The “unforgettable evening” and four-star cuisine that StarShip offers on its upscale dinner cruises might seem out of the question for the average student’s budget. But with USF students footing most of the bill, it became a cheap night out for members of Student Government.
At an end-of-semester banquet this spring, more than 50 SG employees and guests paid just $10 each toward the dinner cruise, which starts at $52 per diner. The remainder — around $2,763 — came from the Activity & Services Fee fund, which is administered by SG and financed by student fees. Another SG-only event — a retreat to develop leadership skills — is also being funded by A&S fees. The cost to students: $5,660.
Former student body President Bijal Chhadva originally authorized funding for the banquet. When SG senators voted to freeze his budget in spring, they wrote into the recommendation that funding for the banquet should continue.
Chhadva said the event was to show appreciation for the contributions made by SG staff. In an e-mail, Chhadva said all SG employees were underpaid and events like the banquet and the retreat compensated staff and kept them motivated.
“In the job market, they could easily get $20 per hour for their skills, abilities and talents,” he said. “My cabinet members got $6.25 per hour when instead they could be working at the mall (earning) $8.00 per hour for folding clothes.”
But USF business professor Jerry Koehler said that while SG may not have broken any rules, their use of student money for an activity that was not available to all students raises ethical questions.
“I would think the intent of the student was for (their money) not to be used in that manner; that is my judgment,” Koehler said. “By my criteria, it would probably appear to be a bit unethical.”
Koehler’s comments were echoed by Larry Leslie, a professor in the school of mass communications who teaches media ethics.
“It seems to me from an ethical standpoint that it’s a questionable use of money whose main purpose is to benefit all the students, not just a few,” said Leslie. “So it does raise ethical questions in my mind.”
A&S funds are used to support the Marshall Center, Campus Recreation, Campus Activities Board, University Lecture Series, SG branches and agencies, college councils and over 100 student organizations. Money for the fund comes from a $7 flat fee per semester and a per-credit-hour fee of $7.10.
The original cost of the banquet was $3,333, and SG was only able to offset $570 of the bill, which barely covered what SG business manager David Armstrong called “appreciation gifts.” The bulk of the money went to renting and catering of the dinner yacht, which cost $2,750; another $75 went to supplies while the remaining $89 was spent on decorations.
Student body President Maxon Victor was one of the senators directly involved in the banquet.
“I was a part of the banquet; I will say that honestly,” Victor said. “I was part of the banquet as a Student Government senator and working for one of the agencies. The reason why the senators insisted that the banquet not be frozen is because the SG banquet includes not just the executive branch or the senate but includes, as well, all the different agencies.”
Victor echoed Chhadva in saying that the banquet was an opportunity to reward all the hard work SG does and said the cost of the banquet was justifiable.
“It is our chance and opportunity to recognize and acknowledge the performance of these agencies, recognize their leaders’ accomplishments, acknowledge that and also give special thank you’s to other people that might have helped our Student Government throughout the year. I mean, it is a common thing in businesses corporations and different departments — so once again, it’s another program that includes everybody,” Victor said.
The banquet, however, did not include everyone. Armstrong said that only people in SG and special guests were invited to the banquet. Chhadva said he was fairly sure the banquet was advertised in The Oracle and that it was open to all students who wanted to go. No advertisements for the banquet were placed in The Oracle.
The SG-only three-day retreat will begin Aug. 5. This $5,660 “leadership plunge” is going to be held at the DaySpring Episcopal Retreat Conference Center in Ellenton and is intended to instruct and cultivate leadership skills.
“It is almost the same reason why folks go to church. You go to church for motivation and encouragement — to fuel yourself up, to provide fuel for your spirit and your soul,” Victor said. “This is what the retreat serves as, a fuel for students as far as their skills and leadership and their drive to go on for the course of the year.”
The cost of the weekend includes $5,160 for the conference center and meals, while $500 is going toward conference materials. Koehler thinks that spending A&S fees on the retreat is a little more justifiable than the banquet, but does not agree with it entirely.
“The retreat depends on what they are going to discuss,” Koehler said. “But to me it would probably be better that each one pays their own way.”
Victor defended the expenses of the retreat just as much as the banquet and said that it was beneficial to the entire student body that SG goes on this retreat.
“When we talk about expenses and costs at these retreats, we are talking about a lot of it going to food during the entire weekend and whatnot,” Victor said. “This is a benefit to the students. Why? Because we are making sure we are getting the best out of Student Government as far as the individuals, so it is really just to train and prepare and mold our students.”
Victor said he and SG are spending A&S fees appropriately, but if any student had questions about finances he would be more than happy to address them.
“I am always open and receptive to students who have concerns about how we are spending our money,” Victor said. “Our focus is combating apathy.”