With great power comes great responsibility—$75,000 worth of responsibility, to be exact. The recent $35,000 increase to the Uncommon Fund is a testament to the program’s popularity and success. The implications entailed in the Fund’s inflated checkbook have also generated a new wave of criticism—most recently in today’s Letter to the Editor written by Amanda Steele, the former chair of the Uncommon Fund board from 2007–2009, over concerns about the board’s current priorities. The Uncommon Fund board members must take these concerns to heart and uphold the neutrality and inclusiveness of the selection process.
Last year, the Uncommon Fund board faced controversy regarding neutrality when it was revealed that two members were involved in projects under review for funding, despite the fact that members were explicitly directed against such involvement. Although former board chair David Chen defended the impartiality of the process, some issues were still apparent. Members who had a personal investment in a project couldn’t vote on that particular project, but if there wasn’t initially a unanimous decision, all board members were permitted to participate in the discussion prior to the second vote, which could lead to a conflict of interest.
The board needs to strictly limit the participation of members who have considerable interest in any of the competing projects. This includes not only forbidding members to vote on their own projects, but also forbidding them to participate in any of the discussion. This should be clear enough from last year’s controversies. Yet the board should be aware that even these measures cannot fully guarantee impartiality; by voting against competing projects, members are still, in effect, able to unfairly support their own. This situation should be avoided unless it threatens the board’s ability to function through lack of membership. Although the board has struggled to find members in years past, the increased attention the Fund has received can guarantee a more robust pool of board applicants.
Furthermore, the board needs to find creative ways to promote democratic principles of openness and transparency. It should make serious efforts to engage in direct consultation with the student body, whether binding or unbinding. This can take several forms, ranging from a direct poll of students on a list of finalist projects to an open forum allowing students to weigh in through a formal process. The board can screen initial applications for practicality and adherence to the Fund’s goals. It can then release its preliminary decisions to the student body, who will then be asked to comment on and possibly vote on the remaining options.
Ultimately, the final decision should rest with the Uncommon Fund board, not with the student body. Yet student involvement in the process will help to correct the inevitable biases inherent in a small board decision, especially when members of that board are likely to participate in the very projects on which they are deciding. It is the board, however, that has to ask the serious questions, and thoroughly dig through the great breadth of project submissions. It should be the board, then, that has the ultimate say.
This way, the Uncommon Fund will be put to work for everyone—not just the board.
The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.