Rensselaer Union

Administrators reject, request changes to Union budget

For the first time in at least 49 years, the Institute rejected the student-proposed Union budget and did not submit it to the president and Board of Trustees for approval. The Executive Board was indirectly instructed to make two changes to the budget before it could be submitted: increase the enrollment estimate—and, as a result, the Union’s projected income—and restore around $57,000 of funding to a program that the Board had decided to cut.

While budgeting in December, the Executive Board decided to phase out $57,584 in funding to student staffing in athletic facilities like the Armory and the East Campus Athletic Village for Fiscal Year 2020. The Board felt that this athletic student staffing was leftover from when athletics budgeting was under the Union’s jurisdiction, and therefore wasn’t appropriate to include in the Union activity fee anymore, said former President of the Union Justin Etzine in a presentation to the Senate. The funding for a portion of ICA Athletics was included in the Union’s budget up until 2016, when it was announced that it would be moved to the overall Student Life budget.

Etzine explained his belief that this cut in funding coincided with a “breakdown of communication” between the Institute and the Union. The Institute did not provide enrollment estimates when members of the Union reached out for them. The Board and the Union Admin Office use these projections to start the budgeting process; they calculate the approximate income from the activity fee and use this number as a baseline “to ensure fee changes reflect needed budget changes.” Members of the Union came up with their own estimates by talking to other departments on campus.

When the budget was submitted, members of the Union were told by administrators that the enrollment estimate for undergraduate students in Fiscal Year 2020 was actually 6,700—as opposed to the 6,500 figure that was used. This would increase the Union’s income from student payment of the activity fee by approximately $81,000.

“When originally notified of this in February, we shared with Student Life that—if we receive the additional Activity Fee-paying members of the Union—we could make use of the additional funds to support our facilities and other needs throughout the Union,” wrote Etzine in a presentation to the Senate. “This is how we would handle any additional income in current or previous years.”

Etzine explained that these enrollment projections are often different from the Institute’s and there had never been an issue with this in the past. Since these numbers determine how much income the Union will receive from the activity fee, the Board has historically decided that it’s safer to be conservative. Overestimating this income could result in club budgets being cut after they’ve been approved and released to students, which Etzine feels would cause students to “lose faith in the budgeting process.”

After not hearing back about the status of the budget, members of the Union reached out. Etzine was told by members of the Union Admin Office that the budget had not been submitted to the president and Board of Trustees because it must be updated. Administrators, either in the Division of Finance or the Division of Student Life, required an increase in the enrollment estimate and the restoration of funding to the athletics staffing that the Board had decided to cut.

In the past, the student-approved Union budget has been sent to the Institute’s Division of Finance and Division of Student Life, added to the rest of the school’s budget, and sent to the president of the Institute and Board of Trustees for approval. This is the first time that the Institute has indirectly instructed students on the Executive Board to change the Union budget. There was no direct communication with Etzine throughout this process besides being cc’d on one email.

The E-Board is the budgeting body of the Union and as outlined in the Union Constitution, “It shall investigate, prepare, and approve the budget for the following fiscal year” and “administer the Union budget, appropriate Union funds and manage the business affairs of any and all facilities operated by the Rensselaer Union.” These items have been included in the Union Constitution for at least 32 years.

After being told to change the budget, students on the Board felt like they didn’t have any other options and decided to comply. Days later, Etzine presented the updated budget—in the form of the Union Annual Report—to the Senate for approval per normal operating procedures. He explained the full situation surrounding the changes.

“To me at least, looking at this, I feel like this singular action above all else has shown that a student-run Union is something that is in the past,” said David Raab ’19 during this Senate meeting. Raab was the Policies Committee chairperson of the E-Board when this situation occurred.

After the motion to approve the revised Union Annual Report was read, Class of 2021 Senator Advaith Narayan objected to the consideration of the question. “This doesn’t seem like a change that was brought forth by students … it seems to me like the E-Board was strong-armed into passing the budget. I don’t think this is something that the Senate should even be thinking about just because the whole reason it’s happening now just seems wrong,” said Narayan. The objection passed 12-5-6, so the motion was not technically heard, and there was no discussion on its merits.

Since the UAR is a separate document and the changes didn’t affect the activity fee per student, the changed budget stands. The UAR will not accurately reflect how the money is budgeted unless the revised UAR is passed or the budget is changed again.

Etzine suggested that a change in staffing might be the cause of the communication issues with the enrollment estimates at the beginning of budgeting. He does not believe that the decisions to not provide enrollment estimates and to direct the Board to change the funding to athletics staffing are linked, but still finds both decisions concerning. This is the first Union budgeting season done with Hough after former Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer Virginia Gregg’s retirement in June 2018.

It was unclear to the Board if this directive was issued by administrators in the Division of Student Life or the Division of Finance. When The Polytechnic reached out to Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer Barbara J. Hough and Vice President for Student Life Peter Konwerski about how and why these decisions were made, Director of Media Relations and Communications Reeve Hamilton responded with the following statement:

During the Institute’s review of the initial budget that the Union presented to the Vice President of Student Life in early February, some miscalculations were identified, including the actual and projected number of enrolled students at Rensselaer.

Accordingly, Vice President Konwerski asked Director Potts to work with the Union student leadership to resubmit their budget incorporating the updated calculations.

The Union E-Board revised and unanimously approved the Budget on March 14 and it was accepted by Rensselaer leadership on March 27.

Vice President Konwerski and Vice President Hough look forward to further strengthening collaboration and communication with Union student leaders on an ongoing basis.

The statement did not address the directives to restore funding to athletic student staffing. The Polytechnic is awaiting comment on this topic.

In an email to The Polytechnic, recently-elected Grand Marshal Meagan Lettko wrote that she felt the Senate objected to consider the UAR because the “situation was rushed” and they needed more time to discuss internally. “We are working to resolve the UAR by providing an appendix that will detail the situation while continuing to honor the work that the UAR Committee put forth to create the document. Moving forward, I hope to be a part of conversations that allow for situations such as this to be avoided through communication and accountability,” wrote Lettko. Newly elected President of the Union Caitlin Kennedy said that the budgeting issues were, in her opinion, a result of “a mix of lingering communication issues with new people.” She plans to bring the UAR back to the Senate once it has been updated with the necessary changes and information. “I will work to create new, open lines of communication to avoid situations like these in the years to come. Our budgeting process is extremely unique and I hope to bring more awareness about our process and the rationale behind it,” wrote Kennedy.