Northern Kentucky University administrators told the Student Government Association Oct. 25 that they had overruled the senate’s decision to donate $1,000 of university money to a center that offers free services to pregnant women.
At its Oct. 11 meeting, the student senate voted 18-1 in favor of buying baby supplies for the New Hope Center, an interdenominational faith-based agency that has three Northern Kentucky locations. The center would have given these donated items to pregnant women who chose parenthood over abortion.
“My impression is that the student government acted with what I would call ‘their heart in the right place,’ but may not have spent enough time thinking about the consequences of a donation of that sort in terms of it being a precedent for other contributions,” NKU President James Votruba said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Mark Shanley informed SGA President Andy Hixson that this was an inappropriate use of university money a few days after the senate’s decision. He said that his veto had nothing to do with the New Hope Center’s position on abortion.
“I was disappointed, but it’s understandable,” Sherry Friedmann, executive director of the New Hope Center, said.
Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Sara Sidebottom agreed with Shanley’s decision to deny SGA’s donation.
“It is an inappropriate expenditure of public funds when a student organization uses money budgeted for its own support to support an outside charitable entity, no matter what that entity is,” Sidebottom said.
Some SGA senators don’t see it that way.
“I thought that the decision of the administration was shitty,” Sen. Heather Gilmore said. “I think it’s sad that we can’t give to an organization that helps our students.”
Gilmore, who lead the initiative to get SGA to donate to the New Hope Center, said that this project was simply about giving back to the community and was not about political gain.
“NKU prides itself on giving back to the community, and then we go to give back to the community and it’s being shunned upon and we can’t do it now,” Gilmore said.
Votruba said this claim is a difficult argument to sustain if it’s scaled up.
“Ninety percent of our students come from this region and I would expect that almost every agency in the region in some way or another impacts our students,” Votruba said. “If you extend that argument, you could say, ‘well, they could give state-supported money to any non-profit organization.’ That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Shanley said that SGA’s decision did not follow proper procedure and appeared to be “spontaneous.” He said the motion should have been written out and introduced as legislation to the senate with a first reading.
It would have then had a second reading at the following meeting where it would have been voted on.
“It allows a week to clarify the intent and to dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” Shanley said. “They didn’t have that opportunity.”
Shanley said that he wasn’t aware that SGA would be giving money from its $50,000 budget to the New Hope Center until after the senate had voted on it. Otherwise, he said he would have been able to express his concerns before they approved the donation.
“The bottom line is if they had followed the procedure then they would have had an opportunity in a low-key way to clarify whether that was an appropriate expenditure or not,” he said.
Gilmore said that she never knew she needed to put the motion into writing. However, she said the senate had known about the project for a month before it was voted on, which would have allowed plenty of time to clarify it.
“I think that when you talk about something for four weeks, and (the administrators) overturn your decision at the end of it, that’s their spontaneous decision,” Gilmore said. “That’s not our spontaneous decision.”
Sen. Mike Tobergta said he is upset that the administration waited until after the fact to tell them the donation was inappropriate.
“It just looks like once again that the administration is stepping on the students’ toes, and that student government is not being advised by the administration, but simply governed,” Tobergta said.
He said that Associate to the Dean Steve Meier, one of SGA’s advisers, gave the senate the impression that their donation would be OK.
Meier initially told some senators that they would be able to donate supplies to the New Hope Center, as long as they weren’t directly giving the center money.
“I may have contributed to this getting out of hand because of my initial comments a couple of weeks ago,” Meier said. “I wasn’t aware of policy or anything because I had never been exposed to something like this.
“I didn’t try to mislead anybody, I just didn’t know.”
Many senators were unaware of the administration’s decision until they heard it directly from Shanley at their Oct. 25 meeting.
“Nobody from Andy Hixson’s administration contacted us and let us know,” said Sen. Benjamin Harrison. “It seems like they would have a moral obligation to let us know our vote was struck down.
“I don’t have a problem that our vote was struck down, I just have a problem that no one told us.”
“That’s my responsibility,” Hixson said. “I should have made more of an effort to contact them and explain to them what was going on.”
Hixson said the biggest problem with this situation was a lack of communication between SGA and the administration. He said that had the senate known about the implications of the donation beforehand, the 18-1 vote probably would have been different.
SGA had also launched a campus-wide fundraiser and will still be donating all the money collected from the project to the New Hope Center.
“There’s a difference between doing a project where you raise money for a charity, which is very, very common, and actually taking money budgeted for the support of the agency and transferring it to an outside entity,” Sidebottom said. “That’s not appropriate; that’s not legal.”
“We strongly encourage individual students and student government itself to raise funds to solicit charitable donations and that’s totally appropriate,” Shanley said. “Whether it’s controversial or not, that’s their purview. But that was not the case here.”
Hixson said he understands the administration’s reasoning for overruling SGA’s donation and is positive it had nothing to do with the controversy that came about after the senate approved the donation.
“I just don’t want people getting the idea that the reason this happened was because of the pro-life, pro-choice stuff,” Hixson said.
Gilmore, however, said that the controversial attention their decision received might have played a role in the administration’s veto.
“I think if it didn’t have any negativity, I think that they would have just let it go,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore said that if SGA had selected a more neutral organization it would have slid through without an administrative veto.
Shanley said that’s not the case: the same decision would have been made if SGA was donating money to the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.