust have not been addressed. 

“When it comes to money, I have very little faith in Hopkins,” she said. “I think that the financial module will simply be nice to have, but the biggest problems will still remain unresolved.”

Future of Student Organizations

Despite some concerns, a number of students are optimistic about working with SLI in the coming months, citing this as a period of growth for not just student organizations, but SLI as well.

One instance of this can be seen in SLI’s position as it receives funding from the Parents Fund. The Parents Fund has stipulated that clubs may no longer exclude applicants because this exclusion prevents money from the Parents Fund from reaching all students. 

Aspen Williams, a member of Spring Fair, sympathized with SLI, explaining what she sees a tension between outside expectations and student desires. 

“I think SLI, specifically, is in a difficult position because they have guidelines from the Parents Fund that they have to adhere to and that is often in tension with what students want,” she said. “Navigating that is very difficult for them and that can overflow with their relationship with students.”

Bacon, too, acknowledged the strides SLI has been making to hear student concerns. He pointed out that with budgetary concerns out of the way, student organizations can return to doing the work they want to be doing. 

“This is a really big effort on the part of SLI to reduce those things so we’ll have more time to focus on student organizations and what they’re here for which is making students’ lives better,” he said.

Keelin Reilly, president of SEA, expressed hope for the future of student organizations and collaboration with SLI.

“Maybe this will be a moment in which we all get back on the same page,” he said.

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