Behind the scenes of student budget proposals

    With a brief letter to six students April 21, Northwestern’s budget planning committee sanctioned tens of thousands of dollars for motions intended to improve student living in the upcoming fiscal year.

    In approving the student requests — for wireless Internet and better cell phone coverage in dorms, a large-scale midwinter speaker, and a pilot program for Saturday shuttles to Chicago, among others — the university will not shoulder a greater cost than it has in recent years, Office of Budget Planning records show.

    Graphic by Alex Campbell / NBN.

    But $200,000 for an annual midwinter event is the largest single item in the past six years, and by some margin. (Though the university expects half of that to come back in ticket sales and other revenue.) And the improvements are more broadly focused than past proposals, which often affected a single school.

    The budget planning committee includes President Henry Bienen and Provost Daniel Linzer, according to Senior Vice President of Business and Finance Eugene Sunshine. It received the proposals from the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee in February — they’re the ones who poll students each year about what they’d like to see changed.

    We spoke with Sunshine, who calls himself the “university’s chief administrative and chief financial officer,” for a look at how the process works:

    NBN: What is your part in the process? How do you decide which projects get accepted?

    Sunshine: I am one of about four or five folks who sit on the president’s budget planning committee. The group is the principal organization in the university for putting the overall budget together; we review requests from all parts of the university. We analyze the revenues available to us, whether it’s tuition, federal grants, fundraising and so forth.

    This particular Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee comes before the planning group with its recommendations for what we might spend money on.

    Why were so many big changes accepted this year?

    While you may be hearing about these projects for the first time, a number of these things have been kicking around for some time.

    You might say that the impetus of the student group and the research they did, and the persuasiveness of their presentation, put the matter over the hill. For example, the midwinter event. Trying to come up with an idea that undergraduates would remember as something special years after they graduated has been around. Students have talked about it, we’ve talked about it. Students bringing it forward in this manner was the thing that brought this over the cliff.

    What has been particularly different? Were there this many proposals last year?

    Relying on memory here, I think that each year we probably end up funding more rather than less of the total requests. My recollection is that more than half typically get funded. And I really think that’s a tribute to the thoroughness of the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee. They screen out less important things and we don’t even see them.

    The proposals that they put forward are thought out and have merit. President Bienen has said over the years, half in jest, that he’s very happy that the deans and the vice presidents, when they come in with their budget requests, don’t do as good a job as the undergraduate committee does, because if they did, it would be harder to turn them down.

    The annual speaker budget is around $200,000 and the intercampus shuttle has been estimated to be around $20,000…

    We’re doing the intercampus shuttle on a pilot basis, meaning we’re going to try it and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it works, then we can consider funding it on a longer-term basis.

    Where would that money come from?

    Before I answer that, let me remind you what I said about the annual midwinter event. We’re saying that funds up to $200,000 will be allocated for the event, but that the expectation is that 50 percent of that cost will be covered through ticket sales and so forth. So you’re really talking about a net of $100,000.

    When you put the overall budget together for the university, normally there’s money left over that is truly discretionary for the budget planning committee and the president to allocate. Most of the budget is not discretionary: It goes for the salaries of your professors, heating the dormitories, cleaning the campus.

    Depending on what you estimate the revenues to be, usually at the end of each year you will have some discretionary money. It’s never as much as we want, but that’s the pot from which we fund the things that you and I are talking about.

    You try to piece together requests that come in from different parts of the university into what seem to be things that have value. You look at academic things, at administrative improvements. You look at student life. You end up funding things from each of those areas, because they’re all important to us. When [UBPC members] do a good job, and the projects have been well-researched and are consistent with things that we’ve already been thinking about, we fund them.

    It’s not that we regard the undergraduate priorities committee as “the spokesman for undergraduates.” There’s nobody who could be a spokesman for all the undergraduates because undergraduates don’t all think alike. But we do recognize them as a spokesman for what undergraduates are thinking.

    It kind of fits into a big mosaic. Our overall budget is a billion-and-a-half dollars a year. We’re a big organization. Piecing together what you want to spend money on and so forth is a big jigsaw puzzle.


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