Spending on inauguration draws questions

The college spent over $100,000 during the weekend of the inauguration of Swarthmore College’s 15th President, Valerie Smith. Neither that number nor any form of budget was made available for members of the committee responsible for planning the event during the planning process.

The inauguration weekend took place from Oct 2 to 4 and included student-led dance performances, the Changing the Lives, Changing the World symposia, and the installment ceremony — held on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct 4.

Because an inauguration occurs only once every few decades, the college can divert extra financial resources to the planning and execution process. Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregory Brown said in an email that presidential inaugurations are a relatively infrequent event and present an opportunity for the college to join together as a community to celebrate. He explained that the inaugural steering committee, a group of faculty, staff, students, and managers created to plan the inauguration, operated with the policies and procedures of the college in mind.

According to Brown, there are a few key areas in which the steering committee focused their financial resources: performances, such as those at the Lang Center and the installation itself, “festive meals” provided to members of the community during the weekend, and the cost of setting up lights, tents, and audio and visual equipment for the weekend’s activities. Contrary to rumors, the design of the “Changing the Lives, Changing the World” logo and brand did not incur any extra costs to the college. It was created by Associate Director for Design and Publications Phillip Stern as a part of his normal working responsibilities. Brown explained that there was no single budget that covered all of the expenses for the inauguration weekend, but several different ones that were associated with different parts of the weekend’s activities.

Brown explained that the Board of Managers, knowing that the college was completing its search for a new president, set aside funding in the 2015-16 budget to cover the costs of a presidential inauguration.  The budget was based on expenses that had been incurred in prior presidential transitions, with adjustments for inflation. According to Brown, tenting costs for the weekend were budgeted at $60,000, and the budget for food for 1500 students and up to 2300 guests was $85,000. This puts the total costs for the weekend well above $100,000, and does not factor in the costs of audio and video equipment needed for the installment ceremony or any of the costs for printing the various pamphlets, posters, and other media associated with the event. The only two parts of the budget Brown was able to disclose were the two mentioned above, and the total cost of the inauguration still remains unclear.

Whatever its exact size, the budget for the inauguration weekend is still a small fraction of total yearly costs for the college. One of the smallest pools of money in the budget — the $1.25 million allocated for base funding for technology capital projects in the 2015-16 fiscal year — exceeds the weekend’s expenditures by approximately ten times. Thus, despite the apparent magnitude of the funds allocated for the weekend, it is actually a relatively small pool of money.

Some students who heard the size of the budget felt like the spending was well-intentioned, but that there were alternatives that might have made more of an impact on the college.

“I think the campus is very lucky to have Val and she deserves to feel honored in her new home… [but] maybe the best way to honor her would be to put that money towards the students and the school she’s trying to lead rather than just into one event,” Anna Scheibmeir ‘18 said in an email.

Despite the fact that the committee members were not given a budget for the inauguration, members of the steering committee did not express concern over the lack of information regarding concrete financial details. Professor of neurobiology Kathy Siwicki feels that instead of being a cause for concern, the college’s lack of disclosure around the amount of financial resources was a liberating experience. According to Siwicki, when the committee originally proposed the idea for having fireworks on Saturday evening, Greg Brown approved the idea without a single mention of the anticipated costs.

“When new ideas would come up, we’d run it by Greg, he’d say ‘Okay’, and I didn’t ask questions about where the money was coming from. I was assuming that [it was a] Board decision to allocate a certain budget to this new start for our new President,” Siwicki said.

Students involved in the process of planning the inauguration also felt that there was very little discussion regarding the availability of financial resources in the steering committee’s discussions. Isabel Knight ’16, a member of the steering committee, expressed that the college sometimes displayed inconsistencies in how it distributed its resources across various parts of the campus.

“It seems to me, what’s so weird is that we spend tons of money on things that seem nonsensical, and not enough money on [things that make sense]… there’s tons of things that, as a student, you can point to and say, ‘Maybe we should spend money on this, maybe we should fix the milk machine one day,” she said.

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