Juliet Moser: Transparency needs to make an appearance

News of GW’s endowment breaking $1 billion was largely met with apathy among students last week. This number means nothing to the average GW student because we have no context in which to place it.

One billion dollars is an enormous amount of money – it seems that we could easily get newspapers back in the dorms or buy the poor music department a new guitar, maybe even a piano. But we – not only the students, but most likely a large portion of University staff and faculty – have little comprehension of how GW operates and where this money goes.

Thursday’s Hatchet article (“Endowment breaks $1 billion,” Feb. 1, p. 1) noted that as GW’s endowment grows, the University benefits. The Board of Trustees sets a certain amount of the endowment to be paid out for use within the overall budget; in recent years the payout has been five percent of the sum of the endowment. This would lead me to conclude that GW was granted a payment of $50 million last year, give or take.

What’s more amazing to me than these absurdly huge numbers is that I have utterly no idea how and where this extra money was spent last year, just as I have no idea what the annual operating budget of this University is. And that’s not to say I didn’t try.

For a tax-exempt “non-private foundation,” University financial records are awfully hard to locate. After much digging online I unearthed the most recent fiscal paperwork available, GW’s 2004 IRS 990 form, which, I tell you, is absolutely eye-gouging dull reading. Yet the 37-page snooze-fest, even when coupled with the most recent ratings agency reports (Standard & Poor’s from 2006 and Moody’s Investment Service in 2004) and the University’s Fiscal Year 2006 Annual Report provided to me by the University upon request, reveal very little about the current fiscal state of GW. Besides my newfound ability to make well-informed snarky remarks about how much we pay Karl Hobbs, my new knowledge amounts to negligible bits of information.

GW’s financial details should be readily available to those who are interested. It may not be a competitive business practice to publish the annual budget of the University, but informing the community of the health and future of the finances at GW would improve relations between the students and the administration, the staff and the administration and finally let us know how much those damn lasers at Colonial Inauguration cost.

It’s easy to gripe about visibly costly endeavors like laser shows or golden pillars of knowledge (like the one in the Marvin Center) when students and staff have little basis on which to judge the cost of these programs. Leaving public involvement and scrutiny out of business decisions is usually a smart move, and reporting on minutia such as the purchase of office supplies is obviously unnecessary. But the cost of various major programs, staff positions or research projects ought to be public.

As students and staff are frequently the target of costly projects, they also ought to be consulted about the actual, non-monetary value of costly undertakings. While the administration may not always agree with what the students want or recommend, the benefits of talking to the targets and recipients of these programs vastly outweigh the costs. The University has begun to include students and student feedback in the development of new programs such as Square 54 and included a student on the presidential search panel. Yet these strike me as empty ceremonial gestures to reassure students they are being listened to.

More importantly, setting aside this cynicism and assuming that student requests for a 24 – hour latte-dispensing venue are being taken seriously, we will never know if student input was taken into account. When programs are decided upon and then implemented, no further information is released to the campus community.

Students are not only invested in GW in a literal money-based sense, but they also count on the University to make smart investments and business decisions so that degrees appreciate long after graduation. In this sense, however, students are disenfranchised stockholders. We have bought into a company for the long run and yet have little knowledge about how the University operates. If alumni giving is to increase over the next few decades, the paying customers and potential future donors – the students – must be informed about the current fiscal state of the University.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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