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GPSC executive board tied to improperly allocated funds

GPSC executive board tied to improperly allocated funds
Graphic by Alicia Vega

UA graduate students will take to the polls and vote for the next executive officers and representatives of the Graduate and Professional Student Council on Tuesday. Among those running for this spring’s election, three current executive board members up for re-election are involved in an internal controversy.

During the past academic year, the current members of the GPSC executive board allocated council monies for a travel grant in addition to the existing grant for professional travel. This fund was only available to members of the executive board and was not immediately disclosed to the general council. While the fund was not used, members supplied themselves with an exclusive fund without the discretion of the general council members and their constituents.

The fund’s conception

The GPSC is given a budget every year to spend according to the council’s needs, not unlike how students involved with the Associated Students of the University of Arizona create a yearly budget. Since the total monies spent for 2014-2015 academic year yielded leftover funds, the GPSC executive board used them for travel grants, according to Senior Assistant Dean of Students Chris Hargraves.

“[Left over money] gets rolled over into a fund balance,” Hargraves said. “[GPSC] did have a positive fund balance at the end of the last fiscal that carried over into this academic year.”

Travel grants are awarded on a per-need basis and may be awarded in a monetary value up to $750, which is limited to one trip per grant. A candidate must first apply for the award money in order to obtain a travel grant.

The candidate is also required to go through a process in which two or three judges review the candidate, according to the travel grant rules and guidelines outlined on the GPSC website.

In this case, the executive board members sat on the judging board as back-up judges, according to Hargraves and the official GPSC executive board meeting minutes. The members of the executive board were in this position because of the growth that the travel grant program has seen, according to Hargraves.

For the executive board fund, all six members were allocated the full $750 amount for professional travel without going through the normal application process. Hargraves said this was done to alleviate the burden put on travel grant judges since the applicant-to-judge ratio is unbalanced, with applicants outnumbering judges.

“The travel grant program, it’s grown big time from where we were with it previously. For this go around, we have over 200 applicants for March alone,” Hargraves said. “It’s been hard to get the required number of judges to be able for it to be not so burdensome. … The executive board was actually trying to figure out a way to get the judge and not have to worry so much about each time if they are going to have judges. So, that’s kind of where the grant, the stipend, whatever you want to call it, came about. They were trying to fix a problem.”

The board allocated $5,000 in total for the fund with at least $4,500 allocated in the fund for the members* at $750 each, according to the GPSC 2015-2016 budget and executive board meeting minutes.

The controversy

The members of the GPSC executive board decided to make this fund from the leftover money in October 2015, according to current GPSC President Sarah Netherton, Hargraves and the executive board meeting minutes from October.

Although the fund was made, the members of the executive board did not inform the GPSC general council about the allocated money and did not seek out approval from their constituents. The executive board members did not apply for the grant or go through the judging process before receiving grant money. Instead, they would have* automatically received the $750 grant.

The members would have* also violated rules regarding the use of travel grants.

In order to use a travel grant, the supplied grant may only be used for one trip or one round of travel. In this case, Netherton suggested* the board members use the money in two trips, according to the executive board meeting minutes.

This decision was again made without the approval of the general council or GPSC’s constituents.

Since establishing the use of this leftover money in October, general council members did not find out about the executive travel fund until just weeks ago. During this time, members of the board had the intent to use the money and submitted receipts to use the money for their travel.

Netherton explained in a GPSC meeting held March 8 that the fund was to be used as a “professional development fund.” She also planned to translate the fund to the office staff of the executive board. She said the motivation behind the fund was to avoid conflict of interest of those who wanted travel grants but also had to serve as travel grant judges.

“The whole motivation behind using professional development money this way was to avoid a conflict of interest in travel grant judges,” Netherton said. “If you apply for a travel grant in a certain round, you cannot judge in the round. Well, we have so many travel grants that have to be judged at the end of the day. Usually, it’s because judges drop out at the last minute. … So, if we structure it this way, hopefully we will always have some backup travel grant judges in our [executive board].”

It wasn’t until Netherton discussed the reasoning of the travel grant with Cameron Hannum, GPSC travel grants director, that she and her cabinet found this method of money distribution to be unfair.

“We thought that we had come up with an idea that seemed good,” Netherton said. “Then we started talking to our office staff. We talked to [Hannum] and [he] was like, ‘I don’t like that idea, it doesn’t seem equitable, it doesn’t seem fair.’”

That’s exactly how members of the general council felt when information of the allocation was expressed later. While none of the money set aside for the executive board was used, many had a problem with the fact that the funds didn’t get approved by the general council in the first place.

For GPSC College of Science Rep. Brandon Smith, the creation of the fund broke GPSC regulations. He brought his concerns as to why the fund was problematic to GPSC during the meeting.

“The bottom line is that this is an unethical use of the money. It doesn’t matter whether you think that this was solving judging problems or not,” Smith said. “It’s just taking money that is there for people who put in the work and the effort. … This just needs to be completely killed and there should be nothing similar to it conceived again.”

During the March 8 meeting, the GPSC College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Rep. Alex Karaman said the fund should have been dismissed and the main problem was it was carried out for a long period of time.

“This is just basic ethics and what befuddles me so much is that I don’t understand that it wasn’t immediately self-evident in the very moment that this came up and shut down without even a breath,” Karaman said.

For GPSC vice president Juhyung Sun, the decision to create this without the approval of general council members is part of the job. He said he realized members of the general council might have had reason to contest with the decision.

“Maybe we weighed heavily more on one than the other, but hindsight is 20/20,” Sun said. “These lapses in communication happen. … It doesn’t matter if you’re in student government, it doesn’t matter if you’re working at a nonprofit. … The constant problem is how we balance the burden of releasing all the information out there versus everybody trying to get their jobs done.”

The resolution

The executive board, along with its constituents, elected to get rid of the section allowing for the funds after mentioning the fund to the general council. Netherton realized the executive board made a mistake in failing to tell the general council about the decision. She emphasized during the meeting that the board decided not to use any of the allocated money.

“So, I brought it back to the [executive board] and said, ‘We can’t do this. This is not OK for us to appropriate money like this if it’s any different than what we would get if we applied through the travel grant program,’” Netherton said.

Both Hargraves and Netherton said the decision not to tell the general council stemmed from a lack of communication and an overall lack of foresight.

“Unfortunately, the communication wasn’t there,” Hargraves said. “The communication of them not going to the general council, asking, ‘What do you guys think about this?’ … That conversation with the general council never came up.”

Netherton is still running for a second term as GPSC president. Even though the money has been given back to the GPSC budget, she is not sure how this situation will affect her chances of re-election.

For Sun, the happenings emphasized the need for communication in the workplace and a lesson better learned.

“It doesn’t matter how much you get along with everyone,” Sun said. “You have to make sure that you’re checking in and that every loop is closed.”

Netherton proposed the executive board have no power to make decisions for the GPSC as a whole for next year as a result of the backlash from the general council, but instead work as an entity to execute the general council’s ideas.

The board and its constituents decided the leftover money from the budget must be spent by June, or it will be given to the cultural centers on campus.

*The following clarifications have been made in the article above:

  • The board allocated $5,000 in total for the fund with at least $4,500 allocated in the fund for the members at $750 each changed from The board allocated $5,000 in total for the fund with at least $4,500 disbursed to the members at $750 each
  • They would have automatically received the $750 grant changed from they automatically received the $750 grant
  • The members would have also violated rules regarding the use of travel grants changed from the members also violated rules regarding the use of travel grants
  • Netherton suggested the board members use the money in two trips, according to the executive board meeting minutes changed from Netherton allowed the board members to use the money in two trips, according to the executive board meeting minutes

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