Dance club Contra Corners had followed all the rules. Forms submitted on time, a vendor account set up with the university and all costs accounted for. So why did it take the club over three months to be reimbursed over $300?
The delay was due, in part, to the multi-step, recently adjusted reimbursement policy set up by the Office of Budget and Finance (OBF) and enforced by the Student Organization Center (SOC). The OBF policy requires that student organizations register as a vendor within UTD’s PaymentWorks system to receive reimbursement, as opposed to getting a check to deposit into an organization’s bank account. On top of having to obtain a tax ID and set up a club bank account, the club also had to register for an account with PaymentWorks. That process, biomedical engineering senior and Contra Corners VP Talissa Chapin said, forced the officers to rush after being given a five-day deadline to register.
“We have to do that within five business days of receiving that email. And once again, it’s software we’ve never used before. There’s a lot of paperwork. We have to get bank information, tax ID, it’s just all over email. They’re like, ‘oh, let us know if you have questions’, but then it takes a while to get back to us. And the frustrating thing is when it’s not really a two-way street, our organization had less than five business days to get this done. Whereas the SOC, even though on some documents they say they’ll take 20 business days to get our refunds back. They took, in the case of our December dance, all the way until February 9 to actually reimburse us, which is over two months,” Chapin said.
While Chapin said that SOC dragged its feet with reimbursement, that was only one part of the full reimbursement process. Yet another delaying factor is the requirement that OBF process the reimbursement after SOC verifies the request. Pair that with winter break, and it becomes clear how the process can incur additional delays on top of the 20 business-day wait outlined in policy. This reimbursement inefficiency isn’t new to student organizations. Math doctorate student Jonathan Popa, an 11-year Comet, recalled waiting for reimbursements in his time as Pokémon League and Math Club president nearly a decade ago.
“Oh, the reimbursement process was so slow,” said Popa. “I think three to four months was the worst.”
But the reduction in SOC responsivity has been aggravated by staffing shortages since the pandemic. During that time, the number of organizations grew to over 400; meanwhile, in the fall of 2021, SOC only had one full-time staff member. That staff member, Assistant Director of Student Organizations Tineil Lewis-Moore, said that while they may be late to respond, SOC is still doing their best to help.
“One: We take ownership of that. If we were late to respond, we were late to respond. We definitely apologize for not responding in a timely manner. But then two: if you’re not able to get a response from us, whether it be through email or phone call, again, our doors are always open. This is exactly what we’re here for, to support these organizations, to make sure that they’re successful, to walk them through the process and to develop ways, to make sure that our communication is clear,” Lewis-Moore said.
But students say SOC’s ability to help is essentially neutralized by the combination of delays and inefficient policies, and it’s not just the policies of the OBF that came under student criticism. Computer science senior Alex Obenza said that the timeline for submitting SOC reimbursement forms is both unclear and unrealistic.
“The handbook (Student Organizations Manual) says two weeks. But the real date is three weeks. And before my event happens, we have to plan what paperwork we have to submit,” Obenza said.
Between stringent timelines, loads of paperwork and the increasing potential for delayed reimbursement, many student organizations are simply opting out of using SOC funds. While Popa set up a bank account for reimbursement for the Math Club back when he was president, they’ve since shut down the account. Biomedical engineering senior Laura Vargas Ortiz, president of Stop Pretending You Can’t Dance, said that previous officers had warned her about using SOC funds.
“I knew a bank account had existed, but when I adopted the club, I talked to the people before me and they were like, no, don’t go through SOC. It’s literally the worst. Just go through Venmo. And I was like, okay, easy clap. So, we have this Excel sheet … it’s literally color coded, itemized,” Ortiz said. “Whenever someone graduates, all of the money is accounted for, for the next person. And we just use a personal Venmo, ‘cause it’s way easier.”
Former officer and biomedical engineering senior Thien Nguyen said UTDuelists shut down their original bank account with Wells Fargo and switched to Venmo because, unable to pool for a minimum account balance, they were forced to pay monthly fees to Wells Fargo just to keep access to SOC funds.
“A lot of people, we just want to run our clubs. You know, we decide to make our clubs official with SOC because we want to have fun with the clubs, and [instead] we have to jump through all of these hoops and hurdles and meet every single month just to keep our club running,” Nguyen said. “Despite SOC being helpful at times, I feel like that the number of times they’ve been a detriment are significantly more and it’s honestly been a pain.”
The SOC monthly meeting is a point of complaint for more than just Nguyen. While intended to update organization officers with pertinent information to relay back to club members, Nguyen said he and others wished that the meetings were simply an email. Former Pokémon League President and computer science grad J.T. Landry said that they tuned out as they attended through the years and added that the annual risk management training felt particularly outdated.
“I got tired of the meetings because I had been going to meetings forever and like, alright, I know what’s coming up now, I hear this one at least once a semester,” Landry said. “The risk management training … it’s the same PowerPoint from almost a decade ago at this point. With outdated memes. It has a philoso-raptor in it.”
The general consensus amongst students is that while SOC is there to help, overly bureaucratic policies combined with the staffing shortage handicap the office’s ability to assist organizations and deterring them from walking through their office doors on the second floor of the SU. Alumni and AIGA founding member Gina Rattanakone said that the sentiment is that clubs would just have to manage if they slipped through the cracks.
“At times we just managed on our own. That’s what we were doing and I’m pretty sure that’s what other clubs did too,” Rattanakone said. “SOC does have resources, but we cannot rely on them most of the time, and sometimes getting a hold of that support is more of a tedious effort. SOC is like a parental figure with too many kids. There’s limited resources and we’re all fighting for attention.”