The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate Student Association (GSA) has recently been questioned for issues regarding unregulated stipend increases and a lack of overall transparency.
According to GSA’s mission statement on their website, the organization serves as a “government body maintained by and for the graduate students of the University with the purpose of enhancing the academic, intellectual and social opportunities of its members.”
Assistant Dean of the Graduate School Brenton DeBoef considers GSA’s place at URI a grey area.
“The grad school has no oversight on them,” DeBoef said. “Obviously we want a real healthy, vibrant Graduate Student Association, just like our grad school environment. It’s in our best interest that there’s [a] good GSA. We have no direct oversight. There is no faculty advisor. They’re their own separate entity.”
GSA’s primary issues are related to stipend increases, challenges of budget transparency and unclear oversight from the University.
Many members of GSA are concerned in regards to unregulated stipend raises.
In the most recent copy of the GSA Constitution available, dated from 2014, Article VII, Section 2 cites that: once a semester the president shall receive a $950 stipend; the vice president, past-president, secretary and treasurer shall all receive a $475 stipend; and at-large representatives, including the GSA webmaster and Graduate Assistants Union (GAU) liaison, shall receive a stipend of $285.
According to a statement released by GSA at their Feb. 26 meeting, the executive board from 2017-2018 ratified constitutional changes that increased their stipends. In this statement, the current GSA states that the increase led to the presidential stipend to go from $950 to $1200, the vice president, past-president, secretary and treasurer stipends went from $475 to $950 and the at-large representative stipends increased from $285 to $300.
While the timeline of the stipend raise is recalled differently among various past members, it is clear that executive board member’s compensation was increased in a vote that was never ratified by the entire body.
“After the ratification, rather than updating the Constitution right away, the [executive] board decided to wait,” said a statement GSA provided at their recent Feb. 26 meeting. “Once the proposed changes were agreed upon, [the executive board] decided to let the incoming board ratify the amendments, rather than calling another meeting.”
This waiting period is what resulted in the increase not being regulated by GSA’s entire body.
While the change is not reflected in the public constitution nor bylaws on the GSA website, Past-President Nick Constant confirmed that there was an attempt at a stipend increase his incoming year, 2018, as similarly reflected in GSA’s above statement.
“The executive board is supposed to vote on [an increase],” Constant said. “If I remember correctly, my incoming year, the vote was at Mew’s [Tavern] at a table.”
According to Constant, the vote ultimately was determined too informal and was not honored. However, the vice president at the time of the vote, Caroline Roth, confirmed her stipend was increased and that she received a pay change. Roth also said that the vote in which she received a change was approved by the entire body, rather than just the executive board.
At the GSA meeting on Feb. 26, Stephen Luce, GAU liaison emeritus, provided an oral history of the confusion over stipend increases.
“At no point was [the 2018 stipend increase] brought before the GSA Senate to vote on,” Luce said. “First it has to be brought before the Senate to present the changes, and at least one meeting later, the Senate is to vote on these changes. It was never officially amended. Yet, the GSA [executive board] in spring 2018, fall 2018 and spring 2019 were all paid this higher stipend amount, but the GSA senators were not paid this higher amount until this last semester.”
There is additional concern amongst current GSA members over an unregulated stipend increase brought forth in the fall of 2019.
Two current GSA members, Member A and Member B, who both chose to remain anonymous, stated that there was an attempted stipend increase last semester. Member A said that there was an unregulated effort to increase the stipends for at-large members in the fall. The attempt was never brought forth to the entire body for a vote, but the at-large members were still written increased checks, according to Member A.
Currently, President of GSA Jacquie Britto is also serving in the treasurer role. Britto has been on the GSA executive board since 2015, serving as treasurer for the majority of her time. This is her first year as president. Article II, Section 3 of GSA’s bylaws states that in the absence of a treasurer, the president shall be responsible for all funds.
According to Britto, an executive board member requested a stipend increase in the fall of 2019, which was denied because there had been one previously, in 2018.
At the GSA meeting on Feb. 26, Britto made a personal statement addressing the concern of the fall stipend increase.
“When I left the [November] meeting I sent an email saying [to the at-large members], ‘please do not cash your checks,’” Britto said. “I reached out to the whole team and I said ‘let’s have a meeting’ because as an [executive] team we need to come together and agree and then we bring it to the Senate. It’s not something that I can just say, ‘okay, I’m going to give you an increase.’”
The GSA operates through the graduate student tax, which is a mandatory part of tuition. According to the University’s Director of Financial Planning and Budgeting Linda Barrett, the GSA receives $15 per full-time graduate student and $5 per part-time graduate student each semester. This money is then dispersed to GSA and makes up nearly all of their budget. Concern was expressed over the stipend increase by members, as many viewed it as the organization using more graduate student funds to compensate themselves.
A stipend increase was never approved by the larger body in fall 2019.
“I suspect that most of this is incompetence and not nefarious,” Member B said.
Many GSA members have resigned recently due to various issues with the organization, including the budgetary challenges, as well as for personal reasons. The executive board, comprised of seven members, currently has three people on it.
GAU Liaison Luce, Vice President Joshua Gyllinsky and Secretary Asta Habtemichael were all previously members of the current year’s executive board, but have since stepped down. They may only participate in future GSA meetings as members.
According to the GSA website, the members that remain include Britto as president, Gabriel DePace as webmaster and Constant as past-president. According to Constant, however, he is no longer an active participant in the organization.
Another main issue GSA is facing stems from their lack of budget transparency. Members have expressed there were challenges to obtaining and understanding the organization’s complete budget. This made it difficult for executive board members to understand how much money they had and what exactly it was being used towards.
“Internally, I was frustrated that there wasn’t transparency,” Constant said. “When I was performing the [GAU] liaison role, I wasn’t a fan of the fact that the budget was not clear. There was a lot of frustration among the people that attended the meetings as well.”
Catherine Winters, a former GSA secretary and webmaster from 2018-2019, also experienced frustrations with the visibility and transparency of GSA’s funds, of which should have been public knowledge.
“I can confirm that we did not have a transparent set of financial documents to be shared with the Senate, and that’s my experience the whole time I was involved with GSA,” Winters said.
According to Britto, however, the budget is accessible. Britto said that if someone were to request the financial documents and budget reports of GSA, they could receive it if they had the authorization.
Britto was unable to confirm who could or could not receive authorization to these budgetary documents. She said that people had not asked for the documents in the past, however, the information had “been disclosed before.”
At the Feb. 26 meeting, members formally requested that Britto provide them with all financial documents and bank statements in GSA’s name since 2014, dating back one semester before Britto’s tenure as treasurer began.
As GSA’s challenges continued to grow over time, many members have attempted to take action to resolve some issues of their issues. In doing this, however, body members and executive board members looked towards University leadership and were met with major confusion and a lack of answers.
Winters and Member B both made attempts in the past to address GSA’s issues through administration; both felt that their efforts were not as successful as they’d hoped.
According to Winters, she attempted to solve the ambiguity issues of GSA’s placement within URI over the summer of 2019.
“No academic unit or other at the University was in any way taking responsibility and therefore not helping the Graduate Student Association with certain tasks and that was problematic,” Winters said.
In assessing this issue, Winters reached out to the Office of Vice President of Student Affairs Kathy Collins. Student Affairs informed Winters that they did not have jurisdiction or oversight over GSA, as it is a graduate organization, and suggested that she contact Dean of the Graduate School Nasser Zawia.
In meeting with him, Zawia emphasized that the “purview of GSA did not fall to the graduate school because it is an academic unit.” He suggested that Winters reach out to the Office of Student Affairs, of which Winters had already tried.
Member B had a similar experience in being sent back and forth between Student Affairs and the Graduate School, receiving no concrete answers from either.
When contacted for this story, the Office of Student Affairs stated that they did not have jurisdiction or oversight of the GSA, and therefore could not comment.
Past attempts of getting a faculty member advisor for oversight have also seemingly failed. According to GSA’s meeting minutes from September 2018, Carl Stiles, director of the Memorial Union, was considered for the faculty advisor position, but nothing was ever permanently established.
The graduate school administration made stronger attempts to practice oversight and correct GSA’s challenges after the Cigar began its investigation in February.
At GSA’s most recent Feb. 26 meeting, they appointed DeBoef as their permanent faculty advisor.
Zawia believes that much of GSA’s challenges lie in its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Because GSA maintains this technical status as an organization, the University only distributes them funds. They remain independent as a 501(c)(3) and it gives the University little oversight over them.
“It’s okay to have some autonomy, but there should be some kind of oversight,” Zawia said. “I personally think maybe the best thing to do would be have a Student Senate that’s both graduate and undergraduate. My preference would be to fold them into the Student Senate and have them as one of the organizations in the Student Senate. That way they should be treated and subjected to the same rules and policies and be held accountable that way.”
At GSA’s Feb. 26 meeting both Zawia and DeBoef were in attendance and given opportunities to speak before the group. Zawia informed them that their budget would be frozen for the indefinite future unless they organize their finances. Addressing their issues with budget and transparency will be critical for GSA to receive their fall disbursement.
“We’re very concerned as the University,” Zawia said. “We disperse money to you. We’ve already told our budget office not to give you any money until we know that your accounts are clear and that you are all in agreement that whatever you’re receiving you’re spending it right, so we want you to resolve this for your own. Unless we know that everything is set, that you’ve agreed upon it [and] that you’ve resolved your financial issues, you’re not going to get a penny from us.”
DeBoef, moments after being appointed the organization’s faculty advisor, emphasized the need for an interorganizational audit, which he will be suggesting to University leadership as well.
“The University is having meetings about you guys,” DeBoef said. “We’ve heard about some of these issues and I think it just really behooves you, I told this to Jacquie last week or two weeks ago, transparency is your friend here. Do not hide anything. In those meetings, I’m going to make a recommendation that you get audited.”
The audit can be conducted by either an external organization or by the University.
In an effort to examine their own issues, members of the GSA also voted to develop committees that will look at past Constitution and bylaw ratifications that were never formally voted on or implemented, as well as examine their financial past and future as a group.
At the end of the meeting, current Webmaster Gabriel DePace motioned to recall Britto in her roles of president and treasurer. DePace presented a written document that suggested a “failure to follow financial procedures,” “lack of transparency and oversight” and “disrespectful to rules designed to increase participation.” The motion to recall was approved, meaning that it will be formally presented to the body at the next meeting. Then, a vote will take place.
Since the Feb. 26 meeting, DeBoef has received the bank statements that Britto was required to obtain. According to DeBoef, they appear to show there has been no misappropriation of funds.
The next GSA meeting will be held on March 25. While the financial future of the organization remains in limbo, the majority of the members believe that internal improvement is critical to developing and proving themselves to University officials.
“I’d love to see us reaching more grad students,” Britto said in reference to the future of GSA. “I’d love to see us communicating more effectively with ourselves. I’d love to see running better events. I’d love to see us having, creating, internal policies. Me, personally, I’d love to see us implement some policies to try and retain some of our historical information and maintain that integrity. I’d like to see us do those types of things to prevent errors.”
To learn more about the Cigar’s reporting process on this story, check out our new podcast series, Our Five Cents, available on Rhodycigar.com or search “Our Five Cents” on Soundcloud. First episode to air Friday, March 6.