Communication issues cause budget freeze for the Society of Women Engineers

Photo from swe.org

Over the last semester, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) has faced communication issues between its executive board that led to budget problems and now a frozen Spring 2018 budget.

SWE requested $4180 from the Student Government Association (SGA) for its Fall 2017 budget, but according to Dakota Van Deursen, treasurer of SWE during the Fall 2017 semester and current Vice President of Student Interests, the SGA cut its budget request to $2680. A total of $1500 was cut from the requested budget, $1000 of which was from a line item for the We17 National Conference in October. The SGA cut the large line item for the conference due to SWE’s bad track record for the number of conference attendees, according to Van Deursen. The approved budget allocated SGA funding for only ten people — $100 per person following SGA guidelines — as opposed to the original request that would have permitted a total of 20 conference attendees.

At the start of the fall semester, everything was running smoothly. According to Van Deursen, 23 people were interested in attending the conference. He submitted an Additional Funding Request to the SGA for $1500, and the SGA approved $1000 of the request. However, the request was approved on the condition that if SWE did not meet the number of confirmed attendees for the conference, they would roll the money back to the SGA. Although 23 students expressed interested, only five undergraduates signed up to attend the conference, and the remaining money (roughly $1425) rolled back to the SGA. The remainder of the funding needed for the conference was to be supplied by SWE’s sponsors.

Three days before the conference in late October, the president of SWE suffered a concussion, rendering her unable to act as president. A series aof unfortunate events ensued, imposing complications for the conference. Without the president to ensure proper conference coordination, other executive board members of SWE had to take charge and oversee the conference. According to additional members of the SWE executive board, those who were left in charge ensured that the conference ran smoothly. Following the conference, the conference was declared “a great success and the girls had fun” according to one SWE e-board member and all that was left to do was to send conference receipts to Financial Coordinator Brielle Melillo, in a timely manner.

In the direct aftermath of the conference, however, Namankita Rana, Acting President of SWE and Dakota van Deursen, Treasurer, faced some unforeseen logistical troubles. Right before the conference, the funding from SWE’s sponsors — roughly $2350 from Exxon and Credit Suisse, larger than the approximately $1500 dollars needed for the conference — failed to arrive on time. While this funding was secured by the former president of SWE, she was unable to pressure the companies to provide the funding sooner given her concussion. Rana stated she called Van Deursen and asked him what to do, asking if she could use the SWE p-card. Rana states that Van Deursen said yes and assured her that it was fine, noting that he would fix loose ends if there were any troubles.

Van Deursen has a different account. Van Deursen claims that Rana called him “essentially saying, you need to pay for the hotels on the p-card.” Van Deursen said that he could not do that, but Rana insist that they needed to move it because the hotels were currently being held with their advisor’s personal credit card. Afterwards, Rana insisted, according to Dakota, to “just put it on the p-card,” Van Deursen “dragged his heels” and moved the payment to the p-card.

Van Deursen claims he had weekly conversations with Houston Migdon, Vice President of Finance at the time, after the conference regarding SWE’s budgeting situation. Additionally, he had three short meetings with Melillo during November to try to resolve the issue. Van Deursen could not recall what was specifically discussed at those meetings. Dakota explained part of the issue is how rollovers are done: in SGA accounting, rollovers are processed immediately, while Melillo calculates rollovers at the end of the semester. Ultimately, the SWE account appeared to have approximately $1400 more dollars than it actually did. This provided funds to be spent for the conference from the p-card without any issue. He also stated some of the sponsorship money came in and was applied towards their debt, however all of the money had yet to come in within the month after the conference. No set person was decided on to follow up on the sponsorship money.

Rana stated she leaned on Van Deursen, and trusted that he would know SGA policy. Additionally, she stated Van Deursen said the budget “was good”. She was unaware that anything was wrong until a few days before the end of the semester, when she heard that SWE’s budget might be frozen. She stated that she relied on Van Deursen as treasurer and believed that he resolved all conference and sponsorship issues. According to her, she gave Van Deursen info and budgeting figures in a timely manner when needed. She believes that the treasurer is ultimately responsible for financial matters, and “any budgeting errors are [their] problem.”

Networking Night presented more communication problems. Networking Night was an event in coordination with Society of Women in Computer Science (SWICS) and Women’s Programs. SWE’s efforts were coordinated by Rana and another SWE e-board member, Sarah Bertussi. Three weeks before the event, Rana told Van Deursen over Slack that she would need approximately 200 dollars more for Networking Night and later confirmed the amount. Van Deursen suggested pulling the money needed from a SWE Venmo account. Additionally, Bertussi stated Rana made “action items” to tell Dakota to reallocate money, and Rana always followed up on and accomplished them by the next meeting they had to plan the event. She also stated that the reallocation requests were told to Van Deursen two weeks before the event. However, Dakota stated that he asked Rana multiple times to show him the Networking Night budget, but she did not do so. According to Van Deursen, Rana sent him the budget too late to submit a reallocation request or additional funding request to fund the event. Either way, no request was sent to the SGA, and they were left $267.40 in the hole from Networking Night, and were still counting on more sponsors that had yet to come in to fund the event.

Former Vice President of Student Interests Soindos Abdah asked to come to the SWE executive board meeting on December 3 prior to the SGA Senate meeting. Rana had no idea why she wanted to come to the meeting; all of the executive board members were under the pretense that the meeting would be an end-of-semester wrap-up. At the meeting, Abdah told the SWE leaders that after conducting an audit with Migdon, there was a budgeting issue. According to Rana, the e-board was “horrified”. According to multiple SWE e-board members, this was the first time that they had heard of any budgeting issues; they had no idea that was any issues with the budget. According to Van Deursen, Abdah was “pragmatic”: she would make sure there would be a fair punishment. Abdah was contacted for a comment about the SWE situation, but did not respond to any emails sent. Additionally, Migdon stated that he had “no comment” on the issue.

The issue was first brought up in public later at the December 3 SGA meeting with the nomination of Dakota Van Deursen for Vice President of Student Interests. At the meeting, Houston brought up that there were “vast financial violations [with SWE]… any rule they could have broken either financially or VPSI related, they broke.” This was the first time the Senate, including current President Lucas Gallo, had heard of the issue. Houston also noted that Dakota was forthcoming “awhile after it happened,” with the Senate consensus that SWE’s situation should not affect Van Deursen’s appointment as VPSI. Van Deursen explained his viewpoint to the SGA and stated “I was assured by my VP that the money was good,” a statement that Rana claims to be false. According to her, Van Deursen said the money “was good.” In the end, Dakota’s appointment as Vice President of Student Interests was approved.

Rana was not present at the SGA meeting to give her account and believes that Dakota is not an unbiased source on the issue. According to her, “Dakota’s possible political motivations to become VPSI and their influence on his story aside, I think there are several problems with what happened. One Sunday SGA meeting, one side of the story (his, and his alone) and then immediately a unanimous vote confirming him as VPSI, with everyone taking his word as the truth. The speed at which that decision was executed — it’s a bit terrifying. The fact that he wasn’t vetted further for the disaster he left in his wake, or a proper investigation wasn’t done to get both sides of the story was frustrating and only serves to add yet another credibility concern for the SGA. At very least, the vote installing him as VPSI should have been delayed for a full investigation to be completed. Now, a person who is at least a little responsible for putting one club’s budget frozen is supposed to represent all of them.”

Additionally, an anonymous SWE e-board member stated, “[Dakota] didn’t even comply with his responsibilities when [the president of SWE] was around,” and noted he was disrespectful of the president during meetings and openly mocked her. Ultimately, there were underlying issues with communication, and multiple e-board members agreed with this.

In response to this and other issues, The SGA is working to create a more “uniform” punishment for RSO issues and punishments. According to both Gallo and Van Deursen, the SGA is working on creating a penalty matrix. Currently, it is up to the VPSI to decide a punishment: whether it’s a budget freeze, RSO disbandment, or the organization electing a new e-board. By creating a penalty matrix, Gallo and Van Deursen hope to remove subjectivity from punishments. Van Deursen stated that as VPSI, he will treat SWE as another RSO, without any special treatment.

Rana doesn’t disagree with the SGA’s punishment to freeze their budget, and additionally gave some advice to other RSOs to avoid future budgeting issues: “make sure not one, but several people on your board are familiar with SGA rules and guidelines, or you might be in for some stormy seas. Never rely on a single person as a crutch/source for SGA knowledge because that won’t end well. I regret not taking it upon myself to learn everything, because if I had I may not have been blindsided.”

SWE’s SGA budget was frozen this semester; however, it is still able to host events by using additional sponsorship money. Despite the issues, Rana believes that SWE will continue to grow and succeed over the Spring 2018 Semester.

 

About the Author

Mark Krupinski
Sophomore Computational Science Business Manager