story | Alysha Chandra, Staff Editor
photo | Aditya Karkera
On July 29, the Yale-NUS Student Government announced that following a Dean of Students Office (DoS) audit of the Perch fund (a former fund for projects benefiting the Yale-NUS College community), then-Director of Finance Aditya Karkera ’20 would be resigning and the Perch fund discontinued.
The audit found the Student Government Finance Committee (FINCOM) responsible for lapses in communication to both fund awardees and the DoS Office, lapses in oversight and due diligence during and after the funding process, and violating technicalities of Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) accounting policies.
What is Perch?
The Perch fund was a $10,000 fund that, according to it’s guidelines, aimed to support creative ideas that would benefit the community but had been trapped in student’s minds for too long, giving them a ‘perch’ to take off. Projects supported by the fund included Tape Days, a student concert, and a virtual-reality-assisted mental health education project. A ‘Joint Awards Committee’ (JAC) comprised of FINCOM members and class representatives would award the funds while FINCOM was in charge of managing it.
What Went Wrong?
Perch fund awardee for Tape Days Nikki Chen ’19 told The Octant, “There were misunderstandings about deadlines for [the submission of Request for Payment] (RFP) and how exactly we would get the money that we had been awarded. The miscommunications meant that at the end of the event, we were unsure as to how exactly we would pay our vendors.”
The audit also found FINCOM guilty of violating technicalities of WBS accounting policies. Petrina Loh, Manager at the DoS office who oversees student organisations, shared the standard procedures for recognized student organisations to withdraw funds. These procedures including adding the event to OrgSync (the online platform used to manage student organisations in Yale-NUS), submitting requests to withdraw funds on OrgSync and submitting original documents to DoS for processing. Guidelines on the DoS website state that “payment will be delayed or rejected if there are errors in the payment process.”
Karkera stated that FINCOM “maintained constant communication with awardees… [and] conducted due diligence.” He pointed out that FINCOM had given themselves seven days to award, process, and disburse the entirety of the fund in order to maximise marketing time and so faced a “daunting operating timeframe.” However, FINCOM managed to award and process the funds within six days, leaving awardees around a day to claim their awards, he said, following which DoS gave them a “special deadline extension,” which some awardees missed as well. Karkera added, “DoS declared an audit into the project two whole months after the project ended when the last outstanding awardee missed another deadline. I believe that was the straw that broke the Kingfisher’s back.”
Ms. Loh reiterated that the audit did not find FINCOM guilty of malicious or fraudulent intent. Still, Karkera said that he believed that “DoS was unsettled by the fact that [the Student] Government undertook this project with a level of independence and control they found overreaching.”
Scott Chua ’20, the current President of the Student Government, and the previous Vice-President, said that because some claims were made beyond the deadline, the Student Government had to use their own funds for reimbursement. Because of this, the current Student Government budget is down around $2800. After Karkera’s resignation, Chua assumed fiscal responsibility for the Student Government. “As of July, everything was settled and there were no more outstanding Perch invoices,” he said.
Chua said while Karkera voluntarily resigned from student government, he issued an affidavit saying that he would not run for Student Government or hold leadership positions in any student organizations in the next academic year. The other FINCOM members, Chua said, including Brandon Lee ’20, then-Student Government President, were given the choice by DoS to either not hold leadership positions in recognised student organisations or the Student Government for one academic year, or organize treasurer trainings for other student organizations. Many members elected to resign. However, Chua highlighted that these resignations proved unnecessary as the whole committee was dissolved for the next Student Government, which has the choice to convene a Finance committee or not.
Lee, who was sitting in on FINCOM meetings after FINCOM ran into controversy in the first semester of the 2017/18 Academic Year, was only involved in the allocation phase of the fund and said he relied on updates from Karkera and his committee members as well as on reviewing meeting minutes and proceedings. He told The Octant, “I was surprised to hear of the audit because I was under the impression that the Perch fund was appropriately managed in terms of the administration of the funding.”
Lee emphasised that the Perch fund was the first time Student Government has been involved in the direct management of funds for student-led projects, saying, “I am of the view that their actions were results of not having a full understanding and awareness of our college’s financial disbursement policies.”
Chua added, “[FINCOM members] were very much a driven bunch of people who cared about processes, who cared about putting policies in place. I would credit a lot of the summer storage success to FINCOM, because they were also in charge of that.”
Chua said, “My take [on what went wrong with FINCOM] it is that it’s an issue of too many cooks spoil[ing] the broth. In that, individually, they’re all very knowledgeable about finance, but the lesson learned from that is that sometimes it’s easier to stick with the kind of finance that DoS and NUS deals with.”
Karkera said that his knee-jerk reaction to the DoS audit was to verify whether DoS could indeed conduct an audit over a department of the Student Government when this was normally a function of the Yale-NUS Student Government Judiciary. While the Judiciary’s Report on the Conduct of the Council mentioned that FINCOMs handling of the Perch fund did not violate the Student Government constitution, Karkera pointed out that FINCOM members had signed DoS’ Student Organisations Financial Accountability form, which he said “allowed DoS to investigate anything unseemly and take whatever action they see fit.” Ms. Loh said “The Student Government does not have separate [financial] rules from DoS. Our rules come from Finance and are given to every student organization that receives funds from the College.”
Karkera said that while the audit process was “cordial and efficient,” he found the lack of communication between the announcement of the audit and the initial release of the findings “odd.” Because the audit findings were released at the beginning of summer, the appeals process took place over the summer. To Karkera, the little communication over the appeals process made the rulings feel like “lightning from the gods.” He said, “From the deck of cards at its disposal, DoS picked the least constructive one and the most punitive one in terms of rectifying the logistical problems surrounding the fund’s execution.”
Chua highlighted a few ways the Student Government would be working to prevent instances like this from happening again. He pointed out that the new Director of Finance, Ryan Yoong ’20 has experience as a DoS student associate handling RFPs. He said, “With Perch, a large problem was that there were RFPs all over the place. Now [Yoong and I] want to get the proper practice in place first before taking on an external project such as Perch again.” Yoong told The Octant that he has no plans to assemble a Finance Committee in his term.
This incident has not made Ms. Loh think twice about the role students should play in distributing funds. She said, “I believe that we have very good models of students sitting with us and doing things together… I’m not worried at all. Student Government has been and will continue allocating student organization annual budgets and student organization travel funding.”
When asked if he would consider running for Student Government again if he had the chance, Karkera said, “Without skipping a beat. I treasure my two years of service in the Student Government and hold onto every memory with fondness. Yale-NUS is of great value to me, and through Government I hoped that I might be of value to it in turn.”