Yale College Council leaders are considering ways to improve the accountability of the student-run Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee — the funding vehicle that distributes money to hundreds of student groups from a roughly $250,000 annual budget — amid concerns about missing receipts and favoritism.
Last fall, the UOFC awarded $1,360 to the Cinema Club — which at the time was run by former YCC events coordinator and current Spring Fling Committee member Lauren Sapienza ’18 — to buy movie tickets for members. The student council oversees the UOFC and chooses the committee’s chairman.
The UOFC later convened to discuss accountability measures after YCC members raised concerns that such a large amount of money had gone to a club with close connections to the student council, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation.
Two sources close to the Yale College Dean’s Office also confirmed that the office conducted a review this year that found that only a small number of student groups turn in receipts to prove they are not misspending UOFC funds, which the committee grants to help clubs pay for specific items or events. Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Hannah Peck confirmed that the YCDO investigated the receipt-gathering process this year but said the details of the report are confidential.
Sapienza told the News that, as a member of YCC, she is not comfortable discussing the funds that her group, the Cinema Club, received from the UOFC. Current UOFC chairman Steve Tian ’20 said there has been a “recent proliferation” of groups focused on films and movies that request significant funds from the UOFC.
“The Cinema Group has received $1,360 in UOFC funding this year, which is comparable to similar groups such as the Yale Film Society, which took home $1,600 in UOFC funding this year,” Tian said. “I hope the UOFC can continue to work with the YCDO to improve registration procedures and to refine UOFC policy for film [and] movie groups, as this level of funding for these previously unregulated groups may be unsustainable moving forward.”
The Yale Film Society uses its funds to host public screenings in 35mm film, according to the group’s website.
YCC President-elect Saloni Rao ’20 declined to comment on the “movie club incident” but noted that she heard about it several weeks ago.
She also acknowledged that there have been issues with transparency in both the UOFC and the YCC — an issue she hopes to improve during her tenure as president.
“This is a common trend in not just the UOFC’s activities but also the YCC in general, and I think that holding ourselves to very high standards of accountability to the student body and committing to increasing transparency as a student organization can help us solve a lot of these problems,” Rao said. “I don’t think that these are things that should be occurring.”
Current YCC President Matt Guido ’19 said that improving transparency has been a key priority for the UOFC this year, and that “we recognize some changes can be made.” According to Guido, the UOFC has engaged in discussions with the YCDO and the broader YCC in an effort to enhance accountability mechanisms.
As it stands, the UOFC keeps private how much money it distributes to different student organizations at Yale. Guido said that while the YCC has the authority to release this funding information publicly, he does not intend to do so because he promised confidentiality to the student groups that received UOFC funding this year. Even if that confidentiality agreement were not a concern, Guido said, releasing the amount of money that the UOFC awards to different groups could create unnecessary “drama” among students.
For example, he said, any differences in the amount of money awarded to the Yale College Republicans and the Yale College Democrats could lead to controversy.
Still, Tian provided the News with emails documenting how much the Cinema Club and another student group, the Yale Undergraduate Speaker Series, received from the UOFC. Tian said he provided the information in hopes of combatting allegations of favoritism that he has faced this year.
The Yale Undergraduate Speaker Series — which earlier this year brought controversial conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza to campus for a speaker event — is managed in part by Brian Cashin ’19, the former president of the Yale Political Union.
Tian used to belong to the YPU’s Federalist Party and was also a member of the Yale Undergraduate Speaker Series with Cashin, until he left both groups earlier in the year.
Tian acknowledged that a number of people involved in the YPU have accused him of funneling money into the Speaker Series to help pay for expensive dinner events. One student close to him claimed Tian once bragged to him about using the UOFC money he manages to pay for Speaker Series events that he attended and helped organize. And a student close to Cashin said he once witnessed Tian tell Cashin that he could guarantee him $1,000 in funding for the YPU, even though the UOFC requires a rigorous committeewide process for the approval of funding. A year ago, in a text message to a fellow member of the YPU, Cashin, who had just been elected YPU president, promised that “more [money] is on the way from the Yale Undergraduate Organizations Committee in the amount of $6,000.” The message was sent in May 2017, several months before the UOFC opened its first funding round for the next school year in September.
“I do not control what my peers send in text messages, obviously,” Tian told the News. “If any student claimed to have received funding commitments a year in advance from me, or any other UOFC member, they are mistaken. … I am sorry to hear if some acquaintances presumed they would get funding in April or May the year before, for not only would I not even be on the job yet, it is obvious that all applications are evaluated on the merit of the group [or] application, not who is applying. Group leaders should know that.”
Cashin did not respond to request for comment.
In response to the accusation that he used UOFC funds to pay for dinner events, Tian cited UOFC documents that show the Speaker Series received a total of $300 over the course of this academic year. Tian also denied promising Cashin $6,000 in funding for the YPU last spring. According to YPU financial records obtained by the News, the UOFC ultimately gave the organization roughly $3,500 in the fall semester.
While new groups on campus like Cinema Club have raked in plenty of money this year, some other student groups are struggling.
Helen Zhao ’21, the treasurer of Yale Ballet Company, said the UOFC cut the club’s funding for its spring show from $650 last year to $450 dollars this year because the UOFC declined to pay for a photographer or cover the full cost of printing programs.
And the recently relaunched Yale Undergraduate Math Society has not received any funding at all this year, except for $950 that the UOFC will give to the club sometime after classes end, according to its treasurer Krish Desai ’21. Desai said the UOFC offered the group only $200 — which he called an insufficient amount given that the organization reliably attracts around 50 students to its events — after weeks of slow-going communication between Tian, UOFC finance managers and undergraduates who work for the YCDO advising student groups on budgetary matters.
Although the UOFC ultimately agreed to disburse $950 to the math society after classes end, Desai said, at Bulldog Days this week, YUMS had “virtually nothing” in its budget to pay for food at an event for prefrosh.
“There are two dozen philosophical, debating societies on campus,” Desai said. “There is one math organization. … You get the sense that we’re being penalized for being a younger organization with a large membership rather than an old organization with the same size membership.”
Tian declined to respond directly to Desai’s and Zhao’s complaints without receiving direct permission from them to discuss their clubs’ financial information. But he told the News that changes to the UOFC cannot “come overnight” and that he understands that his inability to grant every funding request he receives is a “recipe for frustration.”
“As the number of students in Yale College increases … our budget is stretched to the maximum, and groups ask for much more money than what our budget allows for,” Tian said in an email to the News. “We have had to make tough funding decisions as a committee.”
He added, however, that the group is still “100 percent committed to fairness.”
The YCC will choose a new UOFC chairman on May 5.
Britton O’Daly | firstname.lastname@example.org