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October 24, 2011

Where the Fund goes to die

The Uncommon Fund board shouldn’t ignore quirky, off-kilter projects when allocating money.

The idea behind the Uncommon Fund—to encourage the creation and funding of student projects that follow the uncommon tradition—is so wonderful that it almost defies criticism. Consequently, one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s good news when the scope and potential of something so eminently likable are expanded.

In case my flagrant use of the conditional tense in that last sentence didn’t make it clear, my opinion is in fact quite different. The Maroon article reporting that recent contributions to the Uncommon Fund brought its total for this year to a record $75,000 was, at first glance, the greatest kind of news. In times like these—times of austerity and budget shortfalls for institutions at all levels and in all sectors of society—seeing the devotion of $35,000 to such a unique cause is all too rare and oh-so-refreshing. Looking beyond the numbers, however, reveals a minefield of implications that are somewhat alarming.

SG Vice President for Administration Forrest Scofield was quoted in the article reporting on the Fund’s expansion (published in the October 18, 2011 issue) as saying that he “[doesn’t] think [the funds] should be allocated on a whim to things that just sound sort of quirky,” adding that now “really is the time to reflect and determine where we can put [money] where it will have the highest impact.”

There seems to be a fairly clear implication that, under this newest re-imagining of the Uncommon Fund’s goals, quirkiness and potential impact are not anticipated to go hand-in-hand.

To be fair, there is some truth in this assessment. It would be silly to deny that some of the decisions to allocate last year’s Uncommon Fund money were likely based on the projects’ quirky natures and potential to simply brighten campus life, as opposed to their capacity to achieve anything far-reaching. I haven’t spoken to those in charge of, for instance, IM Quidditch, Finals Week Puppies and Kittens, or the Gigantic Water Balloon Fight, but I’m sure even they catch my drift. Others meanwhile—such as Sustainable Water, Entom Foods’ Insect Tasting Buffet, and the Daily Sophist—may be grounded in uncommon ideals, but were likely ultimately chosen on the strength of the impact potential they possessed. What I take issue with, however, is the implication in Scofield’s statement that a permanent shift toward the purely pragmatic will occur as a result of the Uncommon Fund’s windfall. All of the above grant-winning ideas demonstrate that, under the current rubric, there is a wide range of balances to be found. It would be unfortunate if the struggle to find such a balance was de-incentivized.

Therein lies the real cost of changing the mission of the Uncommon Fund in the manner implied by Scofield’s statements. One of the unique challenges of attending the U of C is learning to reconcile the uncommon values and spirit of the place with reality. Indeed, this reconciliation is certain to be imperfect and appear incongruous at times, but that is precisely what makes the effort and enthusiasm behind it so inspirational and its results so peculiarly pleasing. There is perhaps nothing more emblematic of these qualities than the integration at work in ideas worthy of an Uncommon Fund grant.

That’s why it hurt to read in the Maroon that “surging application rates and increased financing from the College are pushing the Uncommon Fund’s decision makers away from small and unusual pet projects and toward big ticket initiatives with a long-term focus.” It seems, in this case, that an influx of applications and higher stakes are pushing the College away from its core values. Sound familiar? Taking the Uncommon out of the Uncommon Fund would simply represent a microcosm of the greater changes that the College has faced and is still facing. And allowing the Uncommon Fund, a beacon of our uniqueness, to fall by the wayside would leave us on the wrong side of the Rubicon.

When asked about the growth of the Fund by the Maroon, SG President Youssef Kalad said the following, which bears repeating: “The increased size of the fund is absolutely indicative of an amazing shift in student interests and a welcome increase in student activity. We have students who love to learn and who crave intellectual growth, but who are also restless when the ideas they cultivate in the classroom fail to translate into action.” Spot on. I fear, however, that if the Uncommon Board goes ahead with its changes in response to new funding, it will simply serve to eliminate students’ restlessness, rather than let them find a way to do so without compromising. The loss of this opportunity would far outweigh any positives gleaned from Uncommon Fund grants in the future.

If the College is looking to invest in slickly-run student businesses, maybe it should start an investment fund for just that. But it should never take the “Un” out of the Uncommon Fund.

Ajay Batra is a first-year in the College.

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