UPDATED: September 28, 2020, 7:41 p.m.
An internal email sent to the Undergraduate Council Finance Committee Thursday alerted members of an anticipated budget cut in comparison to previous years.
The Council draws its funds from the College's Student Activities Fee, a $200 payment of which undergraduates can opt out by mailing a letter to the Student Accounts Office. According to the email, only about half of students who paid the fee last year paid it this year.
The SAF also funds House Committees and the College Events Board, which runs College-wide programming like the annual Yardfest concert. The rate students paid rose sharply in 2018, when the College increased the fee from $75 to $200.
UC Finance Chair and Eliot Representative Rukmini “Mini” Ganesh ’22 said that the Council received “preliminary guidance” last week that its budget was expected to halve. Still, that estimate may not reflect the College’s eventual allocation to the Council.
“We get our actual allocation on October 5 when admin sort of tells us basically how much they decided to give to us,” Ganesh said, noting students may take leaves of absences until late September, which would impact the amount of money in the fund.
Some students speculated that the increase in SAF waivers may be due to the virtual nature of clubs and activities.
“Interest level [in waiving] is a lot higher this year. I think it’s justified by the fact that it’s a remote campus right now,” Jenny Liu ’21, who waived her fee, said. “It’s because of COVID and the fact that there’s not a lot of student activities, which is what the fee is supposed to be for.”
Liu also said she thinks students were more inclined to waive the fee because — much like tuition — it stayed the same even as the College transitioned online.
“The fact that they charge the same amount for it — I can see how students feel a little like they need to waive it, or they’re going to make an effort to waive it,” Liu said.
One undergraduate — Daniel A. Bodea ’21 — led a coordinated campaign encouraging students to waive the fee. Bodea sent out a mass email to several campus lists in mid-September offering to help them waive the SAF by providing stamps and a letter template. He estimated that his efforts may have cut the SAF fund by six thousand dollars.
“My fundamental disagreement is just how the UC allocates money,” Bodea said.
Bodea said he took issue with what he sees as funding disparities between small clubs at the College that struggle to get funding from the Council and well-funded larger clubs.
“Some clubs [are] getting a disproportionate amount of funding to the point where they’re telling their club members to submit random receipts because they have money left over, whereas smaller clubs don’t get any funding at all,” Bodea said. He added that he thinks the College's 2018 rate hike was unnecessary.
Bodea said he hoped the increase in SAF waivers will lead to finance reform within the Council.
“Ideally, it would just be rates going back to what they were before, because I think there’s really no justification why they doubled or tripled it, and just more transparency overall with how they’re allocating the money,” he said.
Ganesh wrote in an email Monday that the Council allocates funding not based on clubs' size, but rather the number and scope of events applicants expect to hold.
"Clubs that do more, get more," she wrote.
She added that the Council makes an effort to be transparent about how it funds clubs and does not control the SAF rate. The UC includes information about club allocations in its weekly update to undergraduates.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane said the committee which allocates the SAF money to the Council and other recipients “is hopeful that the four organizations who use it — the College Events Board, the House Committees, the Student Advisory Committee of the Foundation, and the UC — will be able to provide robust virtual programming and support for students.”
Ganesh said she fears the Council will not be able to run programs that benefit students without sufficient funding.
“When everybody doesn't pay this fee a lot of things can’t happen. We can't run programs like storage that benefit students on full financial aid, especially first gen and low income students. We can’t run the tech insecurity program, which is giving $160 to students who don’t have laptops or need to pay for WiFi,” Ganesh said. “But also really importantly, there isn't enough money for clubs.”