A disappointing find

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April 20, 2010

5:45 AM

Oftentimes, it’s with the best of intentions that we make the worst of our mistakes. Such is the case, it seems, in the College of William and Mary’s Office of Student Activities’s recent unauthorized allocation of student reserve funds. The actions of Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Mark Constantine and Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D ’06, in using money from the Consolidated Student Publication Reserve Fund to pay graduate student wages, are both completely inappropriate and indicative of a failed funding system.

Constantine, with the approval of Ambler, made the decision to fund a newly created graduate stipend with publications money, mainly because an endowment assured to repay the expense at the end of the spring semester. But the CSP Reserve Fund should never have been used to this end in the first place. It was created to deal with the unexpected incidental expenses of student publications, and graduate student wages in the Office of Community Engagement Services clearly fall outside this scope. The Student Assembly’s Consolidated Reserve, on the other hand, serves a more varied purpose. The Office of Student Activities had every opportunity to appeal instead for those SA funds. This would have been the correct channel for Ambler and Constantine to follow. Instead, they went to the CSP Reserve Fund, seemingly because drawing from its leftover funds involved the least amount of hassle.

This cannot become a tolerated practice. Funding decisions should not be made based on what money can most easily be grabbed, no matter how properly. That the money would be paid back by year’s end is no reason to forego formalized procedures. Money planned to be used to pay back the CSP Reserve Fund could quite easily have been diverted, and if it was, the publications would have been left without one-sixth of their total reserve funds.

The 2007 contract with the SA stipulates that “Only the Publications Council will have the ability to make expenditures from this fund.” Even if the Publications Council had decided to grant the funding request to Constantine, it should be the decision of the voting student representatives of that council, not the administrators charged with its oversight. Involved parties are allowed to make small spending decisions without council prior approval, up to $2,500. These graduate wages are nearly six times that amount, but no effort was made to consult any council members.

The justification behind Constantine and Ambler’s decision was merely that it had been done in the past, based somewhat on a verbal agreement with former SA presidents. We in no way consider this a reason to continue the practice, or reason for it not to have been questioned. Word of mouth agreements, which cannot be adequately verified, should not be the basis of any expenditure of student funds, especially one as large as this.

It’s true, under Ambler and Constantine’s interpretation the decision did not violate any legal regulation, and was approved by the College’s Internal Auditor Mike Stump. Independent student auditors, however, did find the expenditure in violation of the contract. Although the letter of the law is debatable, the actions taken by Ambler and Constantine still clearly violated the spirit of it. The reason different reserve funds exist, and are overseen by different bodies, is that the money is intended to be used to different ends.
Constantine’s decision to only inform the Publications Council at the beginning of this school year, after the expenditure had already been made and approved by Ambler, was unfortunate. But the general lack of reaction from the fall 2009 Publications Council members is shocking. It is their responsibility to monitor the appropriate use of the student funds apportioned to their council. The Flat Hat, as a voting member of that council, bears some of that responsibility, and representatives to that council were wrong not to take action and address it. Any future members of the council must be more diligent guardians of those funds, at least more so than those who have preceded them.

To ensure that funds are not misappropriated again, we call for several reforms. Primarily, there should be an immediate external audit of all student fees — not only of the publications reserve, but of all student reserves that function similarly and could be abused in the same way. Internal auditors might have access to more information, but we find it disturbing that internal auditors have already approved of this improper expenditure. It would be difficult to see Stump, having already approved this action, clearly assessing whether its intent was proper. But it would be in the best interest of students, and the College as a whole, for all relevant financial information to be provided to external auditors. Only through an independent process can we truly correct our broken student funding system.

It could look to some as if, in criticizing misappropriation of Publications Council funds, The Flat Hat is merely defending its own interest. But this is an issue which could have arisen with any student fund, and all at the College should be concerned. In circumventing correct procedure, Ambler and Constantine have set a horrible precedent for future misuse of funds, and have removed students’ abilities to control the use of their money.

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