Graduate Student Assembly budget deserves scrutiny, but not witch hunt

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On Nov. 1, this paper reported on a controversy within the Graduate Student Assembly surrounding the amount of money that the organization spends on social activities — like the nearly $8,500 carnival it’s planning to put on Sunday.

The controversy ultimately boils down to the question of how best to split funds between student organizations and student body-wide social events. As the Texan reported, law student Dave Player — who is also president of the Texas Student Media board, which oversees the Texan — has argued that GSA is overspending on social activities and underspending on student organizations like his own, the Texas Journal of Oil, Gas, and Energy Law. Player told the Texan’s Lizzie Jespersen, “When I looked at [GSA’s] budget and found they were spending thousands of dollars on pizza and a carnival, I was blown away.” 

So were we when we first read the story. But our initial reaction has tempered somewhat since then. While certain aspects of the new budget encourage us, there are still others that give us pause. 

No one can dispute the good motives of the assembly. As GSA President Columbia Mishra told the editorial board last week, “Graduate student life can be a very isolating experience at times due to the nature of research life and the rigor of programs. Because of this, one of our primary missions is to organize community-building programs that help graduate students interact with each other in a casual, fun-filled environment.” Justifying the carnival in particular, Mishra continued, “The carnival is unique from our previous efforts in that, for the first time, it provides an opportunity to graduate students and their families to enjoy fun activities on campus. This is important because traditional social events such as happy hours and evening socials are unavailable to students with family obligations.”

These are both points well taken. The graduate community shouldn’t be expected to fit the same mold as the undergraduate community. But like Player, we worry about the cost of casting a new mold for graduate student social gatherings. The roughly $8,500 set aside for the carnival is part of an increased budget for community-building events. In years past, GSA spent between $12,000 and $13,000 on these social gatherings, but this year that figure has been upped to nearly $20,000 simply by tacking on the cost of the carnival. 

In other words, they kept several of the old expenses when they added the new ones. That addition has brought the social spending budget well above the $12,000 budget for appropriations, and that’s cause for concern. If, as Mishra says, GSA wanted to improve the tone of its social gatherings, it should have cut the events that didn’t meet that new standard. Sure, one could argue that this year’s cuts to director stipends essentially make up for the increase in social spending. But this is not just a matter of balancing a budget; it’s also a matter of making spending decisions consistent with a stated ideology.

We agree in substance, if not in tone, with Player’s financial concerns. GSA is on the right track with the new family-friendly focus, but it’s only gone halfway in its new approach. If GSA wants to sing a different tune, it needs the instrumentation to back it up.