The Activities Board at Columbia is responsible for the proper allocation of campus clubs’ funds, and its deliberations have become an interesting cause for concern. Fairness aficionado Maud Rozee visited the group to check it out.
A few days ago, Bwog got a tip which claimed that the Activities Board at Columbia (ABC), which allocated the budgets for over 150 clubs on campus, wasn’t doing enough to prevent conflicts of interest from affecting allocation decisions. We also heard rumors that club leaders weren’t satisfied with the transparency and rationale behind allocation decisions. So, last night, I sat in on one of ABC’s meetings, which are open to the public (and in 501 Lerner, contrary to their website), to see how these allocation decisions were made.
Here’s the good news: the members of ABC seem to be friendly, smart, ethical, and very hardworking. And they have procedures in place which help make allocations fair. Members with conflicts of interest abstain from voting. And, of course, having members with conflicts of interest is inevitable. What are they going to do—only accept applications from people with zero involvement in campus life? That’s not feasible, and it would likely make ABC’s decisions much more poorly informed.
However, our tipster wasn’t entirely wrong. People who had friends in, or current or past ties to certain clubs (and abstained from voting), were allowed to voice their opinions about what budget those clubs should receive. Naturally, if there was no ABC member who was tied to the club, those clubs were at the disadvantage of not having a voice in the room. And several times, the representative who made the initial budget recommendation later revealed a conflict of interest, in time to abstain from voting. One representative noted that it felt unfair to hear the opinion of an AAA member/ABC representative on why the AAA needed a higher budget. ABC President Tony Lee responded that the ABC looked at comments from members with acknowledged conflicts of interest “through a different lens.” This makes sense, and it’s good that the ABC is getting as much information as possible to inform their decisions. Yet surely members and leaders of other groups would love to have the same opportunity to have a voice at ABC meetings, even if their bias was acknowledged.
The only mention of conflict of interest in the ABC’s constitution pertains to the formation of sub-committees. There may be information in the ABC’s by-laws about how conflicts of interest should be handled, but that document is not available on their website. As I observed it, abstention from voting due to conflict of interest is based on the honor system, and not a clear policy. ABC President Tony Lee asks “Who is abstaining? Who has friends in this club?” And although certainly nobody is lying, it’s hard to know what the ABC does (or, indeed, should) mean by “friends.” Your freshman year roommate? Lab partner? If I have to ask, does that mean I should abstain? Also, when a board member of a club is in ABC, the question of “who has friends in this club” becomes difficult to answer. Obviously every other member of ABC is, to some degree, friends with their fellow representative.
The uncertainty surrounding the abstention policy was revealed by one ABC member’s question of whether he should un-abstain and help decide a close vote by thinking rationally. ABC President Tony Lee was quick to explain that, because the ABC handles the allocation of thousands of dollars, it needs to take conflicts of interest seriously. Still, it’s worrying that the policy is so unclear that an ABC member wouldn’t be sure whether he could vote despite a conflict of interest.
The ABC needs a public and clear policy about how it handles conflicts of interest, and it needs to follow that policy to the letter. That policy could include not allowing members with conflicts of interest to take part in allocation discussions, not allowing ABC members to serve on the board of another club, and instituting an ABC honor code. Nobody is doubting that the ABC wants to act in the best interests of Columbia students and the clubs they govern, nor that they work very hard to do so. But a conflict of interest, by its nature, makes it impossible to make fair decisions. The allocation discussions I sat in on were passionate, detailed and quite long. They were also the ones which pertained to clubs which had the largest ABC overlap. I wonder if other allocation discussions give the ABC as much trouble?
Where the funding might just be going via Shutterstock.