A closer look at transparency problem identified at UT by comptroller

Local News

The transparency issues presented by the State of Tennessee Comptroller and to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday surrounding Sex Week at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, are also shared among some students and staff.

We wanted to look a little closer at the transparency issues and what organizations are being given/denied funds. 

Background: 

More than 80 percent of students at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville opt-in to pay the Student Program and Services Fee, which is $15.46 per semester for full-time students.

A portion of that goes to student-organized programming. The hundreds of registered student organizations are eligible to apply for the funding. 

The approval for student organization funding is left  up to a board, made up of both non-student university employees and 40 percent students.

On the UTK student programming site, it states the committee looks at this list of factors when determining what organizations get money for their events, vetting with, Does the event:

  • fulfill university’s mission 
  • promote development and satisfaction in students 
  • comply with rules and laws; 
  • is it clearly written,
  • is the amount carefully estimated 
  • is there money available 
  • are expenses fiscally responsible 
  • what’s the organization’s effectiveness with funds in the past 
  • did the organization comply with university rules in the past 
  • is it too similar to another student organization’s program

This week:

On Wednesday, Feb. 20,  several members of the Senate Education Committee expressed concerns with transparency and accountability.

Through UTK’s SPSF fee guidelines, WATE 6 On Your Side learned that any approved event expenditure, whether it be an invoice, school card or reimbursement, receipts are required. SPAC, according to their criteria, also looks at how effectively an organization follows the rules of the funds previously when deciding to give them funds the next year. 

Four of the last five years, Sexual Empowerment Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT), the organization that hosts Sex Week, received the most money from the fee, which is nearly $30,000 per year. 

The Comptroller’s report found a lack of details and transparency about funding for RSOs, including how much they allocate, and reasons for accepting/denying requests.

The report also highlighted 90 percent of UTK RSOs don’t ask for money.

The report suggests more transparency could increase the number of RSOs that request funding, and thus, alleviate the perceptions of bias.

The University does, however, host information sessions periodically for student organizations to learn about ways they can take advantage of the funds. 

Recommendations from the Comptroller’s Report

1. ban Sex Week 
2. leave sex programming up to university, not RSO 
3. The Tennessee General Assembly may wish to require the at University of Tennessee-Knoxville provide more detailed and transparent information to students, legislators, and Tennesseans about funding for registered student organizations including the amounts requested and allocated, and the reasons that some requests are denied or reduced.
4. require a plan of UT system President after reading the report 
5. TN General Assembly could ignore Sex Week
6. more consistent proactive PR strategy ahead of controversial events 
7.  The University of Tennessee-Knoxville should take additional actions to reduce the perception of bias in the student activity fee funding allocation process. 
8. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville could stop allocating funding directly to registered student organizations, and retain the responsibility for organizing nonacademic student activities. Such programming could be planned by an institution-sponsored student council or by a university department or staff member with input from students.
9. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville could limit the amount of funding registered student organizations can request annually. 
10. UTK could charge registered student organizations for the use of all facilities. 
11. The SPAC could be required to consider the benefit of the student body and the entire university when making funding decisions.
12. The SPAC could be formally prohibited from allocating funds for income-producing events. 
13. The SPAC could be formally required to consider event attendance when making funding decisions.
14. SEAT should reflect on how student organizations at other universities have offered week-long sex-related programs.

Boyd/Davis Preliminary Plan

After Wednesday’s report, UT System President Randy Boyd assured lawmakers he would eliminate SPAC and replace the program funding mechanism with a more transparent and education-oriented system.

Boyd told Wate 6 On Your Side following the meeting he believes in students’ right to free speech.

He even said he believes some of the content coming from Sex Week is education, but he thinks more oversight from the administration should be implemented going forward. 

Boyd also pledges to bring about a communications plan to distance the university from the controversy, sometimes nationally, that centers around the language used to promote Sex Week. 

Their goal is to have a new policy in place by fall 2019.

Programs funded this semester will not be impacted by the change.

Faculty Senate President’s Response:

Misty Anderson, UTK English Professor and Faculty Senate President, says she prefers option five from the report for the legislature, which essentially says lawmakers should ignore Sex Week.

Anderson feels the controversy that surrounds Sex Week does overshadow various accomplishments of Tennessee’s flagship campus, but also believes the bulk of the publicity is generated from outside sources, not within the university. 

Anderson’s message to those offended by the week of events centering around the topic of sex, she said, “even if you don’t agree with it, you can still support the principle…I hope that if we do look at changes in the funding model, that we preserve and uphold the right to free speech and that we’re not singling out one student organization and treating them differently than we do other student organizations.”

Following the money

WATE 6 On Your Side was unable to contact anyone with SPAC to hear their side of this report. 

SEAT asked for more than $28,000 last year and received $59 more than the amount requested.

The same year, the National Association of Black Journalist at UTK asked for around $27,000 but received fewer than $4,000. NABJ President Nick Stokes believes the process is unfair.

“We had to really re-evaluate ourselves, we wondered what about our application rubbed them the wrong way. We thought everything that we planned out was a good idea. We didn’t think anything in the program would be denied,” he said. 

Listed in the comptroller’s report, as the reason for denying funds for a black media panel last year, a document says SPAC decided to only fund one of the group’s requests because it was their first time requesting money.

Many other student groups were denied funding. 

Not mentioned in the Senate Education Committee, SEAT has also been denied certain funds in previous years.

While they have been given more than $90,000 in student fees for Sex Week events, they were denied more than $10,000 in requests from 2014 and again in 2015. 
 

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