SGA’s Shift Towards Transparency

Is it possible for the SGA to get back in the graces of the Champlain student body?


The last few years for Champlain’s Student Government Association (SGA) have been, well, a bit of a struggle. From constant fighting, to unexplained budget surpluses, to a lack of organization, SGA has had a difficult time accomplishing what their only goal should be: serving the student body. This has left many students feeling disillusioned with their representatives, and trust in the student government is at a real low. Each administration has struggled to continue the mission of the last. It seems this year’s administration may be the first to have found some traction. They are focused on mending that relationship with the student body and are headed in a completely new direction.

SGA’s current administration is going up against an almost unshakeable reputation. Brett Schwartz, one of the 2017-2018 Stiller School of Business representatives, states, “SGA has all the power to spend the money really on whatever they want. So they can, and have, in the past, chosen to spend the money on things that were specifically beneficial to themselves or their friends, and that’s the misuse of power by definition.”

He says that the website was poorly designed before, and made it look like the organization was hiding something. Financial information wasn’t shared, even within SGA, though all their documents are meant to be shared with the student body. “If you asked us where the money went we could tell you, but most of us couldn’t show you.”

SGA also had trouble maintaining a community between themselves and the students. “Unfortunately, in the past, we have seen years where the SGA was run by a close-knit group of friends who chose to alienate other SGA members,” Schwartz adds. “Ideally a good SGA with a diverse enough landscape of opinions and beliefs so that everyone is represented, and the highest-ranking members would work to remain unbiased in their opinions of the reps. I like to think that for the most part during my time in the SGA we fostered a community that was similar to this, but we were not always perfect.”

On top of this, Christa Bennett, 2017– 2018 President, says she might have come off as heavy-handed, “making it seem like SGA was the student voice,” without giving much credit to other student leaders. SGA has always tried to show things from diverse perspectives, so all student voices are represented.

Bennett adds, “Oftentimes there have been big personalities and there’s constant fighting.” Schwartz recognizes that there has been an “elitist” stigma around SGA in the past, which creates a disconnect between students and the administration.

Last year’s administration was the first to have a female President and Vice President, and it had a lot of different opinions through a particularly diverse administration, but, as Bennett says, “being a part of SGA, you have to sometimes take your personal beliefs out of it when you’re making decisions. That was something I had to remind people of a lot last year. You have to think of the student population.”

By the end of last year’s administration, it was evident that members didn’t click. Fighting was constant, and members studying abroad left some positions open and without direction. This made the transition between administrations difficult, and caused Bennett to rush through some of the early processes. “It made the whole transition really rocky because everyone from [the past] administration was done with each other. They didn’t want anything to do with each other. So when we had to learn our positions, we were left holding the bag, and had to do a lot of groundwork to reconfigure things we were never taught.”

What stopped SGA from progressing as much as they hoped to, Schwartz explains, included the school, time restraints, shifts in administration, limited funds, and “big ambitions with no foundation,” where students may not exactly know what they’re doing, but are thrown into positions. Bennett explains that involvement is important: “if students don’t tell SGA what they want, then you have thirty people trying to make decisions for like 3,000 people and that doesn’t work.”

Bennett and her administration were one of the first offices to attempt welcoming students. “SGA is dependent on the school, whether they like it or not or whether the school likes it or not. They set the tone for the school. They’re the face of the students. Some faculty and staff only interact with SGA and that’s their opinion of the students. The vision is held by the administration and the reality is held by students, and it’s SGA’s job to bridge those two. The students who dedicate their time to SGA are putting in hours to make sure students are getting what they want, and that the administration is being checked.”

So, if this is what SGA’s current administration is going up against, what are they planning to change?

The 2018-2019 SGA administration had one major hurdle before even coming to campus in the fall. This summer, the SGA found an approximate $40,000 surplus in their budget. The surplus seemed particularly large this year, since last year’s incoming class was the largest to date. This surplus isn’t unusual. In fact, SGA has surpluses most fiscal years, and if the members don’t find a way to spend it, the money is reabsorbed by Champlain.

“The conception often is that we have this giant pile of money and we just don’t use it all, but that’s not how it works. We allocate every single dollar of that money. A lot of times that money just isn’t spent,” Caitlyn Dangvu, SGA’s current Director of Finance, explains. She states, “money that goes straight to students, and money handled internally; if only [some] is spent, it’s reallocated.”

With regard to last year’s surplus, Dangvu explains, “we came to a lot of roadblocks. Just the way finance is set up, there’s so many rules about it. There are operating funds, and there are gift funds. We can’t transfer funds from a certain account to another.”

Current SGA members attempted to donate the surplus to the Angel Fund, an internal emergency fund for students, but, “we cannot do that. We wanted to so badly. There’s no way we can do that. The SGA fund is an operating fund. Angel is gift fund.”

They settled on spending the money on kettles for the residence halls. The kettle plan was approved, but once got through the administrative process, they were not permitted by the school due to fire safety concerns about putting the kettles in the residence halls.

There is no root cause for the surplus, but Dangvu thinks a large part of the overflow may come from clubs not spending the money they’re allocated. SGA tries to give clubs as much money as possible, but this year, clubs requested $94,000 for the fall semester. That’s the total budget SGA has for clubs for the entire year. Yet, clubs don’t spend the full amount or don’t submit the receipts of what they’ve spent.

In previous years, clubs were given a penalty if all their funding was not spent. Dangvu explains, “for the financial side, I’m definitely working on communication. I think maybe one of the reasons that people didn’t spend their money is because they didn’t know what they had.” She has created a system that shows the master budget as well as individual club budgets on spreadsheets, updated with every expense and detailed records of exactly what was purchased. Before this, there was a single spreadsheet, but purchases weren’t detailed. She hopes this system will be easier for both students and SGA to follow.

Dangvu also explains that before, most of the notes taken in meetings were handwritten and that there wasn’t a folder in their Google Drive for finances. Now, the minutes are online and available to all students. Meetings are also open for students to attend. Every clubhead has SGA’s record of the money they’ve spent, and a chart and spreadsheet showing the funds they have left.

Pictured: 2018-19 SGA Cabinet. Front left to right: (back row) Quinn Kanner, Maria Morales, Bekemeh Airewele (front row) Erin Warner, Denzel Amankwah Nadim, Abi Sesay, Caitlin Dangvu

“This is not a static world. This is a dynamic world. This is something that you work on and you pass on. That’s the point, to transition.” says current President Denzel Nadim, whose goal for this term was to increase SGA’s transparency. He describes his improvements, explaining that keeping things on record and working on new projects while “focusing on things that we could do better, I think that makes the organization succeed.”

“Transparency can be a little bit of a double-edged sword,” says Dangvu. “Every student should know how their money is spent. Any student can ask me what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.” The ability of students to access the information can make how money is spent seem unfair, as students see others getting more grant funding than themselves.

Nadim points out, “of course the changes are good, but sometimes we have to think about whether we are prepared for it. One thing I can say is that now, the state of finances are public, and I think that’s very important. I’m glad it is, but there are several factors that come into the state of finances. One of them is the grants. It’s good for students to understand what the school budget is, but we only have grant meetings on Mondays. That means that grants can only be processed once a week. Let’s say sixty students apply, and every student wants finances for completely different reasons. If they were to say ‘Oh, the SGA has this amount of money, so why don’t I ask for a larger amount of money?’ of course, we want to give it to them, but we have to be impartial. We have to be able to build a system to withstand different changes.”

Both Dangvu and Nadim express a desire for students to go into Hearthstone, their office space in the IDX Student Life Center, more often. It was opened to the student body more recently. Nadim states, “it’s important for SGA to be accessible. There’s been significant progress with that. The Hearthstone office should not be viewed as an office. I think that the purpose of the office was to open it up to the student body, for people to hang out, for people to work, to do homework.”

Dangvu says that she understands the fear factor of going into a space with such a close group of people, but, “Hearthstone is always open. There are always people you can ask and people can always email. They can talk to me. Talk to someone. I’d love to tell them everything I know, and that’s pretty consistent with everyone in SGA. We are 100% open to answering any questions.”

Dangvu says that any club can ask any SGA member what their funds are, and that member will be able to pull the information up. Clubs also have access to their individual spreadsheets, so they can check in. Students can access SGA Minutes, reports of their meetings, on the website, or attend the meetings themselves from 3:30 to 5 pm on Mondays.

“At the end of the day,” says Nadim, “the students are the primary concern. We have to be able to work on this, and make sure that these [issues] are heard.”