So Much for Transparency

An open and transparent government. A visit to the Cardona-Wharton Agenda on the ASSU Executive website reveals that these two government characteristics are featured prominently at the top of the executive agenda. Their prominence is understandable. Over the past couple of years, revelations of major mismanagement of funds, a prominent academic ethics violation, poor attendance at legislative sessions, and unclear committee appointment procedures have plagued the reputation of ASSU leadership. So these days, students call for openness and transparency, representatives claim to embrace them, and we all ultimately settle for weak façades that fuel the illusion of their strong presence.

You may not have noticed it and you may not have even been aware that it existed, but once again, the Special Fees refund process just passed swiftly. And as usual, it has come and gone with only a quiet acknowledgement meant to provide cover for those most vulnerable to its power. The refund window almost always passes this way, but this year it is passing much quicker than in the past. This past Friday, January 14 at 5pm, gone was your chance to demand a refund of any or all of the money the ASSU opted you into contributing.

Every winter and spring, those student groups who want to milk the entire student body in order to fund their pet endeavors bombarded us with their petitions. That Special Fees request process is a prominent and drawn out one marked by incessant panhandling, bull horns in White Plaza, and clipboard toting lurkers in dorm hallways. Though it should be, the process is not a debate about the merits of the student groups. Rather, it is a rubber stamp approval race in which students are pressured to “just sign” petitions and never ask questions of the clipboard toters.

But once all of the voting dies down, the discussion about requests for money and group contributions from the Stanford student community dies as well. Gone are the budgets that were already a hassle to find even when they were most likely to be scrutinized publicly. Gone are the members of all of those quiet groups we’d just learned of. Gone are the loud assertions that each and every student group makes this campus vibrant. In their place, we get the quiet promise that we each have full control over our money and how it is spent by each of these student groups—that through the Special Fees refund process, the individual can take back his own money.

But the level of control that we actually have over our own money is questionable at best. First, the existence of a Special Fees refund process is woefully underreported. When students do not know that they *can *reclaim their own money, they never do so. Campaigns to inform and remind people about the process are criticized as unspirited.

But Cardona and Wharton have actually placed a link to a refund home page rather than burying it at the bottom of a drop down menu on last year’s site. However, once one does get to the refund request page, he finds that there are no student group descriptions available and that none of the budgets are actually available on the site. The budgets appear to have been taken down or moved to an undisclosed location. Clicking the “budget” link reveals the statement, “The requested URL was not found on this server. The link on the “>referring page seems to be wrong or outdated.”

If the ASSU is going to take away students’ individual control of their personal finances by universally charging them a fee for services they did not necessarily approve, then when it finally gives them a chance to reclaim their money for services they do not support, group budgets must be available. By removing the budgets from the refund page, the ASSU takes away an important evaluation tool. Budgets are crucial to understanding how groups handle the money donated to them in the first place.

The Special Fees refund process makes it more difficult for the person who simply wants to decide where his money is going. Having to opt out of donating money to dozens of student groups every single quarter, doing so during a short and busy window, and trying to evaluate groups without general descriptions and budgets is simply absurd. Let’s work towards actual openness, shall we?

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